Obsidian in Teotihuacan, something more than just a handicraft

Teotihuacan Archaeological Site. México
Teotihuacan, State of Mexico.

Handicrafts… such an issue when you visit México. Too many options, too many expressions of different cultures that flourished in this awesome territory… and unfortunately too many fakes coming from China. We should give to our visitors a small catalog at the airport about mexican handicrafts and some advice to pick out the real ones.

Handicrafts have always a strong relation with the history of a civilization. A handicraft could be the main activity of a town for centuries, or keep something about its art, or even could be a reminder of how an empire was born. This is the case of the obsidian in Teotihuacan, the most impressive archaeological site in central México.

Obsidian is a volcanic rock, hard but brittle. It is produced when the lava of a volcano cools quickly. Obsidian is a mineral-like, but the experts consider it as a mineraloid because it is not crystalline and its composition is different from a single mineral.

Since obsidian can be fractured in very sharp blades or arrowheads, it was valuable for several Stone Age cultures. Here in Mesoamerica (central and south areas of México and Central America) obsidian was used for more than 7000 years. But there was one magnificent city that flourished thanks to this volcanic rock and its unique characteristics.

Teotihuacan, “the city where the gods were born” in náhuatl language, was the largest city in the Clasic period for the Pre Hispanic cultures of Mesoamerica, from 100 BC to 550 AC. The remains of this majestic city are located in the State of México, 30 miles away from México City. This is the most visited archaeological site in this country: almost two million of visitors in 2015, and the count goes on.

Visitors will find here lots of handicraft stores and vendors. Traditional textiles, ceramics, t shirts and some other stuff of dobious origin. Obsidian may be the best option if you want to take a very traditional souvenir from this place. I’ll tell you why…

During centuries the production of obsidian objects was an important component of Teotihuacan’s economy. There was a complex industry around this resourse: miners, carriers, carftsmen, artists, traders. The craftmen of this great city worked with this stone to create not only tools for common activities or dangerous weapons, but also to perform ritual objects and beautiful art pieces. About 35% of the Teotihuacan’s economy used to depend on the obsidian work. As a mineral with particular properties, obsidian was used as a medicinal remedy or amulet to keep away bad spirits.

Artisans can poolish the obsidian to make it shiny or preserve its opacity. A combination of both textures can create an obsidian masterpiece.

Obsidian Handicrafts in Teotihuacan
Obsidian Handicrafts in Teotihuacan

There is black obsidian, which is the purest. But there is also obsidian of different colors, which are defined by the impurities in its composition: iron and magnesium for the dark brown obsidian and cristobalite for the “snowflake” obsidian. Bubbles of gas create the sheen obsidian and the rainbow obsidian is caused by the presence of magnetite particles and so on. TIP: You will never find cristal clear obsidian. That is only glass.

It was believed that the gods used to speak to the men through obsidian knives which had the shape of a tongue. Pre Hispanic cultures supposed that the rays in the sky were masculine elements which entered in the earth’s womb and this is how the obsidian was created.

The aztecs, another culture of central México, gave a particular meaning to the obsidian colors: black: underworld; green: virginity and fertility; red or gold: sun, fire; gray: punishment. They also associated this stone to one of their main gods: Tezcatlipoca. He used to carry an obsidian mirror to show the men their fears and defects.

There are lots of awesome masterpieces made with obsidian in all the Mesoamerica cultures. We could create an Obsidian Museum. Nowadays, artisans from Teotihuacan and other places in México are preserving this ancient craft. You can visit some crafts workshops in Teotihuacan and take your obsidian sculpture, just like the traders used to do in this unique city many centuries ago.


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