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Geoffrey E. Braswell

Northern Yucatán Obsidian Finds - Mérida and Chichén Itzá
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Research Year:  1996
Culture:  Maya
Chronology:  Terminal Classic
Location:  Quintana Roo, México
Sites:  Mérida and Chichén Itzá

Table of Contents

Research in México
Neutron Activation Analysis of Samples
Preliminary Conclusions and Continuing Research


This report describes research funded by the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc. (FAMSI). The project, entitled Northern Yucatán Obsidian Finds - Mérida and Chichén Itzá, was conducted in México between 15 October and 16 December 1995. A second phase, consisting of the analysis of 292 obsidian artifacts by neutron activation, should be completed by 31 October 1996.

Obsidian found in the northern Maya lowlands was imported from a limited number of sources in the Guatemalan and Mexican highlands. The presence of obsidian artifacts at lowland Maya sites therefore implies participation in interregional and long-distance trade networks. Although the northern lowlands have long been an important focus of obsidian-exchange studies (e.g., Hammond, 1972; Nelson, 1985), the construction and testing of diachronic trade models has been hampered by two factors.

First, the sample size of sourced artifacts from the northern lowlands has been small: only 80 pieces from contexts dating to later than A.D. 600 (Nelson, 1985: Tables 11-14). As of 1994, only six pieces of obsidian from Chichén Itzá had been attributed to geological sources through chemical analysis. These were all of unknown temporal provenience and were dredged from the Sacred Cenote, a functional context so special that it cannot be interpreted as representative of the site as a whole.

Second, attempts to stratify geological source data by period have generally been unsuccessful because of long-standing errors in the correlation of regional ceramic sequences. The enduring but erroneous belief that the Cehpech ceramic sphere preceded the Sotuta sphere (e.g., Brainerd, 1958) often led to the false assumption that obsidian artifacts from Cobá and the Puuc sites dated to either the Late or Terminal Classic periods (A.D. 700-1000) and materials from Chichén Itzá to the Early Postclassic (A.D. 1000-1200) (e.g., Nelson, 1985; 1995). It is now accepted by most scholars that there was a great deal of temporal overlap between these two ceramic spheres (e.g., Ball, 1979; Canché Manzanero, 1992; Cobos Palma, 1995; Lincoln, 1986; 1990; Peraza Lope, 1993; Robles Castellanos, 1990; Sharer, 1994).

The organization of obsidian-exchange networks, particularly during the Terminal Classic period (A.D. 800-1000), was the primary focus of this investigation. Major goals of the project were: (1) to increase by 20-fold the number of source assignments for artifacts from the northern Maya lowlands, (2) to use these data to formulate and test a new exchange model, and (3) to examine the organization of lithic production at Chichén Itzá and other important regional centers.

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Submitted 09/01/1996 by:

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