M.A. Theses: Lanna Crucefix, 2001

Copper Use in the Old Copper Complex: A Comparative Analysis of Wittry VI-C Copper Axes and Three-quarter Grooved Stone Axes

A design theory approach was used to determine whether the copper axes of the Old Copper Complex (a Middle Archaic cultural complex located in the Upper Great Lakes region) were used primarily under practical (utilitarian) or prestigious (social) circumstances.

To ascertain whether copper axes were used as functionally efficient tools or social enablers, Wittry VI-C copper and three-quarter grooved stone axes (the control artifact type) were experimentally replicated. The effort involved in manufacturing the axes, and their effectiveness at completing a chopping task were then compared. To supplement the experimental study, archaeological context and spatial distribution, raw material procurement strategies, and copper use and beliefs in later cultures of the Great Lakes region were also investigated.

This study found that the spatial distribution of Wittry VI-C copper axes and three-quarter grooved stone axes was not significantly different. However, copper axes had a higher incident of being located in prestigious contexts, such as burials and caches. An examination of procurement costs found that copper was more expensive to obtain than stone material, in terms of skill, labour, and time. Considering the experimental replication of the two axe types, when the collection of firewood is factored in, the copper axes took longer to make, as well as requiring more skill, advanced technical knowledge, effort, dedicated work time, and more ancillary tools. When compared to the stone axes, copper axes-particularly the annealed axes-were not significantly more efficient in a wood-chopping task. Copper axes also required more maintenance to remain effective.

Using the data generated in this study, Wittry VI-C annealed copper axes-which have been found archaeologically-can be said fulfill the requirements of a purely prestige object, as they are costly to procure and manufacture, but are completely ineffective for most practical tasks. Although the cold-worked copper axes did meet a minimum level of functional efficiency, their overall costs show them to be utilitarian prestige objects. The primary role of these axes was played in the social sphere, displaying wealth, status, and power.