By MARYANNE POKAWIN
ONE object that’s highly durable and can be dated back to the beginning of time is the obsidian. It can be found all over the world in areas where there are volcanic activities. It is a naturally occurring volcanic glass formed as an extrusive igneous rock. Its color is either deep black or blackish green. It is produced when felsic lava extruded from a volcano, cools rapidly with minimal crystal growth. Obsidian is a unique kind of rock that has been renowned throughout history for its beauty and its ability to form sharp tools and is the only natural gemstone which is actually glass, formed from lava that cools without crystal growth.
Lou Island, lies about 20km south east of the main island of Manus. It is a large volcanic island with three extinct craters. The island is one of the few sites in the South Pacific where volcanic glass or obsidian was mined to be fashioned into weapons and tools for trade. Obsidian from these sources was extensively used by their ancestors around 3300 years ago. According to the findings of archaeological studies, obsidian from Lou Island reached the coast and interior of the main island of Manus, before being traded on a substantial scale outside the Admiralty Islands.
I made a recent trip to Lou, and under the arrangement of an elder in Rei village, Mala Selarn, I was able to meet four local men who are making good use of the high quality obsidian that is found there. Sengi Pwaka, Peter Selarn, Lindon Avou and John Sane cut the stones, or glass, into blades for knives, spears and daggers.
And, as might be expected of an object that looks like and has similar properties as glass, it can have very sharp edges and herein lies the value of obsidian to the ancestors of these men. It was the first time for me to touch an obsidian. It was hard, a little brittle to the touch, and the fractured edges were sharp.
Interestingly, the obsidian blades and points have different forms. The most common blades are ones with a thick, rounded rear end which can be fitted into the holder of the spear or dagger. I was fascinated to find obsidian pits on various locations on the island.
It is unsurprising that obsidian weapons from Lou Island have been found all over the Pacific and parts of Asia.
It is a remarkable material, durable and able to be struck into exceptionally sharp edges such as spear heads, daggers and blades which were used to cut wood and for hunting so was extremely important and valued by our ancestors.
Internationally, these stones, or glass, are used for ornamental purposes and as a gemstone. It presents a different appearance depending on how it is cut.
Obsidian artefacts, as both tools and broken fragments from the production of tools, can be found at all the Lapita villages sites across the Bismarck Archipelago in large quantities, indicating that these villages were engaged in large scale communication that included trade and the exchange of the rock.
The distribution of obsidian across huge paths of the western pacific region is a proof of our ancestors’ skills of navigation both of the seas and of social interactions as expressed through trade and exchange.
- The author is a freelance writer.