The Odyssey of Obsidian: A Re-evaluation of Chipped Stone in the Late Bronze Age Aegean




Evans, Scott G.

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During the Bronze Age, obsidian was widely exploited to fashion prismatic blades, small (c. 3–4 cm) parallel-sided cutting implements. Together with local cherts, which performed similarly, these chipped stone (or ‘lithic’) tools were used in domestic tasks, ranging from the processing of various materials in food preparation (e.g. organics, meat, bone) to aiding in craft production (e.g. textile weaving, basket-making, animal hide preparation). Thus, they were recognized as important cultural objects in the domestic sphere for many centuries. The prevailing assumption in scholarship is that these tools were gradually replaced with superior metal (bronze) implements following the Middle Bronze Age (c. 1700 BCE) before eventually becoming obsolete in the Late Bronze Age (LBA) (c. 1700–1050 BCE). Therefore, this thesis examines obsidian and chert tools from the LBA Mainland and Crete, situating them within the wider domestic economy and thereby demonstrating that this should now be considered an outdated viewpoint. Early to Middle Bronze Age chaîne opératoire models for the procurement, production, distribution, and consumption of chipped stone are tested for their applicability to the LBA. Overarching similarities with these models are noted, especially the predominance of regional, coastal production centres. Yet, while other scholars completely disassociate such mundane goods from the economic scope of the palaces, it is suggested here that lithic exchange and consumption were now structured within the socially, politically and economically complex palatial world, including via the use of coastal production centres. That is not to say that the obsidian trade became elite-controlled, but it is significant that emporia were centralized at palatially-sponsored port installations like Romanou and Kalamianos. Ultimately, in presenting a new assemblage of chipped stone from Mycenaean Eleon (central Greece), a contextual analysis from an elite domestic residence, the Northwest Complex, argues that obsidian and chert tools continued to be imported and manufactured throughout the later stages of the LBA despite significant sociopolitical and economic upheaval caused by the fall of the palaces. Supported by evidence from contemporary sites on Crete and the Mainland, this demonstrates that obsidian and chert tools remained quintessential components of the domestic tool kit which featured prominently alongside tools in other mediums (including bone, ground stone and, most significantly, bronze implements). Moreover, a technological analysis of the obsidian and chert tools reveals regional variances in chipped stone usage between the Argolid (south-central Greece), Messenia (southwestern Greece), and Boeotia (central Greece). For instance, two important nuances observed at Eleon are the consumption of chert blades at a rate much higher than other Mycenaean sites, and the popularity of chert sickle elements in the early 12th century BCE. While both strategies indicate strategies in local resource acquisition different from other areas, the latter may allude to a shortage of bronze shortly after the dissolution of the palaces that was, in part, alleviated by these well-made chert implements.



Mediterranean Archaeology, Aegean Prehistory, Mycenaean, Minoan, Late Bronze Age, Chipped Stone, Lithics, Economic Archaeology, Material Culture, Human-Environment Interaction, Archaeology