Copper in the Archaic

Out of the known materials that were made by the First Nations, the copper materials are indeed fascinating.

By: Ira Lehtovaara

Out of the known materials that were made by the First Nations, the copper materials that have been unearthed over the years are indeed fascinating. But where did these materials originate? How were these objects created? And what were copper objects used for? When journeying through the archaeology of these copper materials, even professionals in modern blacksmithing and Indiana Jones himself can only marvel at the brilliant copper manufacturing skills of the First Nations.

Archaic copper axe, MOA Permanent Gallery

So where did these copper materials come from? Well, to start with, these materials were known to be in the Eastern Woodland of ancient North America, which covered an area from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi river and from the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes. In regards to actual copper resources, there are deposits that are found in the Lake Superior area, the Appalachian Mountains, and in Nova Scotia. In regards to what time period these materials were used, there are three traditions that are understood to have used this copper: The Old Copper Complex (4000-1000 B.C), The Hopewell (100 B.C-400 A.D), and the Mississippian (900 A.D-European Contact). So overall it is clear that the earliest use of copper in North America can be traced extremely far back in time.

But how were these objects made, especially without any modern equipment? Since there is no evidence of melting or smelting of any metals found by researchers, how was it done? It turns out that the First Nations used heating and hammering techniques to shape the object into what they wanted. When looking to the Old Copper Complex, cold hammering and annealing processes were used, but so were other techniques such as grinding, drilling, and bending. With these methods the First Nations were able to make copper points, axes, blades, celts, fish hooks, and even pendants.

Archaic copper gorget, MOA Permanent Gallery

Lastly, what were these copper objects used for? Research into the Old Copper Complex explains that copper may have had a strong social and symbolic significance to the people of this early period, especially with the dead. This was realized when burials from that time indicated social differentiation and complexity. When looking at the Hopewell Period, copper is known to have been a part of social complexity, long distant trade networks, and also mortuary ceremonial uses. And when looking at the Mississippian Period, copper was also used in long distance trade, ceremonial purposes, and representing one’s social status. Overall it is very fascinating how the First Nations were able to produce these materials over the stretch of time they did. It is also remarkable that this was done prior to European arrival and long before modern techniques in copper manufacturing.

References/Further Readings:

Ehrhardt, Kathleen L.

2009 Copper Working Technologies, Context or Use, and Social Complexity in the Eastern Woodlands of Native North America. Journal of World Prehistory. 22: 213-235.