By David Malakoff
This is an article excerpt from the Spring 2021 edition of American Archaeology Magazine. Become a member of The Archaeological Conservancy for your complimentary subscription.
In the late 1990s, William Reardon, a U.S. Forest Service employee with a keen interest in archaeology, was using a metal detector to scout for artifacts on the shores of Eagle Lake in northern Wisconsin when it sounded an alert. Digging into the dirt, he found a sharp, conical spear point nearly four inches long. Close examination revealed that a chunk of the point’s wooden shaft was still attached; researchers later found it had been carved from maple.
These are various sized copper awls are in the collections of the Milwaukee Public Museum. Testing by archaeologist Michelle Bebber showed that copper awls were more effective than awls made of stone. | Credit: Michelle Bebber
Michelle Bebber prepares to test a replica copper point with a bow. Her tests indicated that copper points were not superior to stone points. | Credit: Robert Christy
The Hopewell people made copper earspools like these. | Credit: NPS Photo/ Mark Seeman
Archaeologist William Reardon found these copper points. The top point, which was found at Eagle Lake, is 8,500 years old. The bottom point, which was found near the lake, is approximately 8,100 years old. | Credit: Bill Reardon/Eagle River Historical Society
The find wasn’t a big surprise to archaeologists. Copper artifacts are relatively common in the region. Scholars know that many were made by Native Americans who were part of the prehistoric Old Copper Culture that once stretched across the Great Lakes region. During the Archaic period these hunter-gatherers became some of the world’s first copper miners and metal workers. They learned to identify copper nuggets that had eroded from the bedrock and to extract ore from the region’s abundant deposits—the largest and purest copper lodes on Earth. And they pioneered techniques for shaping the copper into a vast array of tools, including projectile points, knives, axes, awls, and fishing hooks. Still, in 2014 some researchers were surprised to learn just how old the Eagle Lake point is: radiocarbon dating of the maple shaft indicated that the weapon was made about 8,500 years ago.
Now, new research that reexamined every radiocarbon date associated with an Old Copper Culture artifact has concluded that the Eagle Lake point is the oldest reliably-dated copper artifact ever found in North America, making it one of the world’s oldest documented copper tools. And Reardon’s find is just one piece of evidence that is prompting archaeologists to reassess their views of the Old Copper Culture. Some recent studies suggest that the heyday of Archaic copper working both began and ended much earlier than once believed. And other research is offering fresh perspectives on a longstanding mystery: why did these prehistoric metal workers, after making finely crafted copper tools for thousands of years, abandon the practice and return to seemingly inferior stone and bone implements, relegating their copper production primarily to decorative and ceremonial objects?