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Copper Nose Rings, Ear Spools & Personal Adornments

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  • Copper Nose Rings, Ear Spools & Personal Adornments

    Old Copper Nose Ornaments
    E.J.Neiburger and Steve Livernash, Waukegan, Illinois
    Originally published in the Central States Archaeological Journal, Vol.53, No.1, pg.16

    The Old Copper Culture existed in Mid-West America from about 8,000 BCE to modern times (1910 CE). Various cultures of local peoples collected 99% pure, float copper from glacial deposits spread across the land and fashioned a wide variety of tools, weapons and ornaments from the coveted bright red metal. Enormous quantities of these relics have been found and are still appearing each day.


    In ancient (as well as recent) times, personal ornaments were a popular item. Beads, earrings bracelets, rings and pendants are well represented copper items found throughout the prehistoric Mid-West (Figures 1-11). Exotic headdresses (Fig 11), ear spools ( Fig 10) and masks were occasionally worn in some cultures (e.g. Hopewell) but this was for relatively rare ceremonial use. There is one type of jewelry, seldom seen, that has not been mentioned before. Nose ornaments, if correctly identified, are extremely rare in Old Copper Culture. This type of ornament consists of

    1. Nose rings: rings of metal inserted in the alar (side) cartilage of the nose or nasal septum—the fleshy area separating the nostrils (Figures 1-4,5-7).
    2.Straight barbs: thin bars or rods of metal piercing the nasal septum and extending beyond the alar cartilage on either side of the nose (Figures 2, 8).
    3.Nasal pendants: flattened metal pieces suspended from the nasal septum (Figures 6,7,11).

    Fig 1: Old Copper nose ring from Vilas county, WI, Archaic site.

    Fig 2: Old Copper nose ring from Vilas County, WI ...and...
    Fig 3: An old Northwest coast Indian (Red Owl) with a nasal bar made of bone. 1910 Edwin Curtis Photo.

    Nose ornaments have been popular since before Biblical times (Genesis 24:22- a nose ring gift to Rebecca, Isaac's wife). Numerous cultures throughout the world have appreciated nose ornaments, more or less depending on the times. Among these include people inhabiting India, Micronesia, Arabia (Berbers, Bedouins), Asia, Central and South America and Africa. Nose ornaments have recently attained popularity in modern Western culture, especially among the young and "hip", where 3.6% of the people sporting tattoos and other body piercings (e.g. ears) also have jewelry in their noses. (Fig 4).

    Figure 4: A modern man with large nose ring, 2008.


    New world peoples wore nose ornamentation since ancient times. South and Central American tribes fashioned this type of jewelry out of gold, silver, copper and sea shell. The Inca, Olmecs, Aztecs, Maya and numerous area tribes (e.g. San Blas Is., Panama) have nose ornaments in their burials and depicted on drawings, and carvings of Gods and rulers. North American Natives have often been seen with metal (usually copper) nose ornaments during historic times. The Shawnee chiefs Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa wore nose rings (Fig 6). The Nez Perce tribe was named for their "pierced noses" in the French language. Many of the Northwest Indian tribes of the 1800s (e.g. Thlinget, Haida) had nose rings made of copper or shell. (Fig 3, 8, 9).Yet few if any nose ornaments have been found in prehistoric North American natives.

    Recent finds in two Wisconsin campsites have identified some Old Copper artifacts, which could be considered to be nose jewelry. These represent thousands of years of North American history. Twenty-one Old Copper sites were identified in Vilas County, Wisconsin. Out of hundreds of copper artifacts from these sites, two unique specimens were noted (10% of sites).

    One was a nose pendant, half-moon in shape with a thin loop in the middle which could insert into the nasal septum. The nose "ring" was 3.9 cm long, 3.1 cm high and decreased in thickness to that of a knife edge on the outer rim most distant from the loop. This artifact had some curious 1 mm wide indentations in the copper surface; apparently a design. (Figure 2).

    A second nose ring was a badly corroded, circular copper pendant 3.3 cm wide, 4.8 cm long and 0.04 cm thick. It weighed 9.7 gm. and also had a decreasing thickness (knife edge) as one approached the outer edge (Fig 1). Both these objects could easily fit on or under the nose. Numerous copper awls were also found and, other than tool use, they could be used to pierce and be worn in the nasal septum as in Figs. 3 -and- 5.


    It is possible these objects were something other than nose rings/ornaments. The straight barbs seen in Figures 3 and 5, could be straight awls, needles or even jewelry worn in other places besides the nose (e.g. ears). In all probability, they were tools, not ornaments. There is no certainty. Many rings and pendants found at sites could have been worn in the nose but also could have been placed in the ears, around the neck on cords, on fingers or clothing.

    Figure 5: A set of long "awls" from a Vilas Co, WI Archaic site, which could have been used as nose bars.

    Figure 6: The great Indian leader, Tecumseh (early 1800s) with a nose ring.

    The two Vilas county artifacts, however, are similar in shape and size to many nose ornaments from Aztec, Inca and other southern metal-working Indian cultures. For example, Figure 7 is a crescent shaped, gold nose ring ornament from Quimbaya, Columbia circa 300-1500 CE. It is light and sized well enough to be conveniently worn in the nose. The Indians of that area (Quillacinga), who wore this style of jewelry, were called the "Moon Noses" by the Inca because of the moon shaped nose rings that they wore.

    Figure 7: Nose ring from the Columbian Quillacinga people (200 CE - 1500 CE).Field Museum, Chicago, Illinois.

    The pendants in Figures 1 and 2 could possibly be earrings but their large size and broad shape would be problematic if not totally unfit for the subject to safely wear. They could get easily snagged and ripped off the ear. If placed in the nasal septum however, they could be protected, adequately supported and worn effectively. They were too small for tool use though the sharp edges might have been used to cut threads or other fine work (e.g. during sewing).

    This is the first case of Old Copper Nose ornaments reported. What do you think?

    Left- Fig 8: A Nakoaktok chief with a nose ring. 1914 Edwin Curtis Photo.
    Right- Fig 9: A Nakoaktok woman with nose ring. 1914 Edwin Curtis Photo.

    Used by permission of the publisher
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