obsidian - mixed mahogany and black obsidian - display specimen
Obsidian is a volcanic glass with the composition of granite or rhyolite. Because it cooled and solidified almost instantaneously in the earliest stages of an explosive volcanic eruption, its atoms did not have enough time to fall into a regular crystalline pattern and are essentially an unorganized mass of atoms exhibiting the curved conchoidal fracture typical of glass.
The color of obsidian is due to impurities. Black obsidian results when the impurities are hornblende, magnetite, biotite or a pyroxine. Brown obsidian forms when the impurity is hematite or limonite. Inclusions of gas or tiny inclusions of water result in a silvery reflectance that is desirable in lapidary. Brown and black are commonly swirled together in some obsidian flows. This brown and black mixed obsidian, a common feature of some flows, was collected near Davis Creek in the Warner Mountains of California.
Almost every obsidian source in North America was known to native Americans. Since obsidian from each source is geochemically distinct, the origin of the obsidian used in stone tools can be traced. Many surprisingly obscure sources, such as obsidian float in alluvium where the original flow has weathered away, were utilized for cutting tools or was collected as trading material.
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