Carpathian Obsidian

Material name: Carpathian 1 Obsidian
Synonyms: Volcanic glass, obsidian from the Tokaj and/or Zemplén Mountains, Hungarian/Slovak obsidian
Material (geologic): Tertiary obsidian

Detail of a nodule of Carpathian I obsidian
Foto: Rengert Elburg, 1999

General characteristics

Material: Obsidian, as a volcanic glass, would be strictly spoken outside the scope of FlintSource. Also, we are trespassing onto the terrain of IAOS, the International Association for Obsidian Studies, although they do not carry any information on the Central European material (yet). As it is one of the best knappable materials in Central Europe and very widely distributed, we can't but include it in our pages.
Occurrences of obsidian are limited to just a few regions in Europe, the best known of which are those in the Mediterranean like the islands of Melos and Lipari and Monte Arci on Sardinia. In Central Europe, there is only one region where it can be found, on both sides of the Hungarian-Slovak border in the Zemplén Mountains. According to chemical analysis by Williams Thorpe, Warren & Nandris 1984 there are two main types distinguishable, Carpathian 1 and Carpathian 2, the latter is subdivided in two subtypes, 2a and 2b. Carpathian 1 obsidian has its origin in Slovakia while the sources of both Carpathian 2 types seem to be exclusively limited to Hungary. The material we found in Hungary meets the description and is clearly recognizable as obsidian, yet so small (hardly ever bigger than a fingernail) that it can not be used as a raw material. There might be larger material, but we could not find the sources up to now.
Although there is ample literature on its chemical composition, hardly any primary occurrences or natural outcrops are being mentioned. As far as we know, there is only one primary geologic source with the material really in situ readily accessible at the moment, being Viničky in Slovakia.
The obsidian occurs here in the form of small rounded nodules, sometimes wrongly referred to as 'tektites' (tektites are, by geological definition, glassy objects resulting from the inpact of a meteorite), with a mostly glassy surface. Occasionally a kind of very thin (well under 1 mm), slightly rough cortex is present. In the literature nodules as large as 'a child's head' or 'a dozen or so centimetres' are mentioned, but most are significantly smaller and hardly ever exceed the 6 cm mark. The smallness of the raw material is reflected in most archaeological assemblages where flakes and blades larger than 50 mm are very scarce.
  Thin section of Carpatian I obsidian
Foto: Marlina Elburg, 2000
For a full-size picture of the thin section,
click here (77 KBytes).
  In most pieces a slight microlayering is visible, the material has a glassy lustre and is slightly to highly translucent. Apart from chemical analysis, which is the only secure way to identify a source, Carpathian obsidian is distinguishable from other types by its typical rounded form which is, due to the very small size of the nodules, in most cores still recognizable. Confusion with other types of (natural) raw material is practically impossible.
In the thin section under plane polarized light above, it is clear that the obsidian consist for almost 100% of amorphous quartz. According to someone who should know, what you see is "mostly isotropic glass with few grains of resorbed quartz, plagioclase and very fine dusty biotite." (pers. comm. Marlina Elburg).
Color: Carpathian 1 obsidian is black to grey-black or very dark anthracite-coloured. The smaller Carpathian 2 material is in general black and less translucent than the Slovak material.
Other information: See above
Knapping notes: Because of its very amorphous and mostly homogeneous texture, obsidian is (nearly) every knappers favourite. I say nearly every knapper because its glassy structure can make it very brittle, and platforms and their edges have to be prepared carefully. The edges of flakes and blades are even and incredibly sharp, only to be compared with the best surgical blades. The small size of the nodules of the Carpathian variety makes knapping them by direct percussion a very precise matter, unless you want a pair of crushed fingers. The thicker flakes are perfect for pressure-flaking.
Archaeological description: Locally, obsidian has been used since the Paleolithic, but its first peak in distribution is reached in the Early Neolithic as the first farmers enter the region. Large distribution networks carry the cores as well as finished objects as far as Central Poland, Bohemia and onto the Balkan. The furthest known finds of (presumably Carpathian) obsidian, a blade (Baumann & Fritzsche 1973) and a core, come from the large Linear Pottery and Stroked Ware Culture settlement of Zauschwitz (also known for its quartzite), south of Leipzig in Eastern Germany quite exactly 750 kilometres from its source as the crow flies. Although no chemical analysis has been carried out (but we're trying to change that), the form of the small core found here makes a Carpathian origin nearly certain. Another piece that might come from the Slovak source might be the still very enigmatic find from Bodman, Lake Constance Region in Southwest Germany (Maier 1955), although a Mediterranean origin would be quite possible too. Like all geologist we meet say: when in doubt, crush it. Not only Central Europe is supplied with obsidian from the Carpathian sources: most of the Balkan, even down to Macedonia (over 850 kilometers to the south, Kilikoglou et al. 1996), belongs to the area where this material was distributed during the Neolithic.


Locality: Viničky, Trebišov district, Slovakia
Synonyms: Szöllöske (this seems to be the Hungarian name for the village)
Geographic description: Viničky is a very small wine-growing village directly on the Bodrog river in Slovakia, just a few kilometres from the Hungarian-Slovak border. Here the Slovak part of the Zemplén Mountains (Zemplínske vrch) fall off steeply towards the wide and very flat floodplain of the Bodrog. The Hills are of the same, Tertiary volcanic origin as their Hungarian neighbours although the two parts are physically separated by a valley. Most of the hills are wooded, but those on the fringes carry (luckily for all samplers) partly abandoned vineyards.
Geographical co-ordinates: Lat. 46 24' 05" N
Long. 021 44' 19" E
(Mapdatum WGS 84)

Co-ordinate precision: As usual with a small hand held GPS, we might be off in the order of magnitude of a few dozen metres. But no problem: the hillside itself is littered with material eroded out of the primary outcrop.
Other topographical information: Coming from Hungary, you cross the border at Sátoraljaújhely/Slovenské Nové Mesto, but make very sure your passport is in impeccable order (link to excursion report in a following update). After crossing the railroad tracks you take a right turn into the 553, after approx. 5 kilometres you come to Viničky/Szöllöske. Into the village you see a small white chapel on the left hand side, a bit off the side of the road. The hill behind it is the place you have to be. Going uphill is probably trespassing, but this does not seem to be much of a problem as the vineyards covering the hillside have run wild. We saw no activity although we were there at the height of the grape harvest.
Coming from the north, you take the 553 from Trebišov and follow it till Viničky.
Additional information: Sampling location with pockets of grey tuff with obsidian
Foto: Matthias Rummer, 1999
Sampling location with nodules in situ
Foto: Rengert Elburg, 1999
  In the above pictures you see the exposure, the bank of a track cutting into the hill, where we did our sampling. The obsidian occurs in the pockets and bands of the grey material. Size of scale in the upper picture is 10 cm.
Visitors information: During our trip, as we were forced to take the very long road via Poland, we stayed in Trebišov, which seems to be the last filling station before hell. Not really the place you will be wanting to spend more time than strictly necessary. Better make it a day-trip and stay somewhere in Hungary. Maybe a bit more expensive (better to call it less cheap), but think of the enormous quantities of alcohol you don't have to buy to fight off an massive depression. There might be perfect places to stay and eat in the area, but we didn't see them. Trebišov is certainly not the place to look for them.
If you don't mind the extra driving or if you want to stay within Slovakia because you can't face another border-crossing anymore, find a place to sleep in Košice (also known by its somewhat silly Hungarian name of Kassa). This is the capital of eastern Slovakia, a university city and well stocked with places to eat and drink. Accomodation however, is not easily found. Either you stay at one of the very overpriced western-style former Inter-Hotels, or try your luck, as we did during our 2001 tour of eastern Slovakia, at the sports complex at Štúrova number 32, where you can get a room with shared bathroom for a price that won't even hurt a limited budget.
Sampling information: Giving you advice on the sampling strategy is a bit difficult with this site. On the one hand, the outcrop is only very limited and seems to be one of the very few around. So don't start hacking like mad into the banks an ruin them for the next visitors. On the other hand, the stuff is very nice, although for knapping you better go and collect your material somewhere else. And positively everyone who heard we were there starts begging for a piece, and it's a perfect little gift for anybody interesting in lithics. So our advice: keep the outcrop as intact as possible (we only cleaned it and took a one litre sample for size distribution analysis, the results of which will be made available in one of the next updates) but take some extra specimens from the loose material on the slope.
For a full-blown picture of sample,
click here (61 KBytes).
Nodule of Carpathian I obsidian
Foto: Rengert Elburg, 1999
One of the largest nodules we found
Foto: Rengert Elburg, 1999
Sample description: Two typical nodules of Carpathian 1 obsidian, one with a five centimetre scale for size-comparison. The one with the scale has bee used to produce the thin section shown above

Last modified June 23, 2001 Contents primarily by:
Rengert Elburg
Please send your comments to our