MEXICAN OBSIDIAN : A naturally formed glass produced by volcanoes.
Obsidian is formed by the rapid cooling of viscous lava that is extremely rich in silica. It has no crystal structure as it cools too fast to crystallise.
Obsidian was an essential material in the daily and ritual lives of the ancient cultures of Mexico and Guatemala.
It was used to make all types of sharp instrument tools such as knives, arrow heads, scalpels, and scrapers. It was also used as body ornaments.
In the Aztec language (nahuatl) it is called Itztli or devine stone and came under the deity Tezcatlipoca, Lord of the Night and owner of magic obsidian mirrors. It was also a very valuable trading commodity.
With the arrival of the Spanish and the use of metal the use of obsidian quickly declined. The Spanish themselves had no interest or use for obsidian. Their interest was in other commodities such as gold or silver.
The main prehistoric source for obsidian was at Otumba and Pachuca some 30-55 miles, respectively north east of Mexico City. This was the source for obsidian for the Aztecs, Toltec and the people before them who built the great pyramids of Teotihuacan.
Obsidian has been found at every Meso American archeological site of any importance. Obsidian from Pachuca has a distinct green tint to it and is considered to be superior to obsidian from other sources. It was traded to the Almec on the Gulf coast and the Maya, in what is now Guatemala, even though they had their own deposits of obsidian.
Another important ancient source was in what is now the state of Jalisco around the volcano Tequila. This area still has one of the largest deposits of obsidian in the world.
Today the deposits north east of Mexico City and in Jalisco state still produce much material. It is often carved into modern replicas of Aztec or Toltec deity. At the Great Pyramids at Teotihuacan near Mexico City there are many vendors of obsidian and also in the street markets of Mexico City.
In the small town of Magdalena in Jalisco state there are many workshops cutting and polishing obsidian. The roads between the towns of Tequila and Magdalena passes through many thousand tons of obsidian. You can help yourself to some and this is the area that Tequila is produced from the Blue Agave, a cactus like plant. There are vast rows of it stretching for miles. Its quite a sight. You can visit the distilleries in the town of Tequila. A nip or two is a real pick up, but don't overdo it.
The speciality of the Mexican cutters is a heart. To cut a heart you need an oval or round formation in the obsidian stone. Grind down on the sides of the oval to produce the V. Then nick the top of the stone on the edge pf the grinding wheel to produce the heart, though its easier said than done. Always wear safety glasses when working with obsidian as it is a glass.
There are many different colours and shades in obsidian: mahogany, snowflake, silver, gold and green sheen. Pure obsidian is black. Iron and magnesium oxide causes the brown green and red colours.
Sometime in the late 1990's rainbow obsidian came onto the market. It was found in only one area in Jalisco state. Rainbow obsidian is an amazing material with the full spectrum of rainbow colours. The interference of light (iridescence) on microscopic gas bubbles cause this amazing display of colour. Though three stone has to be cut in the right direction and orientation to bring out the colour. I have not seen really high grade rainbow obsidian for many years. It is a case of if new deposits can be found.
Much Mexican rough obsidian is exported to China for cutting and polishing there.
PHOTO: Obsidian mariposa
PHOTO: Green sheene obsidian which I found myself near Tequila volcano
PHOTO: A large heart obsidian
PHOTO: Aztec calander itched onto obsidian
PHOTO: Rainbow obsidian
PHOTO: Rough obsidian
PHOTO: Obsidian sphere
PHOTO: How many hearts can you get in a piece of obsidian - is this a record?
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©All photos and text are all Copyright of David Gibson.
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