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Obsidian Reflections

Obsidian Reflections: Symbolic Dimensions of Obsidian in Mesoamerica

Marc N. Levine
David M. Carballo
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    Obsidian Reflections
    Book Description:

    Departing from the political economy perspective taken by the vast majority of volumes devoted to Mesoamerican obsidian,Obsidian Reflectionsis an examination of obsidian's sociocultural dimensions-particularly in regard to Mesoamerican world view, religion, and belief systems.

    Exploring the materiality of this volcanic glass rather than only its functionality, this book considers the interplay among people, obsidian, and meaning and how these relationships shaped patterns of procurement, exchange, and use. An international group of scholars hailing from Belize, France, Japan, Mexico, and the United States provides a variety of case studies from Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras. The authors draw on archaeological, iconographic, ethnographic, and ethnohistoric data to examine obsidian as a touchstone for cultural meaning, including references to sacrificial precepts, powerful deities, landscape, warfare, social relations, and fertility.

    Obsidian Reflectionsunderscores the necessity of understanding obsidian from within its cultural context-the perspective of the indigenous people of Mesoamerica. It will be of great interest to Mesoamericanists as well as students and scholars of lithic studies and material culture.

    eISBN: 978-1-60732-301-3
    Subjects: Sociology, Archaeology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Figures
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. List of Tables
    (pp. xv-xviii)
  5. Introduction

    • CHAPTER ONE Reflections on Obsidian Studies in Mesoamerica: Past, Present, and Future
      (pp. 3-42)
      Marc N. Levine

      Since the 1960s, obsidian studies have become a major area of research within Mesoamerican archaeology and have made important contributions to understanding the prehispanic past. The great archaeological focus on obsidian is understandable. Notwithstanding its brittleness, obsidian preserves indefinitely in virtually all environments, is nearly ubiquitous at ancient sites in Mesoamerica, and has compositional properties amenable to sourcing—allowing researchers to link individual artifacts with parent material from dozens of quarries. Obsidian crafting is also a subtractive technology that provides the analytical advantage of having artifacts from nearly every stage of manufacture represented in the archaeological record. Researchers have long...

  6. Section I. Ethnohistorical and Ethnographic Perspectives

    • CHAPTER TWO Ethnohistorical Evidence for Obsidian’s Ritual and Symbolic Uses among the Postclassic Tarascans
      (pp. 45-74)
      Véronique Darras

      The Tarascans, like the majority of other Mesoamerican groups, relied heavily on obsidian for the manufacture of their tools and weapons. During the Late Postclassic period (1100–1522 CE), obsidian was employed especially in the production of prismatic blades, a new technology in the region. The in situ development of this technology led to a change in its status and pattern of use. While relatively rare and used only by elites in particular contexts during the centuries preceding the rise of the Tarascan state, blades became “banalized” in the Postclassic, transforming into products of mass consumption.

      However, despite the ubiquity...

    • CHAPTER THREE The Symbolism of Obsidian in Postclassic Central Mexico
      (pp. 75-110)
      Alejandro Pastrana and Ivonne Athie

      As part of our ongoing research on the distribution of obsidian within the Aztec Triple Alliance (Pastrana 2007), we conducted a preliminary study focusing on obsidian’s meaning and function among the Nahuas during the Late Postclassic period in central Mexico. The study draws on archaeological and historical information, from excavations and written accounts, dating to both the prehispanic and Colonial periods. The objective is to understand the social and spatial distribution of obsidian for Mesoamerican societies, including its place and possible function in prehispanic religion.

      We attempt to identify where and how the economic and military importance of obsidian was...

    • CHAPTER FOUR Machetes and Meaning: Some Notes on Cutting Tools in a Contemporary Mixtec Community
      (pp. 111-124)
      John Monaghan

      Marc Levine suggests that our understanding of lithic technologies in Mesoamerica can be expanded by examining the meaning obsidian had for the ancient people of the region. He also suggests that ethnographic studies might afford some interpretative leverage for advancing this understanding. Following his lead, my chapter draws on what people in the small Mixtec-speaking community of Santiago Nuyoo say about stone tools (and what can be shown to be their modern equivalents) and compares this to the way tools are depicted in prehispanic and Early Colonial indigenous manuscripts. In doing this, I will make two points. The first is...

  7. Section II. Symbolic Dimensions of Obsidian Production and Exchange

    • CHAPTER FIVE Symbolic and Ritual Dimensions of Exchange, Production, Use, and Deposition of Ancient Maya Obsidian Artifacts
      (pp. 127-158)
      Kazuo Aoyama

      In this chapter, I seek to complement political-economy approaches with agency approaches to examine contexts in which ritual shapes the organization and execution of economic pursuits (see chapter 1)—particularly those associated with obsidian artifacts. In this endeavor, I draw on the results of the analysis of more than 160,000 chipped-stone artifacts from the Copán region (Copán Valley and the neighboring region of La Entrada) of Honduras, as well as the Pasión and Petexbatun regions (Aguateca, Ceibal, and neighboring sites) of Guatemala, to discuss and elucidate the symbolic and ritual dimensions of ancient Maya obsidian artifacts (figure 5.1). The artifacts...

    • CHAPTER SIX Obsidian Obsessed? Examining Patterns of Chipped-Stone Procurement at Late Postclassic Tututepec, Oaxaca
      (pp. 159-192)
      Marc N. Levine

      I first suspected that Tututepec may have been “obsidian obsessed” after reading a review of a paper that I had submitted for publication. The anonymous reviewer doubted my description of the chipped-stone assemblage, writing “I find it hard to believe that over 90 percent of the chipped-stone at these sites [Tututepec residences] was obsidian that came from considerable distances away.” Although momentarily caught off-guard, I felt confident in my excavation methods and sampling strategy. Reflecting further, I realized that this reviewer had every right to his or her incredulity. While not uncommon for sites in highland central Mexico, the high...

  8. Section III. Interpreting Obsidian in Ritual Offerings and Use

    • CHAPTER SEVEN Obsidian Symbolism in a Temple Offering from La Laguna, Tlaxcala
      (pp. 195-222)
      David M. Carballo

      Offerings intended to consecrate or terminate temple structures were an integral component of religious practice in prehispanic Mesoamerica. Temple offerings in central Mexico often included obsidian artifacts that possessed symbolic value in their own right and, more important, as part of an associated complex of materials. In this study I discuss a cache offering from La Laguna, Tlaxcala, containing fifteen large obsidian bifaces, including knives and eccentrics, deposited along with other symbolically charged materials. The offering is currently without close precedent for the Terminal Formative period, the primary occupation of the temple (ca. 100 BCE–150 CE). I interpret the...

    • CHAPTER EIGHT Ritual Use of Obsidian from Maya Caves in Belize: A Functional and Symbolic Analysis
      (pp. 223-254)
      W. James Stemp and Jaime J. Awe

      With the exception of Kazuo Aoyama’s (2001) use-wear analysis of obsidian from Gordon Cave no. 3 at Copán in Honduras, there has been no detailed discussion among Maya archaeologists of the specific uses of this material in caves or rock shelters, although many have noted the presence of obsidian in caves (see Brady 2005:127, supplement 4, for a long list). Some researchers list what was found with little additional elaboration, while others generally argue obsidian’s connection to ritual, specifically bloodletting and sacrifice, with minimal discussion of the obsidian artifacts themselves (e.g., Brady 1989, 2005; Brady and Stone 1986; Colas, Reeder,...

    • CHAPTER NINE Obsidian and Household Ritual at Xochitecatl-Cacaxtla
      (pp. 255-276)
      Mari Carmen Serra Puche, Jesús Carlos Lazcano Arce and Mónica Blanco García Méndez

      The use of obsidian in domestic, ritual, and administrative spaces encapsulates the embeddedness of particular artifact types and raw-material sources within systems of meaning generated by the particular communities studied archaeologically, including the ways technological values may differ from ideological ones. Ascriptions of value depend on the temporal and spatial context in which objects were used and deposited, as well as the individual actors who reflexively produce and refashion systems of value through practices involving such objects. In this study, we demonstrate how obsidian varies from serving as a common tool in domestic contexts to an important symbol in ritual...

  9. Conclusion

    • CHAPTER TEN Reflections on Reflections
      (pp. 279-318)
      William J. Parry

      The title of this volume,Obsidian Reflections, evokes one of the most iconic prehispanic Mesoamerican artifacts, the polished obsidian mirror. Examples can be viewed at major museums in several cities, including Mexico City (Day 1992:figure 64; Serra Puche, Solis Olguin, and Zabé 1994:194, 197; see also figure 3.6, this volume) and New York (AMNH 2012:cat. 30.0/6253), but the obsidian mirror in the British Museum in London has a particularly interesting history (figure 10.1). This Aztec mirror was taken by a Spanish conquistador and found its way from Mexico to England during the sixteenth century. It became a prized possession of...

  10. List of Contributors
    (pp. 319-320)
  11. Index
    (pp. 321-331)