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Copper Use by Mississippian Indians

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  • Copper Use by Mississippian Indians

    The Mississippian Indians and Copper
    E. J. Neiburger, Waukegan, Illinois
    Originally published in the Central States Archaeological Journal, Vol.57, No.4, pg.172

    The Mississippian culture was the largest and most complex societies that lived in the prehistoric United States. It spanned 800 CE. to 1,500 CE. These people and associated groups (Oneota, Late Woodland) are referred to as the mound builders, because they built many large flat topped ceremonial mounds/pyramids within fortified towns. Most archaeologists refer to them as "Mississippian" because the culture was located in the Mississippi and other river valleys where they raised the nutritious combination of corn, squash and beans.

    The Mississippian people lived throughout the southeast from as far north as Wisconsin (Aztalan) to as far south as southern Florida, and from the Georgia (Etowa) and Carolinas to the Mississippi River (Cahokia) and into Oklahoma (Spiro). The Mississippian culture had several distinct characteristics. The most distinctive were the mounds and cities they left behind. These mounds can be found all over the U.S. The largest sites are in Spiro, Oklahoma; Cahokia, Illinois; Moundville, Alabama; and Etowah, Georgia.

    The Mississippian people had a highly developed, stratified society. There were rulers, priests, warriors, artisans, trader-merchants and commoners. They had a complex religious system of ceremonies, and beautiful works of art often used in these ceremonies. One group of artworks, both utilitarian and symbolic was made of copper.

    METALWORK...running out of copper

    The prehistoric Native Americans (American Indian, paleo-indian, Kennewick Caucasoids, etc.) were essentially stone age peoples. They were in the Neolithic period (new stone age) using primarily stone, bone, wood and other natural materials. In some situations and locals they used copper and other metals. Most copper came from the upper Wisconsin-Michigan area in the form of float copper; natural deposits of 99.9% pure copper left by the glaciers of the last 26 ice ages. In the early periods (e.g. Archaic), large deposits of float copper were found in shallow mines, rivers and just laying around where the glaciers had scattered them; thousands of tons of copper for whomever wanted it. Copper was plentiful and used for a variety of tools, weapons and ornaments. Being inexpensive and common, these implements were made of thick copper and sometimes reached massive sizes.

    Figure 1. A group of heavy, Late Archaic, Early Woodland beads

    As time progressed, less and less copper was found, old sources were used up and copper became more rare and valuable. The prehistoric record shows a general reduction in size, thickness and weight of copper artifacts reflecting its rarity. With a few exceptions, later periods (Late Woodland, Mississippian) used copper more sparingly than in the Archaic. They were running out of the metal. For example, Late Archaic Period beads, circa 3000 BCE (Figure 1.) were thick and heavy showing less copper-saving efforts than Middle/Late Woodland beads or Mississippian period beads would demonstrate. As time went on the copper got thinner and thinner ostensively because it was rarer and more expensive. An Archaic period copper bead necklace was usually heavier, bulkier and required less effort to make as compared with the thin, well hammered rolled copper beads of Mississippian or Late Woodland times. (Figure 2). If a material is rare, one spends more time and effort making due with less.

    Figure 2. Three groups of copper beads: (left) - medium thickness (1mm) rolled beads (Middle Woodland period circa 500CE), (middle) - thick (3mm) and bulky rolled copper beads (Archaic Wisconsin circa 3000 BCE), (right) - delicate, ultra-thin (0.5mm) rolled copper beads (Late Woodland-Mississippian circa 1200 CE) Courtesy Andent, Inc..

    So unlike the Archaic, Early and Middle Woodland (Hopewell) periods, Mississippian copper was thinner, more finely tooled and apparently reserved for the ritual and ornament wear rather than utilitarian uses (tools). This is seen with the large numbers of Mississippian sheet copper art (repose') items (Figure 3.)

    Figure 3. A pair copper earrings found in a cave on Little Trace Creek in Clay Co, Tennessee Courtesy Museum of Native American History, Bentonville, Arkansas

    Used by permission of the publisher

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