Raw materials obtained through long distance exchange networks can be one of the most valuable areas to study in archaeology. They can provide information on social and economic networks as well as giving insights to the meanings, value and identities ascribed to manufactured objects. Obsidian, the naturally occurring volcanic glass, is a particularly useful example. In the Middle East the occurrence of obsidian is geologically restricted the main sources being in central and Eastern Anatolia and Armenia; nevertheless from about 9,000 BC artefacts made from it are widely distributed, sometimes up to 800km from the sources . It is a material that has both functional value, as it can be chipped into very sharp stone tools, and aesthetic appeal, as a translucent and shiny stone that can be shaped into jewellery, vessels and other objects.
Largely because obsidian only occurs at a restricted number of sources, its origin can be determined through chemical analysis. Until recently analyses have been carried out on small samples, often only a handful of artefacts from the possible thousands of artefacts from single sites. More recently new techniques have allowed large scale, non-destructive analyses.
In 2014, the Manchester Obsidian Laboratory was founded as a collaboration between Stuart Campbell (University of Manchester), Elizabeth Healey (University of Manchester) and Osamu Maeda (University of Tsukuba). Our main research focus is on obsidian in the Middle East, at all periods of history and prehistory, but we have also worked on obsidian from other parts of the world, most recently including John Dee’s obsidian mirror. To date we have analysed more than 6,500 archaeological artefacts and more than 1,500 geological samples.