Date of Award


Level of Access Assigned by Author

Campus-Only Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Science (MS)


Quaternary and Climate Studies


Gregory Zaro

Second Committee Member

Brett Houk

Third Committee Member

Dan Lux


This thesis presents the results of a portable X-ray fluorescence (pXRF) provenance analysis of obsidian artifacts recovered from ancient Maya archaeological sites located within the Three Rivers region of northwestern Belize. Obsidian was a widely used material throughout the ancient Maya Lowlands. Its widespread distribution is strikingly offset by the fact that, as a raw material, it occurs naturally only in very discrete and specific locations within a landscape. The geochemical analysis of obsidian has contributed to discussions concerning the organization of ancient Maya political and economic structures by revealing the movement of the material between source locations and Maya Lowland sites. This study is significant in that it represents the first use of pXRF in the Three Rivers region. It is also the first concerted obsidian provenance study conducted under the auspices of the Programme for Belize Archaeological Project (PfBAP) in northwestern Belize.

Two general points of interest are addressed in this study. First, it is an inquiry into the applicability of pXRF technology in Maya Lowland obsidian research, particularly in a field environment. Second, It seeks to describe the nature of obsidian distribution in the Three Rivers region and evaluate its significance for the region’s ancient obsidian economy. While the data provided by pXRF can directly address questions concerning source distribution, it cannot directly address questions concerning the processes that gave rise to these distributions. However, the results can help inform these discussions.

In sum, 1,734 obsidian artifacts from ten archaeological sites were analyzed for geochemical composition to determine their raw material source. The study was conducted at the PfBAP’s field laboratory in northwestern Belize. This analysis identified at least nine known major and minor obsidian sources that are located in the highlands of Guatemala and central Mexico.

The ability of pXRF to provide precise measurements of elements useful in discriminating Mesoamerican obsidian sources and the ability to identify these sources within an archaeological sample of unknown provenance demonstrates its appropriateness for Maya Lowland obsidian research in field contexts. The obsidian source distributions provided by pXRF offer insight into the region’s integration into greater Maya Lowland political and economic systems. The Three Rivers region expresses a greater similarity to distributional patterns found in the Central Peten suggesting an affiliation with the overland trade routes that served these areas. Furthermore, complex patterns of obsidian source use suggest that many contemporaneous systems of obsidian exchange may have existed at any one time and operated independently of one another. While these conclusions are stated with various degrees of confidence, the data presented in this thesis provide a solid foundation for future obsidian provenance studies in the Three Rivers Region.


As of 2002, Degree of Master of Science (MS) Quaternary and Climate Studies published under the auspices of the Climate Change Institute.

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