Zotz Trip Report
CREAMY-GREEN OBSIDIAN MINE
On March 7, 2005, Pedro Fernández Somellera, Susy and John Pint met with Phil Weigand and Rodrigo Esparza with the plan of visiting and mapping an obsidian mine that these two intrepid archaeologists had located. “Obsidian was normally mined from open pits on the surface, but the mine we found is completely underground and as dark as a cave. The reason they went to so much trouble is that the obsidian they were getting is of the highest quality and has a creamy, green luster to it which must have been highly valued.”
We left Pedro’s truck in a little town and piled into the back of Phil’s pickup. “The road is really rough and my truck is already as beat up as a truck can get.”
We followed a dirt road for some distance from the town and eventually entered the property of a friendly farmer. “We’ve been riding on an expressway until now,” said Phil, “but here comes the rough stuff.”
And rough it was. We had to make sure somebody was sitting on two concrete
slabs (kept in the truck bed for ballast) so they wouldn’t fly around and
land on top of us...
half an hour of bouncing and bumping, we pulled to a stop among tall oak
trees. Pieces of obsidian covered every inch of the ground around us like
Autumn leaves in New England. We picked up unfinished arrow and spear heads,
knives, flakes, scrapers and other fragments that had obviously been worked
on and discarded....
We were standing in the middle of a typical obsidian workshop and it brought home the importance—perhaps unimaginable to us moderns—that obsidian played in the lives of the people living here for most of the last two thousand years.
AMAZING BLACK GLASS
Those ancients had no metal tools or weapons but they knew what few people today would believe, that nothing on earth is as sharp as an obsidian blade. “All other liquids crystallize when they turn solid,” explained Phil, “except obsidian, which has no crystal structure whatsoever.”
Metal can’t be sharpened less than the size of its smallest crystals, but obsidian has no such limit. In the old days, Mexican indígenas used to line the edges of their flat wooden swords with obsidian flakes and it is said that they could use them to slice off a man’s leg with one blow.
few minutes later, we arrived at the entrance to the mine, one of very few
underground obsidian mines to be found anywhere.
Rubbing our sore
bottoms after the hammering they had received on the awful, rocky road, we
made our way up a hillside covered with obsidian debris...
Several pieces we picked up did indeed have a smoky-green luster and a very shiny surface. “Do you think they made mirrors out of this?” I asked. “Oh no,” replied Phil. “They only used the blackest obsidian for that because they believed mirrors depict how you will look in the afterlife and black was the color of death.”
we discussed death and obsidian, we got ready for a quick look inside the
mine. Emanating from the small, triangular entrance hole, barely half a
meter high, was a light current of air carrying the unmistakable smell of a
dead animal inside. “Yech!” shouted Susy, telling the others about the
rotting sheep carcasses that often welcome visitors to caves in Saudi
VOYAGE INTO THE SMELLY UNKNOWN
Once again, it was decided that I would go first into the Smelly Unknown. So I crawled into the first room and found myself surrounded by a thick swarm of angrily buzzing bugs. “You’ll love it, Susy,” I shouted. “There’s even a welcoming committee here to greet us.”
I ducked under the low ceiling and crawled into the next room. The evil stench was coming from somewhere in here but I couldn’t find the source. Above me I could see a small skylight. A few meters on, I nearly put my hand into a gooey black puddle that I immediately recognized from so many visits to Western Mexico’s caves. “Hey, we’ve got vampire bats, too,” I shouted, hoping this would encourage Susy and Pedro to rush right in. Of course, the fresh vampire guano added yet another tantalizing odor to the already notable aroma of the mine.
meters from the entrance, I came to a steep downslope. I glanced up at the
ceiling and gulped. Sharply pointed “spears” of obsidian were pointing down
at me and it looked like any one of them could easily be pulled out…perhaps
resulting in the collapse of the entire roof!...
“Hey, you two, come on in…here’s something you won’t see in many caves.”
To my surprise, Pedro and Susy did come in, braving the bugs the decomposing corpse and the slimy vampire guano. By then, I was moving down the slope to total darkness and another, much bigger, pool of vampire goo.
Now, Phil said this mine was as dark as a cave, but I would say “as dark as the darkest cave” because the black obsidian ceiling and walls—with a little help from the vampire guano on the floor—absorbed light just like the basalt walls of a lava tube, making it difficult indeed to see anything.
DANCE OF THE VAMPIRES
Some things, however, were more than easy to see in that black room. Around ten bats were darting all around me. Whenever one landed on the wall, it would shift left and right, show me its fangs, shake its head menacingly and then fly right at me.
Ah, but I knew about this little trick. It’s all a show and they never actually hit you (much less bite you, which they only do to sleeping or immobile prey). One nice thing about this room which we soon christened “La Alcoba de los Vampiros,” was that you could stand up and move around easily: at one point, the ceiling is 3.5 meters high.
now, Susy and Pedro had joined me. This gave me only moments to crawl
through a low, wide opening into a round room that marks the end of the
mine, twenty-four meters from the entrance. As I found nothing interesting
in it, we all exited to tell the archeologists of our finds...
| ...Once we had made our report, I began to gather the
survey equipment together. "You mean we're going back inside?"
"Of course," I replied. "Only surveyors get to fully appreciate all the subtle delights of a cave. It'll be great fun!"
At this, Susy turned to Pedro. "O Pedrito, wouldn't you like to have fun surveying the cave...in my place?" ....
CAVE SURVEYING FOR FUN AND NO PROFIT
And back inside we went. In no time, Pedro became an expert in selecting the ideal site for the next survey station and we were moving along like pros. But by the time we reached that point where you can see the spooky Alcoba de los Vampiros below you, I could see Pedro hesitating...
that Pedro had
absorbed a few too many of the mine's delights, I promised him we’d make it
a quick job and the two of us took the plunge down the steep slope...
Before we left, I took a quick peek inside a hole in the east wall of the Alcoba. The floor of this passage was thick with razor-sharp obsidian blades that tinkled as they did their best to cut through my jeans and skin. I was almost ready to stop and put on my caving gloves, but then I saw that the passage ended not far ahead. “Ya Vámonos!” I said to Pedro and out we went.
On our way back, Phil Weigand told us this mine could easily be one or even two thousand years old. One help for determining its age would be to look for the remains of torches or firebrands that the ancient miners must have used for light. These could be easily carbon-dated. Finding small scraps of wood in that stygian darkness would require some very bright lights and, suddenly, there we were planning our return trip!
HAVE HAMMOCK, WILL CAVE
than a week later, we were back, with Luis and Mary Rojas, Claudio Chilomer
and the ever-enthusiastic Pedro.
time I brought along a car battery and Pedro supplied a mighty,
million-candlepower lamp. If there was anything worth seeing in that mine,
we planned to see it well!
We dragged all the
gear inside, along with boxes and bags of photo equipment. All of us were
amazed how much more interesting the mine looked, lit up by the monster
sharply-pointed “knives” of obsidian, protruding from the ceiling like
stalactites, could now be fully appreciated and the Alcoba de los Vampiros
took on an almost homey look...
| ...And now we could see the greenish tint on large
chunks of obsidian in the far wall of the mine, just about ready for removal...
our bright light did not reveal any rock paintings or remains of ancient
torches. We then spent several hours taking multiple-flash pictures, in no
hurry because we knew Claudio was outside keeping guard from the bottom of
his always handy hammock...
In the Alcoba, the big light also helped us determine the nature of the “mysterious grey powder” we had found on the floor in substantial quantities. Was it ash, a mineral or what? Now we could see that the black dust was only found around the perimeter of a thick, gooey deposit of fresh vampire guano. “This is what happens to the vampire guano when it gets old and disintegrates,” stated Rojas with his usual air of certainty. Although all previous examples of very old vampire guano I had ever seen, had the shine and consistency of brittle black plastic, I had to admit that he had a good case. Hopefully an analysis of the sample we gave to Phil will shed more light on this sticky problem...
turned into a stinky problem when Luis dipped a (gloved) finger into
the thickest part of the goo for a photo, releasing an awful stench which
quickly decided all of us that it was time to “vamoose.”...
And so ended our exploration of the creepy-crawly,creamy-green obsidian mine.