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Archive 2547

 The State of Our Knowledge About Ancient Copper Mining in Michigan

The Michigan Archaeologist 41(2-3):119-138.

Susan R. Martin 1995


Popular literature contributes to the persistence of fantasy and mythology surrounding ancient copper mining in Michigan. This paper points out some of the major elements of mis-statement and myth revealed in current popular books, and suggests why they are fallacious, using current archaeological data about copper mining as counterpoint. Michigan’s prehistoric mining data are unique in the world. Their discovery, description and explanation make an exciting story, one of which the citizens of this region can be rightfully proud and of which they should all be aware. Professional archaeologists need to build a public support base through accessible and competently written accounts of the facts about Michigan prehistory. Our efforts have improved in the past ten years, but our publications still lag behind those of non-specialist authors.


My topic today is the world-famous ancient copper industry of the Lake Superior Basin. Since 1961 and Griffin’s seminal publication of Lake Superior Copper and the Indians we have learned a lot, archaeologically, about prehistoric copper use (Griffin 1961) and its persistence through prehistory. Today I also want to talk about the persistence of fantasy and mythology surrounding ancient copper mining. Walk into any bookstore up north these days and you’ll see what I mean. Mysterious books with lurid symbols and tales of trans-oceanic contact fill people’s minds with archaeo- illogical constructs (Sodders 1990; Sodders 1991). I’d like to chide the professional ranks, myself included, for failing to promote real archaeology as successfully! Competently written accounts of our passion, the study of prehistory, should be out there for public consumption! The professional ranks fail to present an effective public counterpoint to archaeo-illogic. Our efforts have improved in the past ten years, but our publications still lag behind those of non-specialist authors. Some of this is due to the nature of our data; they are fragile and require careful analysis and documentation, something that casual authors clearly can put aside, along with meeting standards of scientific evidence. Some of this is due to the reward structure of academic life, which tends to stress preaching to other specialists rather than expanding our public support base. But some of this is due to having our heads, in addition to our trowels, in the sand; this we are trying to change. I hope to help correct this shortcoming vis a vis copper in the next year or so, with accessible publications for an interested and literate readership. The Society for American Archaeology’s Public Education Committee has made great strides in organizing a national campaign for archaeological literacy. There is now a growing nationwide network of archaeological information so that interested schoolchildren and others can readily find factual data (MacDonald 1994). Educational materials are available for primary and secondary students and many people, amateurs and professionals alike, are working hard to disseminate these materials to interested people in our state. Plus our state museum system and funding systems are trying hard to do their parts.

Here at home however, popular books which are widely available and by all accounts financial successes, help to perpetuate the myths that stand for the truth about Michigan prehistory. These myths are dangerous for the following reasons:

1) They detract from the pressing need to preserve archaeological sites. Some of these publications announce that the sites are already destroyed (Sodders 1990:27-28), which is absolutely false. The trouble here is that the public may be persuaded to disregard important site protection issues based on wrong information.

2) They put people’s energies into false hopes of splendid and snazzy discoveries (which encourages site looting) rather than into productive activity, such as training in excavation, analysis of artifacts, and site preservation and protection.

3) They’re so sensational that people are liable to devalue the facts in favor of the fantasy. Archaeology gets a bad name when it takes away people’s pet myths, even if they’re irrational!

4) These authors overlook the requirements of science, particularly those about testing hypotheses objectively, yet offer speculations as though they were scientific fact. This failure to distinguish fact from fiction disadvantages people in a culture such as ours that prides itself in generating literacy but also succeeds in the generation of misinformation! Telling truth from myth is an important skill for citizenship, no matter what the subject.

Most of the myths take their ‘truth’ from mantra-like repetition rather than empirical evidence. In fact try as I have, it’s often impossible to find the original sources of some of the ideas accepted as fact in these volumes! For example, when I read about the area in which I’ve lived and done fieldwork for twenty years, that being Houghton County, Michigan, I’m simply amazed! According to these books, there is evidence, everywhere, of Phoenicians, Bronze Age Europeans, and others sailing copper-laden flotillas from the Keweenaw home to the Old World! And I’ve apparently been asleep at the switch the whole time because I sure never found any such evidence!

I’d like today to point out some of the major elements of mis-statement and myth revealed in these books, and to suggest why they are fallacious, using current archaeological data about copper mining as counterpoint. The copper myths include two major themes that have plagued archaeological thinking since the nineteenth century: who were the miners and where is all the copper? These themes are part of a general widespread myth that began several centuries ago, about the origins of North American indigenous people, a myth which is also responsible for racist judgments about the sophistication of indigenous American technologies (Williams 1991:23-24). The tenacity of this myth in the face of archaeological evidence is rather difficult to explain. Williams suggests that its appeal is in part based on nationalism, on ethnic pride, and on a deep-felt pan-human trait in which “strength of belief is paramount over strength of evidence” (Williams 1991:24). I recommend that you take a look at the Williams book for a very complete and entertaining account of the histories of marginal hypotheses and fantasies in archaeological inquiry.

The Enigmatic and Inscrutable Copper Culture People

MYTH: Turning now to the question of who the copper culture people were, a primary misstatement is that the copper was worked by a “virtually unknown race of people” (Sodders 1990:12).

FACT: Who, indeed, is this unknown race? Martians following Dr. Spock and the crew of the starship Enterprise? The race, if you are willing to use such a misapplied term, that is responsible for the prehistoric copper exploitation of Michigan, is none other than the race that discovered the continent, the indigenous American Indians. There are no discontinuities in biological variation in the Upper Great Lakes or in the rest of the Americas for that matter. There is unbroken continuity in populations, based on skeletal and artifact evidence, in the Upper Great Lakes, and there is absolutely no evidence that there is anything unusual or biologically separate about the populations that lived in the Upper Great Lakes during prehistory. To conclude otherwise is clearly a part of someone’s separate reality. The trouble with this mystifying statement is that it also suggests that there is some scientific basis for drawing discrete racial boundaries based on archaeological information. This conclusion is absolutely false.

Actual studies of the archaeological record in Michigan tell a completely different story. Archaeological research on the national forests of the Upper Peninsula, at the region’s national parks, by the Michigan Archaeological Society, and by Michigan’s universities during the past few years expanded our understanding of prehistoric site locations, both of mining and camp sites, of the many prehistoric copper-using cultures in our region. The National Park Service supported five years of historic and prehistoric research on Isle Royale from 1985-1990, expanded the site location data base, tested many sites, and monitored conditions at others. Major research reports, journal articles, paper presentations and one dissertation are the collective result. This systematic and extensive research program expanded our knowledge about prehistoric pottery-using people, and turned up no evidence, anywhere, of non-native exploitation of prehistoric copper (Clark 1988; Clark 1990; Clark 1991; Martin 1988a; Martin 1988b; Martin 1990; Martin, Martin and Gregory 1994).

MYTH: The second misstatement has to do with the duration of the prehistoric mining era, which is quoted to last from 3000 B.C. to 900 A.D. (Sodders 1990:12).

FACT: The duration of prehistoric mining is really much longer than this rough estimate. The dates and ranges of time for prehistoric copper use are really from about seven thousand years ago to protohistoric times. Suites of dates from the Upper Peninsula and nearby areas make it clear that the age of the use of copper lasts longer and extends farther than Sodders suggests. It does NOT extend as far as Phoenicia or the European Bronze Age, however! There is a growing cluster of sites with dates in the range of 7 thousand years ago, found at South Fowl Lake, MN; Lac LaBelle, MI and Oconto, WI (Beukens 1992; Martin 1993; (Mason 1981). There are at least three sites with typologically old lithics in the company of copper: at Itasca, MN; at sites in the Deer Lake, MI area; and at sites in the North Lakes region, WI (Clark 1991; Salzer 1974; Shay 1971). While certainly provisional at present, it is possible that copper-working is associated with sites of PaleoIndian and/or Early Archaic technology northwest of the Superior basin as well (Steinbring 1991).

MYTH: The third misstatement has to do with repeated suggestions of Old World contact, such as in the following two segments: “This new wave of “open-mindedness” brought additional scientific theories regarding the Copper Culture people. It was further believed that a Norse King named Woden-lithi left his mark near Toronto in the year 1700 B.C. He left behind petroglyphs and writings to indicate his visit was a trading mission for a well-established copper trade that was known to have existed in the Lake Superior Region some 1000 years before his visit. Evidently the Keweenaw copper industry was well established when the Norse King paid North America a visit!” (Sodders 1990:13) and “it appears entire flotillas of Norse, Baltic and Celtic ships crossed the Atlantic to enter into trade wars with the Algonquians for rich mineral deposits” (Sodders 1990:14).

FACT: There is absolutely no archaeological evidence that anyone but indigenous Americans and subsequent French, British and Euro-American miners took copper from the Keweenaw. In contrast to speculative stuff and nonsense, here’s an actual archaeological fact to consider: all cultures make garbage! Show me some Norse garbage reliably dated to 1700 B.C. in the Toronto area in pristine context and I’ll sign on readily in support of these hypotheses! What does it take to support them? Archaeological data! It’s not much to ask, given the firm conclusions that have been reached by some authors. If these conclusions are to be accepted by science, scientific standards of skeptical inquiry must be upheld. Otherwise it’s archaeo-illogic, not archaeology. Large-scale migrations leave evidence: witness the global evidence of the expansion of European technologies during the fifteenth-sixteenth century A.D. If Bronze Age folks transported themselves to North America there’d be something left behind as material evidence. Anyone who’s ever been on a prehistoric archaeological site in the Upper Great Lakes knows what levels of trash can be generated by low-level-consumer cultures such as those of American prehistory. Why, in contrast to everyone else in world history, are these alleged Bronze Age people so neat, tidy, and garbage-free?

The competent excavation of many prehistoric archaeological sites in the Lake Superior basin reveals the continuous use of copper throughout the prehistoric time range, in association with all of the other items of material culture (projectile points, pottery and the like) that are without a doubt the products of native technologies. Many of these sites have been dated reliably by radiocarbon means (Table 1). Clearly, copper-working continues up until the years of aboriginal contact with seventeenth-century Europeans. The speculators could at least acknowledge these facts rather than pretend that the association of copper with indigenous people doesn’t exist. The fact is, the campsites of indigenous peoples of the Upper Great Lakes contain everything consistent with a long-lived continuous regional hunting/gathering/fishing adaptation, and contain nothing attributable to European cultures until the seventeenth century A.D.

MYTH: The fourth misstatement: a quiet racism extolling the abilities of the Old World peoples and implicitly denigrating the accomplishments of New World indigenous peoples.

“At a much later period many of these early visitors eventually settled permanently in the Americas. Some, it has been said, mingled with local native tribes…From a realistic point of view, the Bronze Age produced races of people that were definitely not only literate, but also well educated. Here in the New World they left behind a lasting legacy containing rock inscriptions …”(Sodders 1990:14).

FACT: The implication here is that intellectual achievement, writing and education are allegedly related to biological mixtures of European genes. This reasoning is false and so are its implications. In addition, the alleged inscriptions and their ‘translations’ are without evidence (Williams 1991:285). In fact, indigenous metal-working technologies are incredibly sophisticated, and this sophistication has been repeatedly documented over the past century, beginning at least with F. H. Cushing (Cushing 1894). More recently, experimental studies have provided much information on the formation of prehistoric copper artifacts. Studies of copper materials through scanning electron microscopy and other metallographic studies are informing more and more about the sequential physical changes that hammering, cold working and annealing bring about in copper artifacts, and the sophistication of the varied technologies involved. There is a vast body of accessible data about these processes (Childs 1994; Leader 1988; Vernon 1986).

MYTH: Fifth, a misunderstanding of Ojibwa folk tales and world view, as revealed in the following quote. “Let me add quickly that these fables more or less afford positive proof against the possibility that early Indian races were the original ancient copper mining people”(Sodders 1990:15).

FACT: Fortunately there is an extensive body of scholarship about Ojibwa myth and world view related to copper (Bourgeois 1994; Hamell 1987, Vecsey 1983). This information is easy to come by; in a recent quick count I found at least seventeen authors who deal with the general mythology of the Lake Superior Ojibwa. Scholars conclude that Ojibwa myths demonstrate that the indigenous peoples of this region are the copper users, which of course is supported by archaeological evidence of worked copper in virtually all of their prehistoric camp sites in the Lake Superior basin. Everywhere around the world, cultures record myths about their environmental surroundings and imbue them with power. In the case of the Lake Superior basin, powerful mythic underwater creatures or manitous were believed to control copper and other resources, including animals used for food, good weather for fishing, etc., which were dispensed or held back depending on immediate circumstances, those being the negotiated terms of exchange with humans. Power, after all, is double-edged and can be used for good or for bad; sometimes these underwater creatures tipped over canoes and drowned their occupants, and other times calmed the waters after receiving appropriate tokens of appreciation from humans, such as sacrificed dogs, tobacco, cloth and the like. Sodders apparently connects the down-side of this double-edged power with Ojibwa stories about avoiding copper localities, and concludes that the indigenous people of the region couldn’t be the copper users. Nothing could be further from the truth. The fact is, the manitous and their powers according to Ojibwa myth are seen as an extension of the human social world. Humans and not-so-humans strive to influence each other through ritual exchange (Hamell 1987:68-70) in which copper was one medium among many. Power was also believed to reside in copper itself, according to Ojibwa myth ( (Kohl 1956). Copper was considered by some to contain powerful medicine, a great medium for ritual exchange, that brought wealth, health and well-being (Barnouw 1977:133). This is probably why it was worn by and buried with children (Heckenberger 1990;, Hruska 1967). In addition, contact-era Ojibwa people had every reason to dissemble about the locations of copper deposits and their significance. After all, powerful strangers were trying to gain access to Ojibwa lands, primarily to extract culturally-valued resources. Why aid and abet this attempted seizure by revealing everything about copper? There is nothing inconsistent about the myths regarding copper and native use of it; in fact copper use is completely consistent with the Ojibwa world view and with the archaeological record of the basin.

MYTH: The language used betrays a misunderstanding of geology and geological processes. For example, the Ontonagon Boulder is referred to as “that freak mass of pure copper” (Sodders 1990:17). Later on, another trumped-up mystery is presented: “even hidden copper veins that did not directly surface as mineral outcroppings were previously tapped by these people from the past…one can but speculate as to this early race’s inscrutable method of ore detection” (1990:28).

FACT: Native copper deposits come in may forms, from filling linear fissures, to conglomerate deposits, to amygdaloid deposits. Each is useful, but requires differing extraction and treatment routines to make it so. Mass copper is not unusual at all; Sodders herself documents many other mass occurrences as do other early chroniclers. It’s also well-known that geological copper appears in systematic patterns with indicator rock and typical land forms nearby; there is no cause to prescribe ‘inscrutability’ to this fact of geology. It’s quite possible that native cultures were better at finding copper than Europeans were, seeing as how the indigenous peoples had been adapting to their home region for 6000 years or more!

There is also an extensive body of materials science literature which documents the expansion of our knowledge base about local sources of copper, by relating the elemental composition of beds of copper to regional trace element profiles, as well as by linking the trace elements in individual artifacts to geological sources of similar elemental content. These methods are very successful in distinguishing European from native copper, alloys of copper from the metal in its native state, and smelted copper from cold hammered materials (Childs 1994; Hancock 1991; Rapp 1984). By these means, it’s relatively easy to demonstrate the eventual shift to European metals and technology which, sadly for the Atlantic neo-diffusionists, occurs in the first quarter of the seventeenth century in the Upper Great Lakes rather than during anyone’s Bronze Age.

MYTH: Attributing strangeness, or “other-ness,” to the copper miners is an essential element in the copper myth, as we have seen earlier. One colleague refers to this as the “pygmy Phoenician” phenomenon (Mark Hill, personal communication, 1994). Other standard elements in the copper mythology are fantastic accounts of the alleged laborious feats of copper extraction: “What gang of primitive workers labored so diligently to raise this ponderous weight some five feet plus off the floor of that early mining pit? Better yet, one cannot help but marvel at the standards by which they accomplished this super-incredible feat” (Sodders 1990:22), and “Who were the common people who performed this almost impossible feat of labor? Once more, was slave labor employed?” (1990:30).

FACT: They were very ordinary people indeed! That’s because they were not pygmy Phoenician voyageur slaves but indigenous Americans. I know that this is a shocking statement for a lot of people but some were probably women. Turning away from obsessions with mining feats, and looking at copper-working in situ, gives insight into the social framework of copper fabrication technologies. If one considers the manufacture and manipulation of the most numerous and long-lived copper artifact type, the bead, some rather interesting possibilities arise. For example, the contents of the excavated copper cache at 20KE20 (Martin 1993) suggest a woman’s tool kit for copper bead fabrication as well as other probable gender-specific tasks such as food preparation and skin-working. The artifacts of interest are awls and an ulu, both of which are regularly connected with women’s subsistenceactivities (Penman 1977); Thomas Pleger, personal communication 1995). The beads of the cache represent a range of sizes and manufacturing techniques, and were probably prepared for a variety of wearers, including children. Archaeologists, after all, try to connect real materials, recovered archaeologically, with real human social behavior, rather than with feats of imaginary brute strength by imaginary invaders.

MYTH: The mythmakers now approach their major challenge. How do they explain away the fact that there’s absolutely no material evidence to support their speculations about Bronze Age exploitation, about Old World import/export trade in copper, about flotillas of Phoenicians? This is a snap for these inventive people! You simply turn logic on its head, and use the lack of evidence itself as explanation! There are three avenues of alleged explanation offered: one, nineteenth century mining destroyed the ancient evidence; two, the enigmatic miners were so inscrutable that they never left anything behind to begin with; and three, a _subsequent_ mystery race scavenged everything of use! “Additionally, these ancient people left no dead, no household goods, no pottery…no apparent cultural evidence was discovered to provide clues to this timeworn puzzle. Remember….workers just seemed to walk right off their jobs!” (Sodders 1990:32-33). “It is indeed evident that these mysterious people came to the Copper Country, worked thousands of these copper pits, over an undetermined number of years, took out vast hoards of copper, then as baffling as it may seem, mysteriously just disappeared, leaving their tools exactly where they lay” (1990:18). And “Sadly to say, early prospectors and subsequent mine workers literally destroyed most of these ancient pits and primitive tools” (1990:27). Finally, “Why have the temporary camp sites at least, never been located? Were these itinerant villages perhaps looted by a later race of people who in turn removed anything and everything they deemed of value, leaving behind just the cumbersome stone hammers, mauls and other mining equipment?” (1990:37-38).

FACT: I agree that prehistory has disappeared from our immediate view. All that is left of prehistory is its irreplaceable artifact evidence and the contexts in which that evidence is found. These are all the data archaeologists have to go on; they are extremely fragile and admittedly incomplete. But all known archaeological deposits in Michigan are consistent with long-lived adaptations of indigenous American people. The native people of the Upper Great Lakes did leave burials, villages, and pottery, which constitute the prehistoric archaeological record of this state. No number of invented inscrutable mythic races can undo this archaeological fact. Contrary to what is suggested in the preceding paragraph, the remains of the prehistoric copper cultures are not all destroyed, at least not yet. However they are very threatened by shoreline development, by construction plans of all kinds, and mostly by thoughtless and selfish metal-detecting and illegal collecting of copper artifacts.

A Mathematical Mystery Tour, or the Prehistoric Numbers Game

Now we turn to the second major theme in the copper culture myth, that of the dogma of the missing copper. Where did all the copper go? This theme is formulated on a calculus of mythic arithmetic, a prehistoric numbers game! The mythic calculations involve the numbers and depths of copper extraction pits, the numbers and weights of stone hammers, the percentage volume of copper per mining pit, the numbers of miners, and the years of mining duration. Ultimately, the mix of these numbers yields the alleged total amount of extracted prehistoric copper, that being in the range of 1 to 1.5 billion pounds. It’s difficult to attribute this branch of mathematics to any one individual, but if there’s credit to be given, it should be given first to Drier and Du Temple (Drier and Du Temple 1961) and then to a Chicago-area writer named Henrietta Mertz, who lays out her numerology proposals in a book entitled Atlantis: Dwelling Place of the Gods (Mertz 1967). In contrast, I propose that none of these numbers, save those related to the weight of the hammers, are actually knowable in an empirical sense. We’ll start then on our firmest ground, the weights of the hammers.

MYTH: A primary aspect of the mathematical mystery tour is the use of numbers, most unreferenced as to source, to present what is supposed to pass as scientific substance to claims of prehistoric mining feats. The following account of the myth also includes the doctrine of the grooved versus the ungrooved hammers. “Rudimentary mining activities existed with the use of crude 20-pound stone hammers. Oddly enough, the hammers found on the mainland were grooved, to be held in place by perhaps a thong of sorts, while those discovered in the Isle Royale pits, were nongrooved…perhaps handheld” (Sodders 1990:17-18). “….the hammers averaged from 6 to 8 pounds and measured approximately 8 inches in length. On one occasion, a maul was recorded to have weighed a hefty 39 1/2 pounds and subsequently was fitted with two grooves instead of the normal one” (1990:27). “On one occasion at the Island’s Minong Mine location, over 1000 tons of stone hammers were found, representing a staggering tool count of some 200,000 to 300,000 items” (1990:27).

FACT: Until recently only Tyler Bastian and Burton Straw had ever, to my knowledge, counted, weighed and measured large collections of hammerstones from the mainland and the island and documented hammerstone characteristics (Bastian 1963; Straw 1962). Looking at a collection of 193 hammers from Isle Royale, Bastian reported that ca. 5% were grooved, such as the one illustrated in Figure 3[omitted], collected from an archaeological deposit at the Siskowit Mine on Isle Royale. In a related study, two-thirds of hammers measured from the mainland were found to be grooved (Straw 1962). According to Bastian, it is very difficult to “distinguish slightly modified, or heavily weathered, hammerstones, from ordinary cobbles and boulders…” (Bastian 1963:288). Bastian states that it is possible that reports of very heavy hammerstones are a result of mis-identifying ordinary beach cobbles as hammers; he also states that there may be two size classes of hammerstones on Isle Royale (1963:289-290). Weights in Bastian’s study ranged from 1 1/2 to 26 pounds. Additional work on hammerstones was carried out this year at Michigan Tech (Sieders 1995) on a collection of hammerstones (n = 82) taken from the Mass City, Michigan area. In this collection, the weights of the hammers ranged from 11 ounces to 17 pounds, and greater than 80% of the collection weighed less than 4 pounds. Sieders also suggests that there may be two kinds of hammerstones, to accomplish two different mining functions. What’s important to learn is this: not only are the actual weights much reduced from the estimated ones, but also the measurements taken from these hammerstone studies are replicable and verifiable, as opposed to estimated and repeated as gospel. In addition, the unsubstantiated grooved/ungrooved dogma falls, and it’s about time.

MYTH: Other elements that are found in many copper culture myths are mantra-like repetitions of numbers that combine the head count of miners, a time duration of mining, and mining pit counts into an algorithm of total exploited copper. “Furthermore it is believed that as many as 10,000 miners, labored some 1000-plus years, in an estimated 10,000 Copper Range pits” (Sodders 1990:30). Essentially the same mathematical alchemy is reported by Drier and Du Temple, who add that the total amount of removed copper approaches 1 to 1.5 billion pounds:

“If one assumes that an average pit is 20 feet in diameter and 30 feet deep, then it appears that something like 1000 to 1200 tons of ore were removed per pit. If the ore averaged five percent, or 100 pounds per ton then approximately 100,000 pounds of copper were removed per pit. If 5000 pits existed, as earlier estimates indicated (and all pits are copper bearing), then 100,000 pounds per pit in 5000 pits means that 500,000,000 pounds of copper were mined in prehistoric times – all of it without anything more than fire, stone hammers, and manpower. If the ore sampled 15 percent, and if more than 5000 pits existed, then over 1.5 billion pounds of copper were mined (Drier and Du Temple 1961:17).

Henriette Mertz tells it more plainly and lays culpability at the toes of the archaeological profession: “This incredible amount of copper has not been accounted for by American archaeologists ….. the sum total according to archaeological findings here in the States amounts to a mere handful of copper beads and trinkets…..float copper. Five hundred thousand tons of pure copper does not disintegrate into thin air. It cannot be sneezed away……it must be somewhere, and to date, it has not been located in the United States,” and “99.9% is still to be accounted for” (Mertz 1976:18). Mertz concludes, of course, that the copper was disappeared by Old World Bronze Age metal mongers.

FACT: The figures are made up out of thin air and can be sneezed away. That’s because no one has a means to measure any of these variables accurately or with any precision. All of these figures are built on ill-constructed estimates. Let’s examine the variable “percentage of copper in the trap rock” as an example. Clearly, the actual percentage of copper in rock varies from none (plain old rock) to one hundred percent (Ontonagon Boulder). Additionally, while the course of copper in trap rock is somewhat predictable, the amount of copper isn’t necessarily constant or even regular. Many failed mining concerns of the nineteenth century found out this fact of geology the hard way! The counts of copper pits, the sizes of pits, and the weight of removed trap are 1) either arbitrarily-chosen numbers, or 2) variable in reality; despite this they are used as constants in the algorithm. Drier and Du Temple used a constant for copper percentage (error) and then multiply it by an estimated number of pits (error inherent) of a constant size (error), counting some and extrapolating to unknown areas (another error). Because we know that pits are not randomly but systematically located, excavated and followed, it makes no sense to extend their probable locations to unknown areas unless one is willing to accomodate enormous errors. In these algorithms, error compounds error compounds error. The resultant sums are a statement of faith, not fact; the numerologists may as well be counting angels dancing on heads of pins.

Can We Agree with the Mythmakers on Anything?

After all this complaining, can we agree at all with the generators and perpetrators of these myths? Why, yes, as a matter of fact. There are two statements Sodders makes that I’d go to the wall for as a professional archaeologist. One is this: There are a good number of things scientists know (and admittedly, don’t know)…” (1990:12). This is absolutely the fact; in fact it’s the key to differentiating science from non-science. Scientists subject their pet hypotheses to rigorous testing, and proclaim all conclusions to be provisional: that is, temporary, always subject to disproof by new discoveries. Our knowledge of prehistory is incomplete, and everybody I know in this endeavor would jump to acknowledge that fact. While I am so far confident that no evidence to date undermines the conclusion that indigenous Americans mined copper, we must, as scientists, hold to the principle that we will change our tunes when presented with novel and compelling data, such as reliably dated Norse (or Bronze Age or Phoenician) garbage in pristine context! Those data, of course, will also be subjected to rigorous skeptical scrutiny, and so on forever. All scientific conclusions are temporary and contingent. It’s as simple as that. Mistakes are made when pet conclusions are upheld despite the power of contradictory data. This is the sort of error that is being perpetuated by archaeo-illogical books.

Now on to the second statement with which Sodders will find wide agreement amongst archaeologists: “The ancient prehistory copper pits found along the 120-mile Copper Range of the Keweenaw Peninsula represent one of the most unique aspects of prehistoric remains found in Michigan today” (1990:21). I’d actually go beyond this to state that Michigan’s prehistoric mining data are unique in the world. Their discovery, description and explanation make an exciting story, one of which the citizens of this region can be rightfully proud and of which they should all be aware. There is no need to cloak this story in mystery to make it interesting; all that mythic silly chatter does is generate misinformation. Sadly in that pursuit, the true value of the archaeological record, to inform us about our unique past, is forgotten and ignored. In my opinion, it is the duty of the professional archaeological corps to make accessible their collective findings about the past and thereby to build public support for the study of archaeology and the conservation of the archaeological record. This is a task too important to leave to casual authors.

Given its global significance, it is particularly important that the archaeological record be carefully preserved in our state. Archaeological fieldwork and data collection, as other forms of scholarship, can be slow, unrewarding, lonely and somewhat tedious processes and are not pastimes for the fainthearted, nor for the untrained. Thoughtless searching for artifacts, or excavation without training, can ruin the unique and fragile record of the past. But many interesting discoveries continue to be made about prehistory in our unique region. Some of these discoveries forever change our way of thinking about the past; others are rather mundane and predictable. Most archaeologists, professional and avocational alike, only take part in the latter kind of discovery. But all valid archaeological discoveries and scientific conclusions about them are based on material evidence, first and foremost. The Michigan Archaeological Society plays a critical role in the discovery and documentation of the story of Michigan’s past, a role that we can continue if we expand our base of support while replacing a frivolous story with one full of the richness of scientific inquiry, and disseminating that story to the public.

Acknowledgments. This paper is a revision of an address presented to the 1995 Annual Meeting of the Michigan Archaeological Society, East Lansing, Michigan, April 23, 1995. I’d like to thank Scott Beld for encouraging me to submit these thoughts to The Michigan Archaeologist for publication. Thanks to Mark Hill for introducing the pgymy Phoenicians to Michigan archaeology.

Department of Social Sciences/Archaeology Lab Michigan Technological University Houghton MI 49931


Barnouw, Victor 1977 Wisconsin Chippewa myths and stories. The University of Wisconsin Press, Madison, WI.

Bastian, Tyler J. 1963 Prehistoric copper mining in Isle Royale National Park, Michigan. Unpublished M.A. thesis, Department of Anthropology, University of Utah, Salt Lake City.

Beukens, R.P., L.A. Pavlish, R.G.V. Hancock, R.M. Farquhar, G.C. Wilson, P.J. Julig and W. Ross 1992 Radiocarbon dating of copper-preserved organics. Radiocarbon 34 (3):890-897.

Bourgeois, Arthur P. 1994 Ojibwa Narratives of Charles and Charlotte Kawbawgam and Jacques LePique, 1893-1895, recorded with notes by Homer H. Kidder. Wayne State University Press, Detroit.

Childs, S. Terry 1994 Native copper technology and society in eastern North America, in Archaeometry of Pre-Columbian sites and artifacts: proceedings of a symposium organized by the UCLA Institute of Archaeology and the Getty Conservation Institute, edited by David A. Scott and Pieter Meyers, pp. 229-253. The Getty Conservation Institute, Los Angeles.

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Dr. Susan R. Martin Program in Industrial History and Archaeology Michigan Technological University Houghton MI 49931-1295 US of A

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