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USF Professor Analyzes Largest Western Mediterranean Sample of Obsidian Artifacts Ever

Anthropologist Robert Tykot has studied over 6,000 pieces of the volcanic glass.

TAMPA, Fla. (Dec. 8, 2014) – Fifty years after the first researchers determined the original source of ancient artifacts made of the glass known as obsidian, Robert Tykot, professor of anthropology at the University of South Florida, has completed approximately two-thirds of all the obsidian sourcing research done in the western Mediterranean to date.

Obsidian, a naturally curved, dense glass formed when volcanic lava cools quickly, was primarily used to create sharp tools 2,000 to 8,000 years ago. Overall, Tykot has analyzed over 6,000 artifacts from 100 sites in Sardinia, Corsica, peninsular Italy, Sicily, Malta, and Croatia.

“Research on artifacts like these helps us discover more about the ancient world and, potentially, what kind of trade may have occurred between past civilizations,” said Tykot.

Obsidian has also been used for surgeons’ scalpel blades because it can be made sharper than most metal sources. Although commonly black in color, obsidian can be found in varying greenish to reddish colors depending on the amount of iron or oxygen in the sample. The analysis of such artifacts can be used to determine the age and original locations of the volcanic glass.

“This summer, I analyzed about 1,300 obsidian artifacts in Italy using a portable X-ray fluorescence spectrometer,” said Tykot. Tykot has also done extensive field and analytical studies in Lipari, Palmarola, and Pantelleria, identifying multiple outcrops of obsidian on each of these islands.

Tykot stands at an obsidian sample site. Photo courtesy of Robert Tykot

The X-ray spectrometry used by Tykot allows researchers to determine the chemical composition of the sample. By knowing their chemical composition, he is able to identify the specific volcano from which the artifacts originally came, and assess how ancient people acquired, processed, and transported obsidian.

Tykot found patterns of dispersal changed over the course of the Neolithic period, the later part of the Stone Age, most likely due to increasing sociopolitical complexity.

The first researchers who analyzed and sourced obsidian artifacts were J.R. Cann and Colin Renfrew.

“At the 79th Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology this past April, I also organized two large sessions honoring both of them, and Dr. Renfrew was present,” said Tykot.

Tykot and Renfrew. Photo courtesy of Robert Tykot

“Research on artifacts around the world is a potential game changer. Research like this could have the potential to change history books and ancient maps, all by studying artifacts’ chemical compositions,” said David Himmelgreen, chair of the Department of Anthropology at USF. “Dr.Tykot’s work is essential to a deeper understanding of the ancient world and its societies.”

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