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Obsidian Knife

October is California Archaeology Month, and to celebrate, we’re showcasing some of our favorite artifacts! Today, we’re looking at an obsidian knife with ties to Coastal Chumash Culture.

The Antelope Valley served as a primary trade route for the tribes of California, providing a natural corridor through the mountains and connecting the California coast with trails to Mexico, Northern and Central California, and the Southwest culture region. This ideal placement greatly benefited local inhabitants, providing them with an abundance of desert, mountain, and coastal resources.

This trade network also allowed local groups to establish strong relationships with each other as well as more distant tribes. For example, it is known that groups in the Antelope Valley, such as the Vanyume and Tataviam, had direct contact with members of the Chumash culture.

This obsidian knife offers insight into the role of these trade networks since materials used to craft it were not directly available within the Antelope Valley.

The blade itself is fashioned out of obsidian, commonly referred to as “volcanic glass” because of its extremely fine-grained texture and ability to fracture conchoidally. The obsidian was obtained from an inland source, likely the Mono Lake region, whereas the other materials were obtained from along the coast.

The handle is wooden, adorned with Olivella biplicata shell disc beads. The hafting and adhesive material used was asphaltum, a naturally produced tar-like material that washes ashore from undersea oil seepages. When heated, asphaltam becomes a spreadable glue-like consistency, cooling to form a hard, waterproof seal.

Olivella shell beads were used as a form of currency by several California tribes; the use of it as adornment on this knife indicates the possibility of the item belonging to a high-status individual or being used in ritualistic contexts.

You can continue to celebrate California Archaeology Month by visiting the Antelope Valley Indian Museum, open on weekends, and visiting the Archaeology section of the “Celebrate Lancaster” exhibition opening at MOAH:Cedar on October 21!

"Antelope Valley Indian Museum, Antelope Valley Indian Peoples,

Photo courtesy of MOAH Collections"


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