Obsidian from Lake County, Oregon
Category Volcanic glass
Chemical formula 70–75% SiO2,
plus MgO, Fe3O4
Color Black
Fracture Conchoidal
Mohs scale hardness 5–6[1]
Luster Vitreous
Specific gravity ~2.4[2]
Optical properties Translucent
References [3]

Obsidian is a naturally occurring volcanic glass formed as an extrusive igneous rock.

It is produced when felsic lava extruded from a volcano cools rapidly with minimum crystal growth. Obsidian is commonly found within the margins of rhyolitic lava flows known as obsidian flows, where the chemical composition (high silica content) induces a high viscosity and polymerization degree of the lava. The inhibition of atomic diffusion through this highly viscous and polymerized lava explains the lack of crystal growth. Obsidian is hard and brittle; it therefore fractures with very sharp edges, which had been used in the past in cutting and piercing tools, and are still used as surgical scalpel blades.[4]


Origin and properties

Pliny's Natural History features volcanic glass called "Obsidianus", so named from its resemblance to a stone found in Ethiopia by one Obsius.[5]

Obsidian is mineral-like, but not a true mineral because as a glass it is not crystalline; in addition, its composition is too complex to comprise a single mineral. It is sometimes classified as a mineraloid. Though obsidian is usually dark in color similar to mafic rocks such as basalt, obsidian's composition is extremely felsic. Obsidian consists mainly of SiO2 (silicon dioxide), usually 70% or more. Crystalline rocks with obsidian's composition include granite and rhyolite. Because obsidian is metastable at the Earth's surface (over time the glass becomes fine-grained mineral crystals), no obsidian has been found that is older than Cretaceous age. This breakdown of obsidian is accelerated by the presence of water. Obsidian has low water content when fresh, typically less than 1% water by weight,[6] but becomes progressively hydrated when exposed to groundwater, forming perlite. Tektites were once thought by many to be obsidian produced by lunar volcanic eruptions, though few scientists now adhere to this hypothesis.

Pure obsidian is usually dark in appearance, though the color varies depending on the presence of impurities. Iron and magnesium typically give the obsidian a dark green to brown to black color. Very few samples are nearly colorless. In some stones, the inclusion of small, white, radially clustered crystals of cristobalite in the black glass produce a blotchy or snowflake pattern (snowflake obsidian). It may contain patterns of gas bubbles remaining from the lava flow, aligned along layers created as the molten rock was flowing before being cooled. These bubbles can produce interesting effects such as a golden sheen (sheen obsidian) or an iridescent, rainbow-like sheen (rainbow obsidian).


Obsidian can be found in locations which have experienced rhyolitic eruptions. It can be found in Argentina, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Canada, Chile, Greece, El Salvador, Guatemala, Iceland, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Scotland and the United States. Obsidian flows which may be hiked on are found within the calderas of Newberry Volcano and Medicine Lake Volcano in the Cascade Range of western North America, and at Inyo Craters east of the Sierra Nevada in California. Yellowstone National Park has a mountainside containing obsidian located between Mammoth Hot Springs and the Norris Geyser Basin, and deposits can be found in many other western U.S. states including Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Utah, Washington,[7] Oregon[8] and Idaho. Obsidian can also be found in the eastern U.S. state of Virginia.

Obsidian arrowhead

Historical use

Obsidian was valued in Stone Age cultures because, like flint, it could be fractured to produce sharp blades or arrowheads. Like all glass and some other types of naturally occurring rocks, obsidian breaks with a characteristic conchoidal fracture. It was also polished to create early mirrors.

Modern archaeologists have developed a relative dating system, obsidian hydration dating, to calculate the age of obsidian artifacts.

Middle East

In Ubaid in the 5th millennium BC, blades were manufactured from obsidian mined in what is now Turkey.[9]
Ancient Egyptians used obsidian imported from the eastern Mediterranean and southern Red Sea regions. Obsidian was also used in ritual circumcisions because of its deftness and sharpness.[10]

Obsidian talus at Obsidian Dome, California


Obsidian worked into plates and other wares by Victor Lopez Pelcastre of Nopalillo, Epazoyucan, Hidalgo. On display at the Museo de Arte Popular, Mexico City.
Raw obsidian and obsidian blades from the Mayan site of Takalik Abaj

Lithic analysis can be instrumental in understanding prehispanic groups in Mesoamerica. A careful analysis of obsidian in a culture or place can be of considerable use to reconstruct commerce, production, distribution and thereby understand economic, social and political aspects of a civilization. This is the case in Yaxchilán, a Maya city where even warfare implications have been studied linked with obsidian use and its debris.[11] Another example is the archeological recovery at coastal Chumash sites in California indicating considerable trade with the distant site of Casa Diablo, California in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.[12]

Pre-Columbian Mesoamericans' use of obsidian was extensive and sophisticated; including carved and worked obsidian for tools and decorative objects. Mesoamericans also made a type of sword with obsidian blades mounted in a wooden body. Called a macuahuitl, the weapon was capable of inflicting terrible injuries, combining the sharp cutting edge of an obsidian blade with the ragged cut of a serrated weapon.

Native American people traded obsidian throughout the Americas. Each volcano and in some cases each volcanic eruption produces a distinguishable type of obsidian, making it possible for archaeologists to trace the origins of a particular artifact. Similar tracing techniques have allowed obsidian to be identified in Greece also as coming from Melos, Nisyros or Yiali, islands in the Aegean Sea. Obsidian cores and blades were traded great distances inland from the coast.[citation needed]

Glass Mountain, a large obsidian flow at Medicine Lake Volcano

In Chile obsidian tools from Chaitén Volcano have been found as far away as in Chan-Chan 400 km north of the volcano and also in sites 400 km south of it.[13][14]

Easter Island

Obsidian was also used on Rapa Nui (Easter Island) for edged tools such as Mataia and the pupils of the eyes of their Moai (statues).

Current use

Obsidian has been used for blades in surgery, as well-crafted obsidian blades have a cutting edge many times sharper than high-quality steel surgical scalpels, the cutting edge of the blade being only about 3 nanometers thick.[15] Even the sharpest metal knife has a jagged, irregular blade when viewed under a strong enough microscope; when examined even under an electron microscope an obsidian blade is still smooth and even. One study found that obsidian incisions produced narrower scars, fewer inflammatory cells, and less granulation tissue in a group of rats.[16] Don Crabtree produced obsidian blades for surgery and other purposes,[15] and has written articles on the subject.

Pig carved in snowflake obsidian, 10 centimeters (4 in) long. The markings are spherulites.

Obsidian is also used for ornamental purposes and as a gemstone. It possesses the property of presenting a different appearance according to the manner in which it is cut: when cut in one direction it is jet black; in another it is glistening gray. "Apache tears" are small rounded obsidian nuggets embedded within a grayish-white perlite matrix.

Plinths for audio turntables have been made of obsidian since the 1970s; e.g. the greyish-black SH-10B3 plinth by Technics.

See also


  1. ^ Peter Roger Stuart Moorey (November 1999). Ancient mesopotamian materials and industries: the archaeological evidence. Eisenbrauns. pp. 108–. ISBN 978-1-57506-042-2. http://books.google.com/books?id=P_Ixuott4doC&pg=PA108. Retrieved 20 November 2011. 
  2. ^ Geological Survey (U.S.) (1981). Circular. The Survey. pp. 185–. http://books.google.com/books?id=hQglAQAAIAAJ&pg=PA185. Retrieved 20 November 2011. 
  3. ^ Obsidian. Mindat.org
  4. ^ Brian Cotterell; Johan Kamminga (1992). Mechanics of pre-industrial technology: an introduction to the mechanics of ancient and traditional material culture. Cambridge University Press. pp. 127–. ISBN 978-0-521-42871-2. http://books.google.com/books?id=0-xOM8y6Uc8C&pg=PA127. Retrieved 9 September 2011. 
  5. ^ The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology Oxford University Press (1996). Retrieved on 2011-11-20.
  6. ^ "Perlite – Mineral Deposit Profiles, B.C. Geological Survey". http://www.em.gov.bc.ca/mining/GeolSurv/MetallicMinerals/MineralDepositProfiles/profiles/r12.htm. Retrieved 2007-11-20. 
  7. ^ Washington Obsidian Source Map. Obsidianlab.com. Retrieved on 2011-11-20.
  8. ^ Oregon Obsidian Sources. Sourcecatalog.com (2011-11-15). Retrieved on 2011-11-20.
  9. ^ "In Syria, a Prologue for Cities". The New York Times. 5 April 2010. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/06/science/06archeo.html 
  10. ^ Harrell, James A. (2000). "Stone in Ancient Egypt". University of Toledo. http://www.eeescience.utoledo.edu/faculty/harrell/egypt/Stone%20Use/Harrell_Stones_text.htm. 
  11. ^ Brokmann, Carlos, Tipología y análisis de la obsidiana de Yaxchilán, Chiapas, Colección Científica, no.422, INAH, 2000
  12. ^ C.Michael Hogan (2008) ''Morro Creek'', ed. by A. Burnham. Megalithic.co.uk. Retrieved on 2011-11-20.
  13. ^ (Spanish) Pino, Mario and Navarro, Rayen. Geoarqueología del sitio arcaico Chan-Chan 18. Revista Geológica de Chile, 2005.
  14. ^ Naranjo, José A; Stern, Charles R (December 2004). "Holocene tephrochronology of the southernmost part (42°30'-45°S) of the Andean Southern Volcanic Zone". Revista geológica de Chile (Revista geológica de Chile) 31 (2): 225–240. doi:10.4067/S0716-02082004000200003. ISSN 0716-0208. OCLC 61022562. http://www.scielo.cl/scielo.php?pid=S0716-02082004000200003&script=sci_arttext. Retrieved 2008-05-02. 
  15. ^ a b Buck, BA (March 1982). "Ancient Technology in Contemporary Surgery". The Western journal of medicine 136 (3): 265–269. ISSN 0093-0415. OCLC 115633208. PMC 1273673. PMID 7046256. http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?tool=pmcentrez&artid=1273673. 
  16. ^ Disa, JJ; Vossoughi, J; Goldberg, NH (October 1993). "A comparison of obsidian and surgical steel scalpel wound healing in rats". Plastic and reconstructive surgery 92 (5): 884–887. doi:10.1097/00006534-199392050-00015. ISSN 0032-1052. OCLC 121212765. PMID 8415970. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8415970?dopt=AbstractPlus. Retrieved 2007-11-20. 

External links

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Obsidian — (glänzend), Bims (mattgrau im Vordergrund) und Rhyolit (heller, rechts) …   Deutsch Wikipedia

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  • obsidian — OBSIDIÁN, obsidiane, s.n. Rocă vulcanică de culoare neagră sau brună cenuşie, cu înfăţişarea sticlei topite, care a fost folosită în epoca de piatră pentru confecţionarea armelor şi a uneltelor. [pr.: di an] – Din fr. obsidiane, obsidienne, lat.… …   Dicționar Român

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  • obsidian — ob*sid i*an, n. [L. Obsidianus lapis, so named, according to Pliny, after one Obsidius, who discovered it in Ethiopia: cf. F. obsidiane, obsidienne. The later editions of Pliny read Obsianus lapis, and Obsius, instead of Obsidianus lapis, and… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • Obsidian — (Obsidianus lapis [weil Obsidius ihn zuerstin Äthiopien gefunden haben soll], auch Hahnstein, Glasachat, Glaslava, Glaszeolith), Mineral, erscheint amorphisch in derben, dichten Massen, in Kugeln, rundlichen Körnern u. Geröllen, porös, selten… …   Pierer's Universal-Lexikon

  • Obsidĭan — (Glaslava, Lavaglas), die wasserfreie oder nur bis 2 Proz. Wasser enthaltende glasartige Modifikation der Trachyte, meist schwarz (schwarze Glaslava) und grau, auch gelb, braun, rot, grün, selten blau, stark glasglänzend, durchsichtig bis… …   Meyers Großes Konversations-Lexikon

  • Obsidian — Obsidian, s. Gläser, natürliche …   Lexikon der gesamten Technik

  • Obsidian — Obsidiān, natürliches, vulkanisches Glas, durch rasche Abkühlung bes. kieselsäurereicher Schmelzmassen entstanden, samtschwarz oder braun, selten grau oder grün, von der chem. Zusammensetzung der Rhyolithe und Trachyte, bildet für sich Ströme,… …   Kleines Konversations-Lexikon

  • Obsidian — Obsidian, Pseudochrysolith, Fluolith, in Kugeln oder Körnern (Marekanit) vorkommendes glasartiges Mineral, von 2, 3 spec. Gewicht, von grauer, gelber, rother, brauner, meistens aber schwarzer Farbe, selten farblos u. beinahe wasserhell;… …   Herders Conversations-Lexikon

  • obsidian — (n.) dark, hard volcanic rock, 1650s, from L. obsidianus, misprint of Obsianus (lapis) (stone) of Obsius, name of a Roman alleged by Pliny to have found this rock in Ethiopia …   Etymology dictionary

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