Monday, February 7, 2011

Precious Items: Native American Copper Knife

There are many cultures around the world that have their precious objects that they would do anything to obtain, would go through any means necessary to have and utilize for practical as well as ritual use. For many Native Americans in the Great Lakes area this object was copper. Copper was a metal that was grueling to mine, work with and make into tools that were able to be used. What we can take from this is that the indigenous peoples of these regions were willing to go through these processes to reach their end of these copper tools that archaeologists have then found scattered throughout the country.

So the first question then is where are these copper mines? Most of the mines that were found were in the Great Lakes region; many were on the North Shore of Lake Superior (in Canada), Isle Royale, the Keweenaw Peninsula of Michigan and some minor deposits were in Northern Wisconsin and Minnesota (Johnson and Johnson 2010). The majority of the mining was done though along the Keweenaw Peninsula in Michigan, since this is where the largest quantity of mining trenches was found. These mines are located starting in the middle of the peninsula and then run southwest to northeast across it (Hinsdale 1891).

The mines that were found are nothing like the mines that we think of today. These were simply pits that were dug in the ground anywhere from 50 feet deep to only about 10 feet deep. The average pit was about 20 feet deep showing presence that copper was removed from inside of it. Along with these pits archaeologists found hammerstones that were used to mine the copper. These hammer stones that were found were both grooved and ungrooved (Johnson and Johnson 2010). The grooved stones meant that the hammers had a handle at some point and if they were ungrooved it meant that they were just held by the stone part and hammered away at the pit (Hinsdale 1891).

These hammers weighed anywhere from the larger class size of thirty nine and a half pounds to the smaller class of only five pounds. The grooved hammers would’ve had a handle made from the tough saplings or small trees. Archaeologists theorize that these trees were then bent around the stone and then bound to it with strips of strong bark. This would make it not unlike a modern blacksmith’s sledge hammer. Ashes were also found at the bottom of these pits which show that fire perhaps was used as a way to make it easier to use the hammer in the pits (Hinsdale 1891).

Archeologists also found some quite large pieces of copper still in the pits with evidence that smaller pieces were chipped away. This shows that the amount of copper that was taken from the mines was determined solely based on how much the miners could carry out of there. The large pieces then that they couldn’t get out were just chipped away at to at least get something out of them (Hinsdale 1891). Obviously the technology of the Natives wasn’t up to the standard that we use today, but that didn’t mean that there still weren’t risks involved with mining like today which will be touched on later in this paper.

Now we know that the mining process was a difficult and long one, using primitive tools and limited technology to mine this precious metal. What was also difficult, dangerous and time consuming was then taking that copper and turning it into something. Mostly copper was used for tools, especially weapons but there is also evidence that they used it for ornamental items such as bracelets, buttons, beads and other such items. The majority of the copper artifacts that were found in this area were knives, axes, chisels, spears heads and arrow heads (Hinsdale 1891).

The process to make these items went as follows. First either chunks of copper were taken, or sheets depending on what were to be made out of it. If the chunks were used it was first pounded into a “perform” which was a shape that could be utilized for a wide variety of different implements and weapons. It was then pounded further into a “blank” which reflected the overall shape of the finished item, but not quite the end result. Then it was further worked into its final shape. To pound the copper it had to be constantly heated to its red-hot or annealed state again and again otherwise it would get very brittle and break. Modern experimentation with this process has shown that this pound and anneal process could be done up to 30 times depending on the tool. If the sheets were used (which wasn’t as common as the chunks) it was a similar process but it was folded over and over again while being pounded into the shape, once again using the same pound and anneal process (Johnson and Johnson 2010).

Whichever method was used to create these tools it is easy to see that it was a long and tiresome process. This then meant that these copper tools became a hot commodity and other Native American groups also wanted to have them. Thus then the copper trade began across the Great Lakes area and beyond. The copper tool became important for many societies and perhaps is the most popular is the Hopewell society (200 BCE to around 500 CE) of the Ohio region where many of these tools were found in their mounds. The Hopewell used copper for rituals mostly using it for ornaments which they added decorative items to including embossed, cut out and perforated edges. These ornaments are mostly found buried with the elite in the mounds showing that the ornaments were also a symbol of social standing (Martin 2008). It has since been determined that these tools were mined form the Superior-Michigan area, most likely from the Keweenaw Peninsula. There were also copper artifacts found in Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois, Kentucky, North Dakota, South Dakota, Manitoba, Ontario and many other places (Johnson and Johnson 2010).

This brings us to the next big question about this “Copper Culture:” Why Copper? There is a lot of history of stone tools being used (such as the hammerstones found at the pits) as well as bone tools, so why suddenly the switch to copper? This question is a complicated one to answer because we have to look at the availability of this copper and where it came from. As far as archaeologists can figure the earliest pieces of useable copper and their apparent veins were discovered by Native Americans as early as 7,000 years ago. When investigating pits on Isle Royale in the early 1960s, archeologists at the University of Michigan dated mining pits to around 2470 BCE (Martin 2008).

To learn more about where exactly this copper came from we look at the geological history of the Lake Superior region. At the base it is pre-Cambrian bedrock which is part of the Canadian shield that is very ancient, the deposition of it took place around 1,100 mya and was initiated by a period of 25 million years of enormous movements of magma breaking laying down over 200 extensive lava flows. This was followed by periods of erosion and deposit, resulting in strata that were deformed by the faulting and subsidence to a broad syncline (which underlies Lake Superior). Gases got trapped in the cooling lava and created pourous structures where later precipitation of minerals took place. The fissures that resulted in the lava provided places where copper could be deposited. The copper itself was “leached from volcanic rocks deep within the rift by hydrothermal solutions and was then deposited in these same rocks at relatively shallow levels closer to the surface” (Martin 2008). This has been sinced labeled as the “largest body of elemental copper known on earth” dating to around 1,067 – 1,047 mya (Martin 2008).

One era of indigenous peoples (Including the Hopewell) who mined the copper and started using it were then named the “Old Copper Complex” or “Old Copper Culture” by archaeologists. The name “Old Copper Culture” though is more used to show that copper mining and utilization was a multi-cultural process rather than a single-cultural one (Johnson and Johnson 2010). The problem then arises on how to date this copper, and the Copper Complex in general. Many dates have been proposed ranging from 7000 to 3000 BP, the greatest disagreement being the actual start of the age of the Old Copper Complex. According to radio carbon dating on the wood remnants found in the tools in Dr. E. W. Johnson and David Johnson’s collection dated the complex to as old as 5700 years BP. Other tests that have been done on other collections have yielded other dates around 6000 years BP (Johnson and Johnson 2010).

Besides just the physical use of copper there is evidence that is taken from the study of worked and unworked copper to show that prehistoric people surrounding the Great Lakes region communicated with one another through the exchange of both raw and finished copper materials. Similarities are drawn between different regions by the working and style of the copper. This suggests that there was active contact between people in different areas and at least copying each other’s copper forms if not direct exchange of the finished materials (Martin 2008).

By the 17th century CE there was a solid body of first hand reporting that documents the connections between the native ideologies and the copper materials. It shows that these copper materials were also sought after because they were believed to hold the ritual power to bring good fortune, health, wealth and hunting abilities. The use of copper in this way was an important part of cultural adaptations of the Native Americans of eastern North America starting around the 7th millennium BP and going until the start of the European influenced cultures (Martin 2008).

However you look at it copper mining and utilization has been around for a very long time and is still done today. Copper is still used today because it is a very pure. The purity of this metal was first seen by the ancient people. It was found that no matter where this copper is from it is the same pure copper. Copper happens to not be alloyed with any other mineral like many other metals are, except that it contains a very small trace of silver and sometimes pure silver in very small quantities is often found embedded in it (Hinsdale 1891).

Since then however copper has been mined using more modern techniques and technology because it was obvious that this prehistoric copper was very useful and lasted a long time. The modern process however wasn’t any less dangerous or easier to do though. Between 1845 and 1975 there have been 2,000 known deaths in mining accidents in the Michigan Upper Peninsula area (Lankton and Martin 1987).

Despite the deaths, the long process to get it out of the ground and to form into tools and other ornamental items, copper still was continued to be in mined and supplied across the United States up until our current time period. The nature of the copper was so precious and useful to both the ancient peoples of the Great Lakes up until today that all that hard work and dedication was worth it. Perhaps even it is the long and difficult process of obtaining the copper tools which makes it so precious for both peoples back then and today. It is easy to see that copper was part of the technological, social and ideological culture of this regions first people. It’s significance then was not only a practical one, but also a ritual and social one as well.

Works Cited

Hinsdale, E. B. (1891). Native copper of Michigan. Journal of the American Geographical

Society of New York, 23, 324 – 338.

Johnson, E. W. & Johnson, D. (2010, September). The Old Copper Complex. Copper Culture.

Retrieved September 18, 2010, from

Lankton, L.D. & Martin, J. K. (1987). Technological advance, organizational and underground

facilities in the upper Michigan copper mines, 1860 – 1929. Technology and Culture, 28(10), 42 – 66.

Martin, S.R. (2008). Mining: Copper Mining in the Great Lakes (USA). Encylcopedia of the

History of Scince, Technology and Medicine in Non-Western Cultures. Springer-Verlag New York, 2008.


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