How did Mexican obsidian turn up in the Panhandle? Could be Coronado

A long-hidden shard of rock may have come from the Spaniard’s expedition.

By Michael MarksMarch 13, 2024 1:36 pm,

Almost 500 years ago, a caravan of roughly 2,000 people crossed the Texas Panhandle in their search for a city of gold. They were led by Francisco Vázquez de Coronado, a Spanish conquistador whose journey in North America stretched from central Mexico to modern-day Kansas.

Coronado never found that fabled gold. But the Spanish explorer and his fellow travelers left behind plenty of small treasures for us to find. One of them may have been recently described by anthropologist Matthew Boulanger, director of the Archeology Research Collections at Southern Methodist University.

Boulanger spoke to the Standard about a piece of obsidian that may have been dropped by someone with Coronado. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Tell me a little bit about the fact that you recently got a chance to take a very close look at a piece of obsidian found in the Panhandle. Why is that so significant? 

Matthew Boulanger: Well, it’s significant because apart from this latest find, we only know of one other site in the entirety of Texas that seems to have been visited by Coronado. And this would be the second such site that we’ve found.

It places it right along the pathway of his journey that has been reconstructed from his journals and other things. But this would be the first physical evidence of it, particularly up in the Panhandle.

Courtesy of Matthew Boulanger

The route taken by Coronado during his trek.

And what about the piece itself? I mean, this is an amazing discovery if it’s in fact connected to Coronado’s trek. But had this been in someone’s collection or for a while? How long has it been known to exist? And I guess I gather you’re sort of making the Coronado connection.

That’s correct. In fact, it’s been in a collection of a gentleman named Lloyd Erwin who grew up in the Panhandle in the McLean area and was passed down from him to his son, and now his daughter-in-law has it. And both Mr. Erwin, Sr. and Mr. Erwin, Jr. and his wife have been great avocational archeologists – champions, really, of Texas archeology since about the 1930s.

As near as we can figure, based on the family history, this piece has been or was picked up by the senior Mr. Erwin around 1935/1937 as a child growing up on a ranch up there. And as far as I can tell, nobody has recognized it for what it is until I gave a brief presentation to the North Texas Archeological Society back in January of 2023.

And afterwards, Charlene Erwin, who’s a DFW resident and member of that organization, came up to me and said, “hey, I’ve got some artifacts that were my father-in-law’s. Would you mind taking a look at them?” And I said, “sure, why not? That’s that’s what we’re here for.”

So she came came over to SMU a couple months later and we were looking at some things, and she was really excited about some of the artifacts in the collection. But when I looked at this handmade wooden frame that he had displayed his artifacts in, I was interested in the arrowheads, but that little piece of obsidian that was on the far edge of the frame, almost underneath the frame, it was kind of placed there as an afterthought, almost. That’s what really grabbed my eye, because it’s so visually distinctive, and you don’t find obsidian up in the Panhandle.

» MORE EXCITING ARCHAEOLOGICAL FINDS IN TEXAS: Meet the dog-sized dinosaur recently discovered in North Texas

And this looks like an arrowhead, right? I mean, that’s the best way to describe it. It’s actually about 4 or 5cm, but it’s a little sliver of obsidian that that is shaped like a blade – shaped like an arrowhead blade.

Shaped like a blade would be exactly right. So it’s kind of a rectangular blade, almost like a long, straight edge razor blade. And the Native Americans that lived in the Panhandle area didn’t really make tools like this after about 10,000 or so years ago.

But there’s one group that did make tools like this, and those are the native people that lived in the Valley of Mexico around modern day Mexico City. So to find that in a collection from near Amarillo, mixed in with all sorts of other stuff that looks like it’s from Amarillo, that tells me that that’s different. It’s unique.

And so we opened up the frame, and as we pulled that little piece out of that frame, it just happened to be in the afternoon. The sun was coming through my window, and I caught this green coloration to it. And there’s only one particular kind of obsidian in the entire world that has that shade of green, and that comes from the Valley of Mexico.

At that point, I looked at her and I said, “you know, the rest of your father-in-law’s collection is wonderful. But this one piece, it stands out. So let’s take a look at it.”

Courtesy of Matthew Boulanger

Let me stop you there because I want to understand what the alternative explanations, if any, could be. I mean, have you considered if it were not part of this particular expedition, where else could it have come from?

Well, that’s a great question. We don’t have any good evidence for trade routes from the northern Texas Panhandle down to Central Mexico.

We do find other blades like this in Texas, but they are all down along the Rio Grande Valley – shipwrecks that were Spanish colonial shipwrecks, etc. So for a piece like this to be that far north, we don’t think it was brought up there through trade.

Also, the piece looks like it was used a few times, and then it broke and was thrown away. And that’s pretty typical of these kinds of blades when they were being used by people that had a surplus of them.

I think of it as you’ve got a toothpick or something. You use it, the toothpick dulls, it breaks. You just throw it on the ground and you pull another one out. That’s a lot like these kinds of blades were used when you had a whole bag of them.

Is there is there any question about its age? Do you have to do any sort of carbon dating or anything along those lines, or no?

Well, we can’t carbon date obsidian because it doesn’t have the organic material in it that carbon dating relies on. We could do another form of dating that relies on the hydration or the accumulation of a layer of water on obsidian glass when you break it. And the more water it has on it, the older it is.

The problem with that kind of date for something like this is that that typically takes thousands of years to accumulate. Whereas, you know, we’re talking only a few hundred years ago that this would have been used and discarded.

What would help us is to get up there, do some metal detecting surveys, maybe dig a few test pits to kind of explore, and see if we can find additional evidence – things like crossbow bolts, Spanish pottery, other obsidian like this. Those kinds of things are really needed to kind of confirm that this is indeed exactly what we think it is.

But as Ms Erwin and I try to lay out in the article, we can’t think of any other way that it would get up there. And we do know that over in New Mexico, up and down the Rio Grande, there have been a number of similar blades like this found at well known Coronado campsites and stops along his journey. So this would be the first one out in Texas.

» GET MORE NEWS FROM AROUND THE STATE: Sign up for Texas Standard’s weekly newsletters

What happens then? I don’t reckon you put it back in that wooden box once you were done. What happens to this sliver of obsidian now?

Well, Ms. Erwin and her family have been fantastic stewards of Texas archeology since this was picked up off the ground in the ’30s. It’s her family’s property. And so it goes back to her. I hope and I’ve encouraged her to make a smart choice about what to do with that collection when she decides to store it for eternity for, as we say in archeology, perpetuity.

We do know that that some of her father-in-law’s materials were donated to the Texas Memorial Museum down in Austin. And she’s talked about maybe donating the rest of that collection when it’s ready to go down there. I’d sure like to keep it up somewhere in the Panhandle so that people know it’s there and can be proud of it.

So here in Texas, if you find archeological artifacts on your property and it’s your property, you get to keep those artifacts. You don’t have to turn them over to the state or anything like that, with some exceptions. But something like this, she’s been doing a great job taking care of it this long. I think she can continue doing that.

If you found the reporting above valuable, please consider making a donation to support it here. Your gift helps pay for everything you find on and Thanks for donating today.