Prehistoric Obsidian in the Eastern Mediterranean


This is a pyramidal core, found at the Melos island in the 1960ies. Obsidian is a black volcanic glass. It is hard and brittle; it therefore fractures with very sharp edges optimized for the production of extremely sharp tools. In the Mediterranean, Sardinia, Palmarola, Lipari and Pantelleria, Melos and Antiparos and several Anatolian sites were the centers of extraction, production and dissemination of obsidian over prehistoric Europe. People may have valued obsidian not only for its material characteristics but also for aesthetic and symbolic (non-utilitarian) reasons.

In the eastern Mediterranean, the island of Melos (Milos) prospered because of its great mineral wealth. It has been inhabited since the late Paleolithic and during the Neolithic,   Melos developed more rapidly than the neighboring islands because of its Obsidian mining and export. Obsidian tools from Melos have been excavated in the Peloponnese, Crete, Cyprus and even in Egypt. From the beginning of the bronze age, (3,1-2,1 k.a. BC), the Melos Island played an extremely important part in the Cycladic world, centered at the ancient city of Philakopi, which in fact gave its name to an entire archaeological period.


Franchthi Cave in the southeastern Argolid is unique in Greece in having an essentially unbroken series of deposits spanning the period from ca. 20k.a. BC down to ca. 3k.a. BC. This is by far the longest recorded continuous occupational sequence from any one site in Greece. First Obsidians from Melos appeared in the Franchthi Cave during the late Paleolithic at ca 11 k.a. BC. These dates are in good agreement with results from a method called obsidian hydration dating (OHD) combined with an advanced technique known as secondary ion mass spectrometry (SIMS) to determine how much water had penetrated the obsidian surfaces that were exposed to the air by prehistoric humans who were chipping the rocks to make artifacts. Using these techniques it was demonstrated, that Obsidian mining at Melos goes as far back as 13 k.a. BC. The Melian Obsidian findings at Franchthi Cave are early indications of paleolithic networks by seafaring people more than 10000 yrs. ago. In the western Mediterranean the systematic use and trade of Obsidian begins considerably later (roughly at 6 k.a. BC).

Obsidian played an even more prominent role during the Bronze Age in Crete. Neutron activation analysis of 60 obsidian artifacts from Quartier Mu, an important Middle Bronze Age complex at Malia, central Crete showed, that four sources of obsidian are represented at this site, among two of them on Melos (Sta Nychia and Dhemenegaki).

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About Katzman

During my whole life I was fascinated by stone age artefacts. Not only the aesthetic qualities of these findings, but also the stories around them and the considerations arising from their discovery, are a part of my blog. Comments and contributions are allways welcome! About me: J.L. Katzman (Pseudonym). Born in Vienna. Left Austria in 1974 and did not regret. Studied Medicine and Prehistory at a German University. Member of a Medical Department at a German University. Copyright 2010-2017 by JLK. All Rights Reserved. You are welcome to use material in these posts so long as you cite the work.
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2 Responses to Prehistoric Obsidian in the Eastern Mediterranean

  1. Perry says:

    I have found an obsidian scraper in south oxfordshire, England . What is the nearest likely source?

  2. Katzman says:

    To my knowledge ther are no sources in the UK
    Next resources are located in the Mediterranian

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