The Lost Art of Aztec Prismatic Blades

The Lost Art of Aztec Prismatic Blades

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Start talking about flintknapping, and most people think first of arrowheads or other projectile points. Though made using essentially the same basic techniques, a prismatic blade is a very different animal. In the archaeological record, prismatic blades appear as long, thin flakes of stone, usually having two parallel cutting edges and a trapezoidal or triangular cross-section.

Prismatic blades photographed by Joshua Ream
Photo: Joshua Ream,

Though prismatic blades have been made in many different types of stone, by cultures all over the world, the technology arguably reached its height in pre-Columbian Mesoamerican civilizations like the Maya and Aztec, which enjoyed access to abundant supplies of natural obsidian. These cultures produced and traded prismatic blades on an industrial scale, for use both as utilitarian cutting tools and in the construction of elaborate hafted weapons–like the Aztec maquahuitl and tepoztopilli–featuring long, continuous, razor-sharp edges made by fixing prismatic blades side-by-side into wooden handles using natural adhesives.


A few modern flintknappers make prismatic blades, but the leading light (online, at least) is probably Californian Jim Winn, aka “paleomanjim.” Jim’s YouTube channel is a deep, rich vein of hands-on how-to information for many aspects of flintknapping. For those interested in prismatic blades, particularly, I recommend Jim’s four-part series from 2012:

Another great resource, for those with more of an intellectual interest, is Pathways to Prismatic Blades: A Study in Mesoamerican Obsidian Core-Blade Technology, a 2002 compilation of academic writings from a dozen specialists published through UCLA’s Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, and edited by anthropologists Kenneth Hirth and Bradford Andrews. The prismatic blade reduction diagram in the slideshow above is a mash-up of Andrews’ illustrations 1.1 and 1.2 from this book.

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I am descended from 5,000 generations of tool-using primates. Also, I went to college and stuff. I am a long-time contributor to MAKE magazine and My work has also appeared in ReadyMade, c't – Magazin für Computertechnik, and The Wall Street Journal.

View more articles by Sean Michael Ragan