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Copper Rat-Tail Points

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  • Copper Rat-Tail Points

    The Universality of the Old Copper Rat Tail Point
    E.J. Neiburger, Waukegan, Illinois
    Originally Published in the Central States Archaeological Journal, Vol.56, No.1, pg.36

    The Old Copper Culture began around 8,000 years ago (YBP) in the upper Midwest. The local natives gathered and mined wide­spread deposits of float copper which were left after the glaciers receded. Among the varied tools, weapons and ornaments made from this 99.9% pure metal was the rat tail point (Figure 1).
    This copper design consisted of a pointed leaf-shaped blade and a rounded tail shaft which tapered to a point; like the tail of a rat. The blade and shaft were of varying lengths relative to each other. Most rat tails had a shaft 1.5 to 2 times the length of the blade (Figure 2). The shaft attached to a handle (knife) or a harpoon-spear pole. Some may have had a dual purpose in the case of the awl-knife; a cutting blade and a protruding pointed awl on the opposite side of the tools handle. What is unique about the rat tail design is that it is aes­thetically pleasing; in many cases, beautiful. The design is smooth, balanced and "cool" looking to the human mind.
    Though greatly promoted as North American, the rat tail is in fact, a universal, world wide design. Not only is it pretty to see but its design is quite practical and efficient ergonomically. It is a great metal tool and many ancient cultures discovered and used the design.

    Figure 1.  Four rat tails from the upper Midwest.  Old Copper Culture, USA.  Circa 4000 BCE.

    Figure 2:  Numberous Midwestern rat tail and other spear points with a variety of size and tail lengths.  From the Field Museum, Chicago.  Est 4000-500 BCE.

    Figure 3:  A rat tail (top) and other cast copper points from an ancient Egyptian tomb. 2000 BCE.

    Figure 4:  A thin rat tail (upper left) and other socketed points from Roman period Spain. Circa 200 AD.

    Figure 5:  Two rat tails from ancient Luristan, Afghanistan.  1000 BCE.

    Left - Figure 6:  Two rat tails from Kish, an ancient Babylonian regional city, Iraq.  Dated 3000 BCE.
    Right- Figure 7:  Three rat tail points (iron) from Zulu culture, South Africa.  Before AD 1800.

    A special note. Since many cultures around the world made rat tails of essentially similar design and wrought manufacture, there is an "inducement" for rat tails to be sold to museums and collectors under the label of the country/local which brings the highest prices. Luristani rat tails are plentiful and inexpensive as compared with North American rat tails. Thus many Luristani rat tails are flooding the collector markets under the name of North American Old Copper Culture.  These relics have excellent shapes, patinas (they are ancient) and are made of copper or copper alloys.  Without a destructive metal analysis, you cannot tell the difference.

    Figure 8:  Two bronze rat tail points from Etruscan Culture, Italy circa 300 BCE.
    The rat tail point design is not unique to North American Old Copper Culture. Examples of its identical design can be found in Eu­rope, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.
    Used by permission of the publisher
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    I keep six honest serving-men (they taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When and How and Where and Who.

  • #2
    The Awl-Knife: An Old Copper Multipurpose Tool
    E.J.Neiburger and Steve Livernash, Waukegan, Illinois
    Originally published in the Central States Archaeological Journal, Vol.55, No.3, pg.134

    The rat-tail spear point is a common Old Copper weapon/tool which has been frequently found at Great Lakes sites. Originally associated with the Archaic period (8000-1000 BC), the rat-tail point is unique. It consists of two parts: (1) the laurel leaf shaped, thin blade and the (2) rat-tail like tang which tapers down to a point. There are a variety of rat tail points which can be classified into two groups depending on their "tail" tang length: (1) the short tanged variety and the (2) long tanged (approximately 8 cm long) item (Fig 1).

    The rat-tail point can be used in several ways. It can be inserted into a spear shaft and used as a projectile point. It can also be inserted into a handle and used as a knife (Fig 2). The long tailed variety, being longer than an average man's hand is wide (8 cm), could also be used as a multi-function tool (Fig 3). The blade could be a double edged knife and the protruding, pointed tail could serve as an awl or drill; a piercing tool. This tool could be used for cutting, piercing products such as leather, wood, horn or bone, drilling, clam shelling, etc. Could this theory be possible?

    Multi-purpose tools have been found in every culture. They are not unique. A multi*purpose tool makes efficient use of materials and is inherently ergonomic (mechanically efficient). Rather than having a separate knife and awl (two tools to carry, locate), the single, long variety rat-tail could suffice for both applications. The question is whether the longer tang on the rat-tail point could serve another purpose which is not awl related. The most obvious reason, other than a multi-purpose tool, is that the long tang would help better fasten the copper point to a shaft or handle. If this were the case, then the awl-knife multi purpose tool may not really exist.

    Fig 1: Old Copper rat-tail point with long tangs (tail).

    To test this possibility, we decided to do two tests:

    (1). Historically, to investigate the relationship between long Ganged and short tanged spear/knife tools in bronze age history.

    (2). Experiment on the strength of the hafting of short vs. long tang rat-tail points on functioning spears.

    Historically, we seldom see long tanged spear points in Roman, Greek, Egyptian, Chinese, Mesopotamian and other ancient copper (alloy)-spear point producing cultures. Figure 4 shows typical ancient Persian (Luristan 2000 BC) bronze spear points (A, B ) with short tails similar to Old Copper points with similar short tails (D, E). The short tail variety seem to be the most popular and thus, probably the most efficient to make and use.

    Fig 2: Simulated Old Copper rat-tail point with wood and leather handles.

    An experiment was devised where copy rat tail points were made by hammering (Figure 4 F, G and Fig 5), placed into drilled spear shafts (1.3 m long). They were reinforced with circular cord binding to protect from splitting the wood. One spear point was a long tailed rat-tail with a 6cm long blade and a 7cm tail. The other was a short tail variety with a 6cm blade and a 3cm long tail. These spears were thrown forcefully at a pine board from a distance of 10 feet. The experiment tested whether the long or short tailed point was held into the shaft better and thus could be considered stronger. Thirty throws of each weapon resulted in the spears sticking in the wooden target 85% of the time. The other 15% were glancing blows which bounced off after an oblique impact. Neither point (long vs. short tail) became dislodged or bent.

    Fig 3: Sample multipurpose tools: Two simulated awl knives, modern Swiss army knife, 19th century shelling and hooking multi-purpose tools.

    There appears to be no advantage in making an extra long rat-tail point if the only consideration is to "improve" spear hafting design (which experimentally does not). A long tail consumes valuable metal and requires considerable time to shape and sharpen. Considering the drain on time and materials, a long tail would not be made for just decoration or idol activity since it would require more extensive drilling and other preparation just to be hidden in the shaft/handle of the tool/weapon. It has to have a more immediate, direct utility and its use as an awl-knife would be a logical probability.

    Fig 4: Sample of long and short rat-tail pints: A -and- B from ancient Luristan, Persia, C-E from Wisconsin Old Copper sites, F -and- G simulated Old Copper copper points

    Historically and experimentally, long tanged rat-tail spear points show no structural advantage over short tanged rat-tail varieties in spear tip construction. They both work equally well. We conclude that the extra long length of many Old Copper rat-tails served a dual purpose. We theorize that these artifacts were dual purpose awls and knives being used for cutting on the blade end and piercing and drilling work on the other. The extra length of the tang would accommodate a handle (Figure 2) and extend beyond the edge of the human hand thus exposing the awl tip. This is what we describe as an Awl-knife.

    Fig 5: Long and short tanged rat-tail points inserted into spear shafts and thrown at pine target. After 30 throws, there was no bending or loosening of either point. Both points functioned equally well.

    Used by permission of the publisher
    To learn more about or to join the Central States Archaeological Society, click here:
    I keep six honest serving-men (they taught me all I knew); Their names are What and Why and When and How and Where and Who.