Sourcing obsidian in the Near East

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. It occurs in very restricted areas of the Middle East, particularly eastern and central Anatolia but from c.9,000 BC was exchanged widely across the Middle East, reaching sites 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.We are using a Niton XL3t 980 GOLDD+ portable XRF analyser (pXRF), ideally suited carrying out analysis of obsidian non-destructively, with very low cost per sample and the ability to take it to museums or into the field. Standardisation is achieved by use of a set of international standards and exchange of samples with other laboratories.

Although we have worked on material from a range of sites and dates, we are focussing particularly on later prehistory and early history, with a bias towards Mesopotamia. We would be very interested in anyone who wishes to make use of this material. Sites that we have studied in detail include:

  • Arpachiyah
  • Domuztepe
  • Jericho
  • Kish
  • Kenan Tepe
  • Umm Dabaghiyah
  • Ur


Work on obsidian sourcing has been supported by two British Academy small grants (“Back to the sources – a geo-archaeological perspective on obsidian data used in the interpretation of long distance contacts in the Neolithic of the Near East” and “A centre of interaction and conspicuous consumption? Obsidian use in the late Neolithic of the Near East: the case of Arpachiyah”) and a CHARISMA, Eu-ARTECH transnational access award to use the PIXE facilities at the AGLAE laboratory, Research Department of the Centre de Recherche et de Restauration des Musé de France. We are currently aided by Research Support Fund of the School of Arts, Languages and Cultures, University of Manchester and are planning an AHRC application in 2016.


Campbell, S. and E. Healey (2013) “The obsidian at Arpachiyah, Iraq; an integrated study”, in F. Borrell, J. J. Ibáñez and M. Molist (ed.) Stone Tools in Transition: From Hunter-Gatherers to Farming Societies in the Near East. Barcelona. Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona: 529-542.

Healey, E. (2001) “The role of obsidian at the Halaf site of Domuztepe, S.E. Anatolia”, in I. Caneva, C. Lemorini, D. Zampetti and P. Biag (ed.) Beyond Tools. Redefining the PPN Lithic Assemblages of the Levant. Proceedings of the Third Workshop on PPN Chipped Lithic Industries (Ca’Foscari University of Venice, Nov. 1998). Berlin. Ex oriente: 389-398.

Healey, E. and S. Campbell (2009) “The Challenge of Characterising Large Assemblages of Exotic Materials: a case study of the obsidian from Domuztepe, SE Turkey“, Internet Archaeology 26.

Healey, E. and S. Campbell (2014) “Producing adornment: Evidence of different levels of expertise in the production of obsidian items of adornment at two late Neolithic communities in northern Mesopotamia“, Journal of Lithic Studies 1(2).