Today it’s easy to buy just about anything by touching a few keystrokes. In an amazingly short time, a package from Amazon or another company will arrive. However, it wasn’t always easy to acquire important things. Consider obsidian.
Snowflake, Conchoidal shape, Apache tears.
Obsidian is a fascinating rock always formed by volcanic action. It’s essentially natural glass, and a chunk of it shimmers in the hand. It’s usually black but can be brown, tan, green, blue, red, orange or yellow depending on the minerals within it.
Although obsidian is found in natural deposits scattered around the world, in the United States it occurs mostly in Arizona, California, Idaho, Nevada, and Oregon with smaller deposits in New Mexico, Washington, and Wyoming. An entire obsidian hillside is easy to see from the road in Yellowstone National Park just south of Mammoth.
In days long before Amazon shipped packages, obsidian was one of the most precious of commodities. Imagine you are Native American thousands of years ago. Some of this evening’s dinner may come from corn or squash you grew but more likely it would be deer, elk, rabbit or squirrel meat or even a big catfish fillet.
Back then hunting wasn’t recreation. It was a vital source of food, and hunters had to do whatever possible to make catching an animal successful. They spent hours crafting efficient spears long before the bow and arrow were invented. After bows replaced spears Native Americans crafted efficient arrows.
Obsidian was the very best rock to make spear and arrow points from. It fractures into flakes so sharp that it has been used for modern surgical scalpels. It makes beautiful and deadly spear and arrow points.
Most Native Americans had a problem. There was no natural obsidian within hundreds or thousands of miles of their homes. Often, they used flint or chert for points. These worked well, but Obsidian was better. It was a valuable commodity.
Long before history began recording events Native Americans had developed elaborate trade routes across North America. One of the most valuable trade items was obsidian. We live in Iowa, and there are no known natural obsidian deposits. But obsidian arrowheads are relatively common. There’s no doubt that it came here, and throughout most of North America, carried great distances by traders who walked around the continent and swapped it for items they needed.
Modern bowhunters use arrows tipped with razor-sharp steel points, but obsidian is still valued for its beauty and unusual shapes and colors. Today it’s zipped around the world in cars, planes, trucks, and ships. It’s even possible to order it from Amazon.
A volcanic glass, Obsidian occurs in volcanic areas such as the western United States.
We’re honored to welcome visitors to our Winding Pathways website seeking information on obsidian. Many have probably learned of this rock through video games.
Ironically Winding Pathways is located in Iowa, a state where natural deposits of obsidian aren’t found. However, the rock was so useful to Native Americans that an extensive trade network existed in North America and it was carried far and wide by prehistoric traders. All Iowa obsidian was carried here by Native Americans and has only been found as artifacts.
Obsidian is an amazing rock. It formed when lava cooled so quickly that the molten rock could not form a crystalline structure. Usually black, obsidian can be of many other colors. It occurs naturally around the world where volcanism occurred relatively recently. Fairly common in western states it has also been found in Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Virginia. A well-known hillside in Yellowstone National Park is composed of this rock. It’s fun to see but collecting is not allowed in national parks.
The smaller piece is the back of a point. The larger piece is the broken tip of a point.
Because of its amorphous, or non-crystalline, structure obsidian breaks cleanly creating extremely sharp edges. It’s been used by people for at least 1.5 million years as the raw material that could be crafted into knives, spear points and other sharp tools. Today obsidian is often made into jewelry, and there are reports of ultra-sharp shards of it being used for surgery.
An easy way to see obsidian and hundreds of other types of rocks and minerals is to visit a rock shop. They are common in tourist areas, and we’ve always found visiting them fun. Often the owner is so happy to see a customer that he’ll give a personal tour and share oodles of rock information, even if no money is exchanged.
Another great way to see obsidian……and buy a chunk……..is to visit a rock show. Held around the country they bring rock enthusiasts together to talk, barter, buy and sell. To locate a show near your home check RockNGem and show-dates.
Eastern Iowa’s 2016 Cedar Valley Rock and Mineral Society’s big Gem, Mineral and Fossil Show will be April 16 and 17 at Hawkeye Downs in Cedar Rapids. Programs, demonstrations, pebble pits for kids, gorgeous jewelry, equipment and raw materials all will be featured.
Wherever you live, take in a rock show and rub elbows with rock hounds and lapidists, and invest in some cool rocks and crystals.
Obsidian has one characteristic that slag generally lacks – a hint of translucence.
On our recent Antiquities Tour, Rich and I came across interesting rocks on an abandoned railroad bed in Eastern Colorado. The chunks looked like obsidian. They fractured like obsidian and had the feel of obsidian. But, they didn’t quite look right. But blue and pretty! So, we put a bunch in the car. Rich was excited.
One of my geologists colleagues confirmed my observation on the fracturing and glassy feel of the rocks. But, they didn’t have the slightly translucent look of obsidian. Still I like them. So, I gave some to friends.
One scientist friend, Linda Mueller, appreciated the rock and investigated further. Here is our conversation on FB.
“I’ve been asking around about the rock you gave me. The consensus seems to be that the colors indicate that it’s slag glass and not obsidian. Certain areas in Colorado use it as railroad ballast. Obsidian and glass slag are so similar that it’s often difficult the tell the difference. Unscrupulous ebay sellers have taken advantage of this and have sold the artificial form as the real thing.
“Anyhow, whatever it is, I’m still fascinated by it. It’s beautiful and it will remain on my desk as a paperweight. Thank you again for it.”
I replied, “Thanks for checking this out!”
Linda added, “I was hoping for something interesting like turquoise. Still the stone is calming in a odd sort of way. It’s cool to the touch and smooth among the rough (parts).”
My thought: “Maybe good energy can come from slag. Say, that might be a good blog! Help me write it?”
So Linda did the work!
Linda: “I think so. The rock is truly entrancing. I can’t explain it. From the moment I saw it, I was fascinated by it. It was a special gift. I truly mean that.
“When you think about it, it does look a lot like obsidian, which is volcanic glass. I can’t remember what you said the spiritual properties of obsidian are but I wonder if they mirror the history of the stone? A huge amount of geothermal energy is needed to create obsidian. It flows from a volcano, then cools and solidifies. Tension moving toward calm? (Great analogy, I thought!)
“Glass slag is similar to obsidian; it, too, consists mainly of silica dioxide. It’s formed by heating ores (rock) to high temperatures. It’s a human-made rock, but it’s not a new technique. Humans have been creating it since the late bronze age (1500 – 1000 BCE). At least three thousand years! Wow! Ancient man found other uses for the leftover glass slag. They recycled it even then. Somehow we lost sight of that when technology gave us easier ways to make glass and pottery. Now we’ve come full circle and have found uses for it again.
“Might glass slag have properties similar to obsidian since the two are so similar? When I hold the rock, I feel calm. It takes away tension. The coolness and the weight of the stone is comfortable. Like obsidian, it was formed from heat/molten rock (tension) and it’s present state is cool/solid rock (calm).
“When you think about it, it fits. You and I have a strong interest in preservation, recycling, taking care of the earth. The rock cries out:
“‘Hey, look at the beauty and usefulness I have! Quit taking rocks from the earth to crush for railroad ballast when you already have me. I was needed for another purpose and now that it is complete, I’m moving on to my next one.’
“Everyone I’ve shown it to has had positive reactions to it. I wonder why that is?”
So, our on-line conversation ended here. But perhaps readers can weigh in and add to this. Obsidian or Slag – What Does it Matter?
The gift had the intention of love, perhaps that is a clue.