Week 21 SCRAP Reading Group: Obsidian

Thank you to Dr. Elizabeth Paris for joining us for this week’s discussion about obsidian. The article (selected this week by Lorraine), was an oldie but a goodie that led to 3 hours of conversation! Thanks to all who took part. See below for Lorraine’s summary and questions.


Awe, Jamie and Healy, Paul. “Flakes to Blades? Middle Formative Development of Obsidian Artifacts in the Upper Belize River Valley”. Latin American Antiquity, Vol. 5, No. 3 (Sep., 1994), pp. 193-205.


In this article, the authors concentrate on obsidian technological development at the Cahal Pech site in the Upper Belize River Valley of the Maya Lowlands. The first half of the early Middle Formative Period (1000 – 850 B.C.) consisted only of flakes at this site.  The late Middle Formative (650 – 450 B.C.) is when the prismatic blades and blade-cores first occur. The prismatic blade and blade-core continued to dominate during the Late Formative and Classic Periods. The comparison with studies at other sites in the Central Maya Lowlands, such as Pacbitun, Barton Ramie, Copan, Seibel, Altar de Sacrificios, Central Peten Lakes region, showed similar trends of contextual distribution. Cuello and Colha sites though had discrepancies, which Awe and Healy determined made any correlation difficult. It is also noted by Awe and Healy that this sequence has been recorded from the Pacific Coast of Guatemala, Maya Highlands, and northern Mesoamerica.

The authors conclude that this flake-to-bladelet sequence would be attributed to areas where a minimum level of socio-political complexity needed to be reached in order for this specialization to occur. The late Middle Formative is seen as fitting this model as was a time of major increases in population, pronounced construction activity, more marked differentiation in social ranking, and more complex trade networks incorporating long distance contact and exchange.


(1) Thoughts on the authors “Why does the contextual distribution of the Cahal Pech obsidian artifacts reflect a developmental sequence similar to that observed in the highlands, Pacific Coast of Guatemala, Maya Highlands, and northern Mesoamerica?

(2) Do you see this trend in your area?

(3) Do changes in form reflect changes in how obsidian was used?

(4) How does this further the understanding of mobility/trade patterns?

(5) How does this development coincide with trends of other artifacts, such as pottery?

(6) Let’s talk about obsidian sources …

(7) Are your alcohol bottles adding up? Some experimental archaeology? Flint knapping anyone!?!