Sourcing geochemically identical obsidian: Multiscalar magnetic variations in the Gutansar volcanic complex and implications for Palaeolithic research in Armenia

Ellery Frahm, Joshua M. Feinberg, Beverly A. Schmidt-Magee, Keith Wilkinson, Boris Gasparyan, Benik Yeritsyan, Sergei Karapetian, Khachatur Meliksetian, Michelle J. Muth, Daniel S. Adler

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17 Scopus citations


In obsidian-rich Armenia, one of the most archaeologically significant obsidian resources is the Gutansar volcanic complex (GVC). Numerous Palaeolithic sites across Armenia consist of little more than deposits of obsidian tools and debris, and within the Hrazdan Gorge, the vast majority of artifacts is crafted from GVC obsidian. For example, about 93% of the lithic assemblages from the Lower Palaeolithic site of Nor Geghi 1 and the Middle Palaeolithic site of Lusakert Cave 1 are GVC obsidian. Although erupted from multiple volcanic centers, GVC obsidians are geochemically identical and cover an area more than 70km2. For studies seeking to reconstruct movements of Palaeolithic hunter-gatherers throughout the local landscape, the expansive GVC is problematic: geochemically identical obsidians dominate the foraging territories of sites within and near the complex. Here we explore the potential of obsidian magnetic properties to reveal hitherto unobservable patterns in GVC obsidian utilization with the ultimate goal of elucidating Palaeolithic behavioral patterns. Our results show that magnetic properties vary over multiple scales within the GVC, allowing obsidian sourcing to become multiscalar. These measurements are rapid, inexpensive, and entirely nondestructive for small artifacts. Measuring a few basic magnetic properties enables us to distinguish geochemically identical obsidians from three eruptive centers and potentially to attribute artifacts to specific quarrying sites, recognize changes in provisioning strategy, and estimate a minimum number of cores represented by a lithic scatter.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)164-178
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Archaeological Science
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jul 2014

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We are indebted to numerous colleagues for their contributions to this work. We thank Pavel Avetisyan, Director of the Institute for Archaeology and Ethnography, Armenia, for his ongoing support of the Hrazdan Gorge Palaeolithic Project and Obsidian Resources and Landscapes of Palaeolithic Armenia Project. We recognize the generous financial support provided to Adler for the Hrazdan Gorge Palaeolithic Project by the Norian Armenian Programs Committee (University of Connecticut, 2008–2013), two Large Faculty Grants (University of Connecticut, 2008 and 2012), and the L.S.B. Leakey Foundation (2010, 2011). Niton UK is thanked for their support, and Roger Doonan is thanked for his thoughts and insights. Phillip Ihinger and Giselle Conde conducted the water content measurements using FTIR at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire's Materials Science Center. Conde's work on these specimens was funded, in part, by an American Chemical Association's Supplementary Grant for Underrepresented Minority Research . Victoria Smith is thanked for discussions regarding the GVC. Michael Glascock at the University of Missouri Research Reactor's Archaeometry Laboratory is thanked for NAA and XRF data used for the calibration and inter-technique comparisons. We received invaluable help from Mike Jackson and Peter Sølheid at the Institute for Rock Magnetism. Muth's work on this project was supported by the National Science Foundation's Research Experience for Undergraduates program and the University of Minnesota's Earth Sciences Summer Internship program. Schmidt-Magee was supported by grants from the National Science Foundation ( SBE-DDIG #1234125 ) and American Research Institute of the South Caucasus . Frahm's work was additionally supported by the IRM Visiting Fellowship Program , the Departments of Earth Sciences and Anthropology at the University of Minnesota , the Department of Archaeology at the University of Sheffield , and Marie Curie Network FP7-PEOPLE-2010-ITN: New Archaeological Research Network for Integrating Approaches to Ancient Material Studies. In addition, we thank Robin Torrence, Evdokia Tema, and an anonymous reviewer for their helpful comments and suggestions that clarified this paper. This is IRM contribution #1403.


  • Armenia
  • Lithic analysis
  • Obsidian sourcing
  • Rock magnetism
  • South Caucasus


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