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Copper Culture State Park

Copper Culture State Park History

Copper Culture State Park is on the site of a prehistoric cemetery of the Old Copper Complex people who occupied the northern Midwest from ca. 4000 – 2000 BC.

This was the second recorded Old Copper Complex site. As such, it helped to establish the characteristics of this cultural complex in greater detail. The Old Copper Complex is considered a Late Archaic (hunting and gathering, pre-pottery, pre-agriculture) manifestation. The copper tools and the technology of hammering and annealing represents some of the earliest examples of metalworking in the world.

During the 1920s, a gravel company removed much of the cemetery and perhaps the entire living area.

The Excavations

The archaeological site was discovered by 13-year-old Donald Baldwin while digging in the abandoned gravel quarry in 1952. Archeologists soon learned about the discovery and Reuben La Fave and George Hall of the Oconto County Historical Society began informal test excavations. When this initial investigation revealed burials and copper artifacts, Robert Ritzenthaler and Arthur Niehoff of the Milwaukee Public Museum became interested and began formal excavations as part of the Wisconsin Archeological Survey.

These excavations revealed 21 burial pits, about 45 individuals. If the parts of the cemetery destroyed by the gravel quarry had the same concentration of burials, Ritzenthaler estimated that the site may have contained as many as 200 individuals.

Associated with the burials were numerous artifacts. Those made of copper include seven awls, four crescents, three clasps, one socketed-tang point, one fishtail tang, point, one ovoid point with broken tang, one fishhook, one bracelet, a section of tubing spirally coiled, a rivet, a spatula and four small unidentified pieces. Two points and a triangular scraper were the only chipped-stone artifacts found with the burials. Four other points and 10 more copper awls were found in the sand layers above the graves. Bone artifacts in the burial pits include a whistle made from a swan liumerus and an awl from a fish mandible.

Pond snail beads, a fresh water clam whose nearest present source is the Mississippi River and a whelk shell native to the Southern Atlantic Coastal States illustrate the use of shell and the presence of trade in order to obtain certain materials. Two lumps of hematite and some turtle and duck bones were also unearthed. Many of these artifacts are now at the Oconto County Historical Society Museum in Oconto.

Although the site is mainly a cemetery, numerous post molds were recorded and mapped during the excavation. Two contained fragments of charcoal.

This was the second recorded Old Copper Complex site. As such, it helped to establish the characteristics of this cultural complex in greater detail. The Old Copper Complex is considered a Late Archaic (hunting and gathering, pre-pottery, pre-agriculture) manifestation. The copper tools and the technology of hammering and annealing represents some of the earliest examples of metalworking in the world.

Earlier radiocarbon analysis provided dates of 5500 – 3600 BC for the Old Copper Complex. Although these dates have since been discredited, they stirred up a great deal of interest during their time. The most recent dates from Oconto and other similar sites, indicate that the Old Copper Complex people inhabited the area from about 4000 - 2000 BC. The copper artifacts of the northern Midwest have attracted a great deal of attention because their abundance was such a unique phenomenon in North America.

Note: Cultural heritage sites on public lands (including archaeological sites) are protected against disturbance, including artifact collecting, under provisions of applicable federal, state and local laws. Burial sites are protected against unauthorized disturbance on both public and private lands.

Last revised: Friday October 17 2014