Another welcome surprise during my recent holiday in Crete was to see an obsidian drinking vessel or goblet in the Antiquities Museum in Iraklion. It’s almost 30cm tall! It’s from Zakros at the eastern end of the island and the label in the Iraklion Museum said it dates from the New Palace period (1500-1450 BC).
I sent a copy of the photo to Dr Elizabeth Healy who is in the Archaeology department at the University of Manchester and she commented that “It must have been a huge piece of obsidian!” A lot of work has been work done on sourcing some of the Greek obsidian vessels by Prof.Tristan Carter at McMaster University in Canada.
I haven’t seen many vessels made of obsidian but there is one in the Ancient Worlds third gallery in a case of alabaster and other stone containers from ancient Egypt. In this gallery we wanted to show off more of collections that were previously in storage and so we got out lots of examples of glass vessels, jewellery, shabtis and other items. Had we not done this it is unlikely that colleagues in the wider university would have realised that we have an obsidian vessel from ancient Egypt in the collection.
The Manchester Museum’s black kohl-pot has a flat rim, and a fragment of the lid, which has a rebate to fit into the mouth of the kohl-pot. It was identified as obsidian in the Museum original register. It measures 4.2 x 3.3 cm and was given by the British School of Archaeology in Egypt (1912-1913). It dates from the Middle Kingdom (Dynasty 12) and was found at el-Riqqa in Middle Egypt.
There are also flakes of obsidian displayed in one of the sections in the Discovering Archaeology gallery. They come from the site of Yanik Tepe in northern Iraq. Work is currently being undertaken by Tristan Carter at McMaster Universitry to try and identify the source of the obsidian, which is a kind of natural glass produced at high temperature in volcanoes. This is the material known as dragonglass in the popular Game of Thrones books by George R.R.Martin.
Prof Tristan Carter commented that although the Zachros vessel has not been analysed chemically it is ‘almost certainly’ made of obsidian from the Aegean (Dodecanesian) source of Giali (near Nisyros). The material was originally referred to as ‘Liparite’ by Sir Arthur Evans (some of this material was found at Knossos) who thought it was the ‘spherultic’ material from Lipari, a claim that ‘made sense’ at the time with regard to claimed links between Minoan Crete and Spanish tin sources (of which no evidence has ever been found).
Renfrew et al (1965) proved in fact that the very distinctive white spotted obsidian in the Aegean came from Giali. It has terrible flaking properties so it was only used on local islands for chipped stone tools during the Neolithic.
From the Middle Bronze Age it was exploited by Cretan (or Minoan) lapidaries to make vases (following a lead from the Assyrian Trade colony in central Anatolia – e,g, Kultepe/Acemhoyu – and northern Levant and Egypt).
This vase is Late Minoan IB (post Theran eruption and for some the apogee of Minoan civilisation).
The use of this obsidian for raw materials is rare for vases and restricted to palaces (also Malia and Knossos) and high status sites. This form of vessel was also made using other raw materials. Zakro would have had good connections by sea to the Dodecanese.
I must check whether we have any Nisyros obsidian in our lithics collection.
Thanks to Prof.Carter for sharing this information.