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Thoughtful Research

The Special Needs of the Copper Artifact Master Database (CAMD)

David Overstreet, Menominee historian, once wrote: "One wonders if the distribution of copper implements in Wisconsin is representative, or, is it skewed, by the ardor and efforts of [Henry P.] Hamilton in amassing his great copper collection?"  That's a good question, but an even better one to consider is if Hamilton's public hobby of buying and collecting copper artifacts led to the black market in copper artifacts.  If so, perhaps his early and untimely death by copper arsenic poisoning was justly met. There's a website devoted to the buying and selling of copper artifacts, and artifact shows you can attend to buy and sell.  And if you hunt on your own land, or with permission, you can pretty much metal detect your little heart out, because copper artifacts can be "heard" under the ground.


But we're also talking about sensitive cultural material that's been robbed from its resting place and its original owners.  Some museums are reluctant to share their database with me because they fear my gathering of this master copper artifact database compilation will encourage more metal detecting. But in the course of wanting to know what has been found out there by private collectors and later installed in museums, I've discovered that these private collectors are the ones most likely to give their collections to museums, such as Henry P. Hamilton did in 1919.  


So isn't it just a little disingenuous for museums to tell me that they cannot share their collections for this project because it might encourage collecting?


I am on the fence about private collection, as you can tell.  I think it's a great thing to find out how extensive the pre-contact trade, industry and communication network was, and through copper artifacts being assembled in the CAMD this can be illuminated to a great extent.  


But am I encouraging collection by making this compilation?  


There is the possibility that knowing more about these copper artifacts will make their possession by others even more valuable, because of what the artifacts can tell us based on where they were found. I've even had to pay a private collector to get his database.  I only paid once, but there are many collectors who don't share with me because what's in it for them? Well, I always give back as good or better than I get, but that's not enough for some. I don't think any collection is worth anything without knowing all that was found in that area, and everyone should want to be a part of this to gain this knowledge. In that respect, I am increasing the value of copper artifacts by creating location context based on an overview of all copper found. No one else is doing that. Many museums do approve of that. My hats off to Chicago's Field, Milwaukee Public Museum and Harvard's Peabody, just to name a few. For the cover of the Michigan Copper Artifact Resource Manual, the Grand Rapids Museum was most cooperative.


But there are criticisms. One was University of Tennessee in Knoxville. They claimed to have sensitive burial material and declined to have it listed publicly, and no amount of reassurance that so do others and I don't share sensitive material made any difference. I faced similar scrutiny in Delta County, Michigan more recently. They didn't like the idea of sharing artifact locations, even though I tell everyone that I don't need to reveal anything more specific than where it was found at the county level.  The problem, said Delta County, is the Native American Indian population in the area doesn't like it when people metal-detect on former sacred ground.


Disclaimer: the argument I will put forth here on this issue is not a pretty one.  On the one hand, no one feels worse than I do over how much has been taken from them.  But there comes a point when we have to say there's nothing we can do about the past. They still have land that they can keep people off of, and if they want more, they should buy more.  Many have casinos and can do that.  I know the Oneidas are doing it and the people in South Dakota should do that, but still refuse the money they were paid for the Black Hills. The Menominees were offered the Copper Culture State Park burial land years ago, and turned it down. They could have had their sacred burial grounds back for a buck, from what I understand.  The reason I left my job as curator there (besides the fact that it didn't pay) was that the Menominees disliked it as a burial museum, but since they didn't buy the land when it was offered to them, there wasn't much they could do about it.  I happened to agree with them, and didn't know back in 2010 of any other burial museums being run in this country (it's a bizarre focus for a museum).  There are mound sites, of course, such as Dickson Mounds, where burials were found.  But they don't run it as a burial site; at least, they haven't since NAGPRA.  In Oconto, burial photos are the main feature, rather than the copper itself.  I wanted to make it known as the Copper Artifact Research Center in the U.S., but Oconto citizens on my board did not agree.


One argument tribes use against the digging is that we don't go digging around in our historical burials.  But that's not a good argument, for the reason that headstones mark those locations, and those locations are properly owned and documented. The tribes could refer to all of the U.S. as sacred burial lands.  A lot of the sites got dug up because nothing indicated a site as a sacred site, like headstones, and stuff was found. That happened in Oconto, where the burial site was being excavated for its gravel. I'd love to give them all their land back but it isn't possible. I wish they had won the Indian wars. From my perspective, the only way to get the Black Hills back -- even though it was taken illegally -- is to buy it back.


I am available to any tribal member who wants to question me. But what I need is a capstone statement so that everyone realizes why this research is important, and should be of vital interest to all tribal members in North America.


 The CAMD demonstrates the wide communication and trade network their ancestors had in this country, via their copper industry, previous to the arrival of the Europeans. It shows how much civilization they had, and why they welcomed the Europeans at first -- as traders.  It is NOT to reveal sensitive digging locations and it is NOT to encourage more metal detecting. But it IS to encourage anyone who's found anything to share it for the database; otherwise, they might as well just put it back in the ground. This project shows that the value of those artifacts goes way beyond any sale value.


Much of what I've uncovered so far demonstrates the need for this research.  There is no good common typology that is being used, so pieces have been misidentified.  Some museums have no idea what they have and want help with interpretation.  Without someone showing an interest in these collections, they could be sold off, or even discarded.


The pre-contact copper tooling industry on this continent is a fascinating thing, and is currently undervalued.  It began up near Lake Superior, or in southern Wisconsin or in Illinois off float copper, as much as 10,000 years ago, long before the people here had agriculture.  Everywhere else in the world, agriculture and even pottery came first, which is why most other cultural groups entered the Bronze Age.  But the copper industry was going strong long before pottery was created and used in the U.S. --  when agriculture arrived copper artifacts became more decorative and ritual. Around 4,000 years ago, copper tooling in South America came after agriculture and turned into a smelting industry; they began to enter the Bronze Age long before Pizzaro arrived. And in Mexico and Central America, the influence of copper came from both north and south.  They were the last to tool in copper, but copper connections are being established in the CAMD between Mexico and the Great Lakes cultures that never could have been made otherwise.  As Mexico was sharing corn northward, copper trade was heading south.  Mexico was entering the Bronze Age when Cortez arrived.


There is so much to learn by the study of a single industry that spanned 10,000 years and affected so many people. The more information we have, the more we might be able to say where materials were created, who they were created for, and even why. We can be quite hard on private collectors who don't want to share what they found because they're afraid of getting into trouble. Because of this research, the same can be said now of museums.  But why should this research get anyone into trouble?  


If any tribe can answer that question, I'd love to hear from them. If they want to shut me down, they can contact me. If they want my data, all they have to do is ask. It belongs to them. I charge minimal price for the manuals I create, only as a way to pay back the time I spent. And I know I'll never earn as much as the time was worth.


There are important questions that historians, anthropologists, and archaeologists want to answer.  But if a project like this can be shut down, then why even have such a thing as archaeology?


Why, indeed.

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