Wednesday, April 9, 2008

An Archaeological Find in Michigan

Artifact may be ancient ax blade
Published: April 09, 2008 09:50 am

ESCANABA (AP) -- Ryan Bernard of Escanaba has found a lot of interesting things with his metal detector: an 1837 Quebec bank token, an 1861 penny, a 1916 buffalo nickel.

When he found a hunk of metal buried 2 feet beneath his Lakeshore Drive backyard last summer, he almost threw it in the trash. Upon further examination, it may be an artifact from a prehistoric culture.

"I was about to throw it in the garbage, and I held it up and I saw the honed edge on it," he said.

Ray Reser, director of the Central Wisconsin Archaeology Center at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, described the object as a copper "celt," a type of ax blade with no perforations or grooves. He said the celt was probably a functioning tool. The piece probably dates from 3,000 to 5,000 years ago.

"We were just out there looking for weed pennies and what not," Bernard said. "To end up digging something like that up is really shocking."

When his detector went off, he wasn't expecting much. "A lot of times when you get a signal that good and it's buried that deep, it's just a big chunk of iron," he said.

He said he dug down, found nothing, got frustrated and recovered the hole. When his father gave him some ribbing for not finding anything, he tried again, a little deeper, and there it was.

Similar findings have been made throughout the Upper Midwest, most notably in Oconto, Wis., where a site unearthed in 1952 now known as Copper Culture State Park yielded several burial plots and artifacts.

Thomas Pleger, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Baraboo/Sauk County, wrote his doctoral dissertation on the Old Copper Complex. He described these prehistoric societies as seasonally-mobile people whose temporary homes were based on abundance of particular resources.

Hunting, fishing and trade were the basis of their lives. The Old Copper Complex is one of the oldest metal-working societies in the world. Many sites have been found near major waterways. Pleger said though the shoreline is not likely where it was then, what made land valuable for settlement then still holds true today.

"Where do you see campgrounds today," he said. "Public campgrounds tend to be on high, well-drained land in close proximity to water."

The copper likely started out in the Keweenaw Peninsula. Bernard believes it could have been "float" copper, that is, deposited by retreating glaciers. Pleger said it was more likely acquired via trade.

Keweenaw copper from this era is easily identifiable because of its exceptional 99 percent purity, making it suitable for forming right out of the ground. Reser said Keweenaw copper artifacts have been found in Mexico, the Rockies and the East Coast.

"This stuff was highly coveted. It was intensively traded up and down the Mississippi River valley," he said.

For the first thousands of years, most copper artifacts from this culture were used as tools. By 1000 B.C., Pleger said more pristine items, such as jewelry, can be found.

Bernard wants to find out more about the artifact and the people who may have left it in what would become his backyard. He said the search for its origins has been frustrating, especially since he is not an archaeologist.

"I've learned definitely, first of all, you have to present yourself professionally, even if you're not a professional, so to speak," he said.

Still, he has observed consensus on what he's found.

"All of the people that have actually seen it, when they see it, they recognize what it is," he said.

Pleger said because those people were fairly mobile, and due to the perishable nature of their materials, archaeologists have yet to excavate well-preserved habitation sites connected to the Old Copper Complex, but the nature of their finds does retain some clues.

"One of the other nice things about copper artifacts is that it tends to preserve organic material that it comes into contact with," he said. The oxide created in the copper over time retards bacterial growth.

Most field work on these sites in this region was done in the 1950s and '60s, but Pleger said scholars are starting to re-examine the conclusions made then.

Metal detecting technology has resulted in many similar finds, but not all people have taken as much care with what they found. "Collectors find these things and will often clean them up, destroying the evidence we can use to date them," Pleger said.

Pleger said there are many unknown elements of the Old Copper Complex, but archaeologists, both professional and impromptu, must be smart with what they find.

"It's important to understand that the archaeological resources of Michigan, Wisconsin, Canada are non-renewable," he said.

Bernard said he's awestruck to be able to hold something that might have been from thousands of years ago. "That's an awesome piece of Escanaba history, I think," he said.

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