The allure of copper. The power of copper.
People in the prehistoric Hopewell civilization of southern Ohio managed to get copper from distant points – the Keweenaw Peninsula and Isle Royale and Ontario’s Michipicoten Island in Lake Superior – as much as 750 miles away.
And as far back as 2,000 years ago.
What made copper so treasured that it motivated gargantuan efforts to obtain and use it for such items as tools, headpieces, beads and breastplates?
“That has an element of spirituality and questing, going on an odyssey, a quest of some sort. Bringing it back was a tangible personal power,” says archaeologist Mark Seeman, a retired professor at Kent State University and the lead author of a new study with colleagues from Ball State University on Hopewell use of copper.
“Part of the lure of copper was that it was seen as a powerful substance and associated with a number of powerful figures in the Hopewell world,” especially the mythological underwater panther, Seeman said. “He was the protector of copper. To secure copper on Isle Royale, say, you had to placate this spirit. He was giving this to you as a gift, so you have to thankful.”
The Hopewell culture, a Native American culture – flourished in the region from about 1 AD to about 400 AD. Many of its artifacts have been retrieved from mounds in Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, and Indiana, as well as from sites in the Appalachians and the Southeast.
The study published in the “Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports” said, “Copper was the most important metal used by Hopewell societies in the Scioto Valley of southern Ohio.
“Hopewell people had an intimate relationship with copper and with a symbolism derived in part from the properties of this metal. It shone like the sun, but only if properly cared for,” according to the study. “It was creative in the sense that it could be made into awls, flakers and chisels to make other skillful, artful things. It was hefty. And it was exotic – it came from the outside.”
In Hopewell times, Seeman said, “we see a big bump in the use of copper and in the crafting of artistic expressions” such as breastplates. He contrasted that with earlier Native American societies that put copper to primarily utilitarian purposes.
Part of the allure was the metal’s physical characteristics.
For example, raw copper is malleable, meaning it can be hammered and molded into useful and decorative items, the study said. It’s also heavy and durable – 16 times heavier than pine and three times heavier than granite, the study said. One celt – an ax-like, wedge-shaped tool — found in an Ohio mound weighed 38 pounds, while archaeologists retrieved celts weighting more than five pounds from Illinois mounds.
Another part of its allure was spiritual.
That’s reflected in the “careful attention (paid) to the design, crafting and decoration of made objects (that) establishes a bond of mutual responsibility and reciprocity between people and their material culture spirit-partners,” study co-author Kevin Nolan said.
“Particularly in this case, what we’re looking at and thinking about is not just exploitation-of-resources kinds of things and getting fancy jewelry to wear. There are aspects of the environment – the environment is not a passive recipient of human action but shapers of human action – how that factors into decisions people make,” said Nolan, the director of the Applied Anthropology Laboratories at Ball State.
Copper was exotic to the Hopewell peoples, the study said, and had a “high replacement cost” based on the distance traveled to obtain it. “Copper-as-exotica is linked to travel time, the weight of tradition and the specialized knowledge needed to obtain and work it.”
The Lake Superior region was the source of most of the copper for items found in Hopewell mounds, especially the largest pieces, the study said, so it probably required “directed quests” to find it.
Nolan said Native Americans had used Lake Superior copper for at least 4,000 years especially in Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula.
The exact travel routes used during Hopewell times are unknown. Some of the copper may have come from “down-the-line” exchanges and trading, while other copper came from direct travel between the Lake Superior region and southern Ohio.
Seeman said, “People were going west not just for copper but for a variety of other materials as well.” The Lake Superior region was a destination, but so were even more distant points” all the way to Yellowstone.
According to the National Park Service, “For about 1,000 years, Indians mined copper on Isle Royale, the Keweenaw Peninsula, and other areas around Lake Superior.” The Minong Mine Historic District on Isle Royale contains the remains of prehistoric mining activity, as well as evidence of the 19th century copper mining boom there.
Yet not all the copper worked by Hopewell peoples came from the Lake Superior area, the study said. Some was so-called “float copper” found in glacial deposits in southern Michigan, eastern Wisconsin and northwestern Illinois, as well as in the southern Appalachians.