Thursday, January 10, 2013

King Copper -- In the Beginning

The reigning mystery of the Superior region is the 'Copper Culture', of late renamed the Copper Complex and appropriately so, considering.

Perhaps 7,000 years ago (at any rate somewhere between 4,000 & 17,000 give or take), unique geologic circumstance combined with human ingenuity and led to the use of copper that in select places around the Superior Basin is easily found.

Image courtesy of the Philip J. Kucera Collection

It's quite the tale. World famous. Even infamous, depending. A subject of fierce debate in academic/extra-academic circles.
Small wonder too, 'cause this necessarily speculative narrative wanders from high science to myth and from established fact to wholesale presumption. There're stops along the way at DNA analysis, mineralogy, geology, native spirituality and collective memory. With outright fraud, complex mathematical formulae, skeletons of giants, academic indignation, whole flotillas of Phoenicians, Vikings and more. Even Edgar Cayce makes a cameo in this story.

Aliens too, though we'll not dig that deep.

The Copper Complex narrative turns primarily on unrelieved ignorance and is laced through with outsized characters carried along by profound cultural bias of the sort that doesn't readily wash, no matter how we apply science to the stain.

Reputations are destroyed, remade and destroyed again, over this.

That's because the Copper Complex story volunteers no definitive conclusion. Even the most rigorous of us and among those the academicians who insist the mystery's mostly dispelled, own to that.

So we do what we do as a people. We did it when we were a copper people and we do it still today -- we fill in the blanks of our story. As best we can with science or reasonable speculation and what's left we fill with invention. Then everything gets mixed all together and we go with it.

The authentic narrative of the Copper Complex people is unknowable to us as all what's left of them is a cache of hand fashioned stuff, a handful of holes in the ground, a cemetery or two and trash, like always with us.

But no oral history. No memory at all. No records to pour over, no diaries to dissect. Not even any blogs.

And because that's true, for so long as we remain a people curious about ourselves, we'll gnaw over this incomplete story of folk who once thrived on Superior's wild edges and for a time gleaned from the earth its copper, leaving their mark for us to ponder.

Even as our own more considerable mark upon the place is inexorably wiped away by much the same magnitude of landscape that obscures our Copper harvesting cousins.


What's true is that in a time so distant it remains shrouded by antiquity, over a period of perhaps 7,000 years people of Superior harvested a not inconsiderable amount of copper.

We know this because they left behind a slender record of their work; stone tools, copper implements and pits in the earth from where copper was both worked & removed. It's atop these pits that many of our most famous copper mines were later dug and when the historic copper boom came to America, it was a prehistoric people who'd led the way.

The existence of ancient copper mining came to the attention of commerce in 1847, at a site just up the hill from present day Rockland Mi. At the bottom of a trough and beneath the roots of a nearly 400 year old hemlock tree, an agent of the Minesota Mining Company discovered a detached mass of copper said to weigh nearly six tons. Beneath that he found construct in the form of wooden skids that raised the mass of copper several feet from the ground. The copper itself had long ago been worked smooth.

On that spot the Minesota Mining Company promptly sank Shaft #1.

Immediately and all around the Copper Country, we dug mines where once an ancient people worked. Speculators digging for dollars paid little mind to history and we can't know what evidence was destroyed during decades of building great mines atop much smaller, archaeologically significant sites. But what there was of it disappeared right quick.

Local Ojibwa of the 1800's didn't actively mine copper and whether through faded collective memory or reluctance to reveal to white folk the secrets of a Manitou and thus facilitate it's removal, by & large they kept their mouths shut when pressed on the subject.

So we decided the mysterious miners couldn't have been the Ojibwa, not like white folk ever forgot the secret of concrete for better than 1,300 years or anything...

Someone  mined copper before we did. We damned sure knew who it wasn't, so we filled in that blank with an "unknown people" who then had to have been white folk or descendants thereof, simply stood to reason.

And other mysterious things were found around the Basin too, some leading in a rough trail blazed all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. Piles of stone put with apparent purpose. Strange markings on rock. The occasional coin. Indians with blue eyes & light complexion. Stories of long ago "fair-haired marine men".

You know, like Phoenicians. Or better yet, Vikings. Or, added to the narrative much later but better than anything always, aliens. Atlantis. The whole nine yards.

What's true is that Superior copper sports a unique mineralogical signature. Properly tested, we know it when we find it, even when we find it far away. The people of the Copper Complex apparently traded on their copper. We've found it in 'bars' suitable for transport and considering the shells and other things not of Superior that've been catalogued at Copper Complex sites, it's likely that Superior copper made its way along trading routes that ran through Aztalan or Cahokia and from there across the continent.

Perhaps even so far away as the British Isles, where a farmer is said to have retrieved a piece of Superior copper from an archaeological site he discovered while digging in his field and there 'ya have it, we're back to Vikings.

For all of that, the most gnawed bone of contention in all this is the unknown amount of copper removed from whatever number of pits by however many people over no one quite knows for sure how long a time. Answer that and missing, critical chapters of the narrative are laid plain...

Except it sure seems to me that every number we plug into the equation is "x", for unknown. Helluva an equation that is, in a region gone archaeologically ravaged during the 100 years or so of King Copper's latest reign over an industrious people recently gone industrial scale.

And as far as I can tell there exists no comprehensive inventory made of Copper Complex sites that do still survive more or less intact. Which means all we can do is fill in the blanks.

Of this significant effort by people to remove copper from the ground and leveled over a very long time, we've a relatively small pile of relics left to show for it. Folk ask: "Where'd all that copper go?" and it'd seem rightly so.

But who the hell knows? Maybe aliens needed it, to get back to their home in the great northern sky. Via Atlantis.

Lake Superior @ Washburn Wi, from 120mm transparency

We don't remember what song copper sang to the people of the Copper Complex. It's echoes are lost along hard rock outcroppings hidden by thick woods, or played out across big water. It'd be a mistake to measure the meaning & uses of copper to these unknowable people by anything like our own story, especially considering how 19th Century industrial designs on the real world went on to define us, today.

Nor can we take these people's measure by the long ago and far away but much better remembered so vaguely more familiar stranger from across the sea, whose own historically recorded call to King Copper's throne began when man in the ancient world first rose out of the Stone Age to shape metal for his use.

Across the Middle East, Africa & Europe, that advancement set us on our path to modern civilization and is distinctly a horse of a different color, as we used to say. Regardless, it remains the oft-told story many of us are most comfortable drawing from to fill in the blanks, even for that part of the human narrative where civilization as we care to call it never quite cared to happen.

What's true is that this mystery story of human history lost does have a verifiable conclusion, though it leaves our penchant for easy reduction begging:

If we accept what we can't know and put aside our need for invention, what the Copper Complex story tells us is that many thousands of years ago, Superior was very much a world apart.

And remains so even today.

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