Copper And Symbolism

Don Spohn Ph.D

 

 

The question is: What part did symbolism play in prehistoric American Indians’ crafting and use of copper? We can roughly divide the possibilities into two apposing premise: (1) purely utilitarian with no regard to symbolism and (2) solely symbolic, however utilitarian the object may appear.

 

Perhaps, we have no true purists exist, but some are very close and others are closer to one premise or the other. Penman (1977: 3-14) for example, examined the nearly 1,000 pieces of copper found in the Hamilton collection for edge angles and surface wear to determine use. He concluded that the vast majority of pieces found in the Hamilton collection possessed signs of wear and tear created through utilitarian use. Most other copper researchers have ignore symbolism entirely. We can assume that in neglecting the subject, they are ignorant of or place little value in the symbolism premise.

 

Trevelyan (2004: 404-406) concluded that once crafted, motif and form probably determined the way the object was used thereafter. She believes all copper objects may be symbolic.

 

This student of prehistoric American Indian copper believes, and has often stated, there is an infinite number of ways most copper artifacts could have been crafted. A prehistoric American Indian coppersmith eliminated all but one, and his choice was directed by two guiding principles, intended use and culture. Trevelyan may be correct concerning the significance of symbolism in the prehistoric use of copper, but wrong in her belief that symbolism superseded or excluded utility.

 

Cultural difference (motif and form) associated with implements created for identical use is exemplified in copper projectile points. This reality allows us to identify type and associate type with culture. Different types of points identify different cultures or assorted uses within a culture. Slight variations of a type denote differing utility and experimentation, both controlled by cultural motif and form (culturally controlled symbolism). This being true, we never find Greek or Roman types, for example, in American Indian cultures, Neither, do we find distinctive Old Copper culture complex points in Hopewell settings. Although a point is a point, form and motif (type) are culturally distinguishable.

Cultural difference (motif and form) associated with implements created for identical use is exemplified in copper projectile points. This reality allows us to identify type and associate type with culture. Different types of points identify different cultures or assorted uses within a culture. Slight variations of a type denote differing utility and experimentation, both controlled by cultural motif and form (culturally controlled symbolism). This being true, we never find Greek or Roman types, for example, in American Indian cultures, Neither, do we find distinctive Old Copper culture complex points in Hopewell settings. Although a point is a point, form and motif (type) are culturally distinguishable.

 

Trevelyan, 1987: 2) studied the ceremonial significance of copper to Native American Indians in eastern United States prior to European contact. She believed that when copper artifacts appeared in greatest number, it was in conjunction with major ceremonial fluorescence. She also associated increases in copper production with significant changes in settlement and subsistence patterns as well as shifts in climate, perhaps even in response to those changes. Trevelyan speculated that, “ . . . . copper working may represent an integral element in traditional ways of dealing with social change and ecological stress among peoples of eastern United States in prehistoric times.

 

Trevelyan (2004: 1-8) built upon her previous study. She is sure that copper was the most important ritual medium in use throughout eastern North America in prehistoric times. She found that many aspects of copper use in ritual art remained remarkably consistent for thousands of years. She emphasizes its use in dealing with social and ecological stress and that the medium was more important than the form and motif. She found that it is the material itself and the concepts associated with native copper that are the basis of the consistency (Trevelyan 2004: 205).