Exchange networks from close-up: The case of Lipari obsidian

  • Andrea Vianello independent researcher
  • Robert Howard Tykot University of South Florida
Keywords: obsidian, Italy, Lipari, exchange, trade


A systematic study on obsidian tools in Calabria and Sicily carried out by the authors have revealed the uniqueness in the patterns of production, exchange and consumption of Lipari obsidian. The study has concentrated on the Middle Neolithic primarily, with other Neolithic and Bronze Age contexts recognised at a later stage in the research since many contexts, especially in Sicily, have been excavated by pioneering archaeologists, some over a century ago, or were mislabelled. The chronology is Early Neolithic to Early Bronze Age, with very few materials dating Middle Bronze Age. A review of chronological contexts is in progress, which spans from the 6th millennium BC to the end of the 2nd millennium BC. The typology of obsidian tools is very homogenous, the vast majority of used tools are small blades, bladelets and sharp flakes; there is negligible variance across time; and Lipari obsidian is preferred over other sources. The patterns of the exchanges are also unique, revealing two major types of redistribution of obsidian, one particularly intriguing because it is quite organized with a single source in Lipari, prominent and reminiscent for its stability and reach of Bronze Age redistribution dynamics associated with hierarchical societies. We present here some observations on patterns substantiated by the archaeological record, and consider possible scenarios that can explain them. This work provides an update on progressing research and reveals aspects that will need further investigation, focusing on the patterns identified so far and possible explanations. More work is certainly needed to produce a working model, but the unusual patterns deserve some attention on their own, unencumbered by an overarching explanatory model. In particular, we want to assess the Neolithic redistribution pattern suggestive as typical of hierarchical polities, and contextualize it to the specific situation of Neolithic Lipari.

Author Biography

Robert Howard Tykot, University of South Florida
Department of Anthropology, full professor


Ammerman, A. J. & Andrefsky, W., Jr. 1982, Reduction sequences and the exchange of obsidian in Neolithic Calabria. In: Contexts for Prehistoric Exchange (Ericson, J. E.; Earle, T. K., Eds.), Academic Press, New York: p. 149-172.
Ammerman, A. J. & Polglase, C. 1993, The exchange of obsidian at Neolithic sites in Italy. In: Trade and Exchange in Prehistoric Europe (Scarre, C.; Healy, F., Eds.), Oxbow Books, Oxford: p.101-108.
An, H., Zhong, W., Chen, Y., Li, H. & Gao, X. 2014, Features and evolution of international crude oil trade relationships: A trading-based network analysis. Energy, 74: 254-259. doi:10.1016/
Bacci, G.M. 2009, Introduzione storica. In: Guida archeologica delle Isole Eolie, Soprintendenza ai Beni Culturali e Ambientali di Messina, Regione Siciliana, Palermo: p. 11-18. (in Italian) (“Historical introduction”)
Boscaino, A.; D'Amora, A.; Nicoletti, F.; Trifuoggi, M.; Tusa, S., 2012, Indagini sulla caratterizzazione e la provenienza delle ossidiane di Serra del Palco (CL). In: Atti della XLI riunione scientifica: dai ciclopi agli ecisti società e territorio nella Sicilia preistorica e protostorica, Istituto Italiano di preistoria e protostoria, San Cipirello (PA): p. 569-578. (in Italian) (“Investigations on chemical composition and provenance of the obsidian tools from Serra del Palco”)
Chabot, J., Badalyan, R. & Chataigner, C. 2008, A Neolithic obsidian industry in the southern Caucasus region: Origins, technology and traceology. In: Proceedings 36th international symposium on archaeometry (Moreau, J.-F., Auger, R., Chabot, J. & Herzog, A., Eds.), Centre interuniversitaire d'Études sur les Lettres, les Arts et la Tradition (CELAT), Université Laval, Québec City: p. 151-160.
Colgan, J.D. 2014, The emperor has no clothes: the limits of OPEC in the global oil market. International Organization, 68(03): 599-632. doi:10.1017/S0020818313000489
Foresta Martin, F., Di Piazza, A., D’Oriano, C., Carapezza, M.L., Paonita, A., Rotolo, S.G. & Sagnotti, L. 2017, New insights into the provenance of the obsidian fragments of the island of Ustica (Palermo, Sicily). Archaeometry, 59(3): 435-454. doi:10.1111/arcm.12270
Freund, K.P. 2014, A Multi-Scalar Analysis of the Politics of Obsidian Consumption in the West Mediterranean (ca. 6th - 2nd millennia B.C.). Unpublished PhD thesis at the Anthropology Department, McMaster University, Hamilton, 337 p.
Freund, K.P., Tykot, R.H. & Vianello, A. 2015, Blade production and the consumption of obsidian in Stentinello period Neolithic Sicily. Comptes Rendus Palevol, 14(3): 207-217. doi:10.1016/j.crpv.2015.02.006
Freund, K.P., Tykot, R.H. & Vianello, A. 2017, Contextualizing the role of obsidian in Chalcolithic Sicily (c. 3500 - 2500 BC). Lithic Technology, 42: 35-48. doi:10.1080/01977261.2017.1290335
Garfinkel, Y. 2011, Obsidian distribution and cultural contacts in the southern Levant during the 7th millennium cal. BC. In: The State of the Stone Terminologies, Continuities and Contexts in Near Eastern Lithics (Healey, E., Campbell, S. & Maeda, O., Eds.), Ex Oriente, Berlin: p. 403-410.
Healey, E. & Campbell, S. 2014, Producing adornment: Evidence of different levels of expertise in the production of obsidian items of adornment at two late Neolithic communities in northern Mesopotamia. Journal of Lithic Studies, 1(2): 79-99. doi:10.2218/jls.v1i2.966
Ibáñez, J.J., Urquijo, J.G. & Rodríguez Rodríguez, A. 2007, The evolution of technology during the PPN in the Middle Euphrates: A view from use-wear analysis of lithic tools. In: Systèmes techniques et communautés du Néolithique précéramique au Proche-Orient (Astruc, L., Binder, D. & Briois, F., Eds.), Éditions APDCA (Association pour la Promotion et la Diffusion des Connaissances Archéologiques), Antibes: p. 153-165.
Ibáñez, J.J., Ortega, D., Campos, D., Khalidi, L. & Méndez, V. 2015, Testing complex networks of interaction at the onset of the Near Eastern Neolithic using modelling of obsidian exchange. Journal of the Royal Society Interface, 12(107). doi:10.1098/rsif.2015.0210
Kaul, F. 1998, Ships on Bronzes: A Study in Bronze Age Religion and Iconography. Publications from the National Museum. Studies in Archaeology & History, Series 3, Vol. 1. National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, 296 p.
Khalidi, L., Gratuze, B., Haidar-Boustani, M., Ibáñez, J.J. & Teira, L. 2013, Results of geochemical analyses of obsidian artefacts from the Neolithic site of Tell Labwe South, Lebanon. In: Stone Tools in Transition: From Hunter-Gatherers to Farming Societies in the Near East (Borrell, F., Ibáñez, J.J. & Molist, M., Eds.), Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Barcelona: p. 475-494.
Kononen, N. 2012, Middle and Late Holocene skin-working tools in Melanesia: Tattooing and scarification? Archaeology in Oceania, 47(1): 14-28. doi:10.1002/j.1834-4453.2012.tb00111.x
Le Bourdonnec, F.-X., Poupeau, G., Boussofara, R., Dubernet, S., Moretto, P., Compin, M. & Mulazzani, S. 2015, Obsidians from the Kerkennah Islands (eastern Tunisia) and the PIXE elemental compositions of the Mediterranean peralkaline obsidians. Nuclear Instruments and Methods in Physics Research Section B: Beam Interactions with Materials and Atoms, 358: 271-275. doi:10.1016/j.nimb.2014.04.028
Leighton, R. 1999, Sicily before History: An Archaeological Survey from the Palaeolithic to the Iron Age, Bristol Classical Press, Bristol, 312 p.
Longo, L., Iovino, M.R. & Lemorini, C. 2000, L'analisi funzionale per lo studio delle industrie litiche. Con un'appendice sull' analisi funzionale delle materie dure animali. Rivista di Scienze Preistoriche, 51: 389-454. (in Italian) (“The functional analysis for the study of lithic industries. With an appendix on the functional analysis of hard materials of animal origin”)
Maeda, O. 2011, The social roles of the use of flint and obsidian artefacts at Salat Cami Yanı in the upper Tigris valley. In: The State of the Stone: Terminologies, Continuities and Contexts in Near Eastern Lithics. Studies in Early Near Eastern Production, Subsistence, and Environment 13 (Healey, E., Campbell, S. & Maeda, O., Eds.), Ex Oriente, Berlin: p. 317-326.
Martinelli, M.C., 1995, L'industria litica di Rinicedda. In: Meligunis Lipara VIII Salina ricerche archeologiche (1989-1993) (Bernabò Brea, L. & Cavalier, M., Eds), Accademia di Scienze, Lettere e Arti, Palermo: p. 167-182. (in Italian) (“The lithic industry of Rinicedda”)
Martinelli, M.C., 2009, Le asce-martello e altri manufatti in pietra levigata conservati nel Museo di Adrano. In: Tra Etna e Simeto. La ricerca archeologica ad Adrano e nel suo territorio. Atti dell'incontro di studi per il 50º anniversario dell'Istituzione del Museo di Adrano, Adrano, 8 giugno 2005 (Lamagna, G. Ed.), Biblioteca della Provincia Regionale di Catania, Catania: p. 69-73. (in Italian) (“The hammer-axes and other lithic tools conserved in the Adrano Museum”)
Nicoletti, F., 2001, Il commercio prestorico dell'ossidiana nel Mediterraneo ed il ruolo di Lipari e Pantelleria nel più antico sistema di scambio. In: Preistoria: Dalle coste della Sicilia alle Isole Flegree: Saggi (Tusa, S., Ed.), Arnaldo Lombardi Editore, Palermo: p. 259-270. (in Italian) (“Prehistoric trade of obsidian in the Mediterranean and the role of Lipari and Pantelleria in the most ancient exchange system”)
Nishiaki, Y. 1993, Anatolian obsidian and the Neolithic obsidian industries of north Syria: A preliminary review. In: Essays on Anatolian Archaeology, Vol. 7 (Mikasa, T., Ed.), Harassowitz Verlag, Wiesbaden: p. 140-160.
Pappalardo, L., Romano, F. P., Bracchitta, D., Massimino, A., Palio, O. & Rizzo, F. 2013, Obsidian provenance determination using the beam stability controlled BSC-XRF and the PIXE-alpha portable spectrometers of the LANDIS laboratory: the case of Via Capuana settlement in Licodia Eubea (Sicily). Journal of Geophysics and Engineering 10: 1-12. doi:10.1088/1742-2132/10/6/064004
Robb, J., 2004, The extended artefact and the monumental economy: A methodology for material agency. In: Rethinking Materiality: The Engagement of Mind with the Material World (DeMarrais, E.; Gosden, C.; Renfrew, A. C., Eds.), McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, Cambridge: p. 131-139.
Robb, J., 2007, The Early Mediterranean Village: Agency, Material Culture, and Social Change in Neolithic Italy, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 406 p.
Samadelli, M., Melis, M., Miccoli, M., Vigl, E.E. & Zink, A.R. 2015, Complete mapping of the tattoos of the 5300-year-old Tyrolean Iceman. Journal of Cultural Heritage, 16(5): 753-758. doi:10.1016/j.culher.2014.12.005
Schechter, H., Marder, O., Barkai, R.,Getzov, N. & Gopher, A. 2013, The obsidian assemblage from Neolithic Hagoshrim, Israel: Pressure technology and cultural influence. In: Stone tools in transition: From hunter-gatherers to farming societies in the Near East (Borrell F., Ibáñez, J.J. & Molist, M., Eds.), Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Servei de Publicacions, Bellaterra, Barcelona: p. 509-528.
Terradas, X., Gratuze, B., Bosch, J., Enrich, R., Esteve, X., Oms, F.X. & Ribé, G. 2014, Neolithic diffusion of obsidian in the western Mediterranean: New data from Iberia. Journal of Archaeological Science, 41: 69-78. doi:10.1016/j.jas.2013.07.023
Thorpe, O.W., Warren, S.E. & Courtin, J. 1984, The distribution and sources of archaeological obsidian from southern France. Journal of Archaeological Science, 11(2): 135-146. doi:10.1016/0305-4403(84)90048-7
Tinè, S., 2001, Il neolitico della Sicilia da un punto di vista peninsulare. In: Preistoria: Dalle coste della Sicilia alle Isole Flegree: Saggi (Tusa, S., Ed.), Arnaldo Lombardi Editore, Palermo: p. 275-280. (in Italian) (“Sicilian Neolithic from a peninsular perspective”)
Tykot, R.H. 2011, Obsidian finds on the fringes of the Central Mediterranean: Exotic or eccentric exchange? In: Exotica in the prehistoric Mediterranean (Vianello, A., Ed.), Oxbow Books, Oxford: p. 33-44.
Tykot, R.H. & Ammerman, A.J. 1997, New directions in central Mediterranean obsidian studies. Antiquity, 71(274): 1000-1006. doi:10.1017/S0003598X00085896
Tykot, R.H., Iovino, M.R., Martinelli, M.C. & Beyer, L. 2004, Ossidiana da Lipari: le fonti, la distribuzione, la tipologia e le tracce d'usura. In: Atti Della XXXIX Riunione Scientifica. Materie Prime E Scambi Nella Preistoria Italiana, Istituto italiano di preistoria e protostoria, Florence: p. 592-597. (in Italian) (“Obsidian from Lipari: sources, distribution, typology and use-wear”)
Tykot, R.H., Freund, K.P. & Vianello, A. 2013, Source analysis of prehistoric obsidian artifacts in Sicily (Italy) using pXRF. In: Archaeological Chemistry VIII (Armitage, R.A. & Burton, J.H., Eds.), ACS Symposium Series Vol. 1147, ACS Publications, Washington, DC: p. 195-210.
Vianello, A., (Ed.), 2011, Exotica in the Prehistoric Mediterranean. Oxbow Books, Oxford, 216 p.
Yang, Y., Poon, J.P.H., Liu, Y. & Bagchi-Sen, S. 2015, Small and flat worlds: A complex network analysis of international trade in crude oil. Energy, 93(1): 534-543. doi:10.1016/
Yellin, J. & Garfinkel, Y. 1986, The source of archaeological obsidian from a Pre-Pottery Neolithic B site at Yiftahel, Israel. Paléorient, 12(2): 99-104. doi:10.3406/paleo.1986.4412
How to Cite
Vianello, A., & Tykot, R. (2016). Exchange networks from close-up: The case of Lipari obsidian. Journal of Lithic Studies, 3(2), 725-740.