Ancient Copper Mining in the Upper Peninsula

He was introduced to the idea of ancient copper miners, whom he refers to simply as “the ancients,” when still in high school. “A local group needed somebody to scout a site and figure out the best way to get to it,” he says between bites of a large breakfast called the Superior Special. But Ruutila’s interest didn’t really catch fire until 1990 when he became involved with the local history museum. He went out with artifact hunters, people with metal detectors. “For some people that becomes an addicting thing,” he says. “When the weekend comes, that’s all they can think about.”

Over time he became disenchanted with what he came to view as plundering of archaeological sites. “I saw that it’s better for those things to stay where they are, wait for a knowledgeable person, because once they are gone from the site, their story is no longer known.”

We walk a block to the museum and Ruutila steps to a glass case. Inside are what first appear to be palm-sized pieces of rock of various shapes. But on closer inspection they reveal the work of man. One has the slender taper of a spear tip. Another looks like a tapered rod. What enabled ancients to mine and use copper here is that the metal exists in a nearly pure, or native, state. Even North America’s earliest people figured out how to break off a chunk, pound the soft metal with a rock and come up with a spear point, no smelting required. The area has the largest concentration of native copper in the world. Ruutila reaches into the case and picks up a rock with a circular depression in the middle. “Maybe this was a mortar and pestle,” he says, making the grinding motion of a pestle.

We head to the back of the museum where sits a replica of a chunk of nearly pure copper about the size of a small dinner table and a foot thick. “This is what started it all,” Ruutila says. The rock, or rather the rock it replicates, once lay near a branch of the Ontonagon River. Some say it was revered by Native Americans, and rumor of it circulated for years among early explorers and priests. Eventually its place was revealed, and in 1842 a Detroiter purchased the 3,708-pound specimen from a Native American chief for $45 cash and another $105 in goods. The rock ultimately ended up in the Smithsonian museum, where it resides today. The rock’s discovery led to the copper rush and eventually to discovery of artifacts from the ancient miners.

But more interesting to me is the pile of stones that lies below the table holding the big rock. The smallest stones are the size of softballs, the largest like loaves of bread. If you were to see one on the beach you wouldn’t look twice. But look more closely and you’d see a shallow band, about an inch wide, etched around the middle. These are the rocks, called hammerstones, that the ancients used to pound away at basalt to get at copper deposits. Unconfirmed reports from the 1800’s say that stones have been found with remnants of fibers wrapped around the etched band, leading some anthropologists to reason that the stones were perhaps tied to a stick.

For some reason, seeing the hammerstones brings the ancients more into focus than did the finished copper artifacts. Perhaps because it’s easy to picture a man working, swinging the rock, his job, day in, day out. To put his work in time-travel perspective, during the same millennium on the other side of the world, humans were inventing two of the world’s most influential products, the wheel and beer.

We drive a few blocks to meet Richard Whiteman, co-proprietor of Red Metal Minerals, a two-person company that bought a defunct copper mine to teach teachers about geology. Whiteman stands near his pickup when we pull into the lot beside the Ontonagon River, a paper plant towering on the opposite shore. He opens his passenger door and points to three hammerstones—postcards from antiquity on the floor of the truck. At first it feels irreverent—I imagine them rolling around on the drive—but realize that if they withstood bashing basalt all day, they can survive this.

Article Comments

  • Anonymous

    Its good yeah need to do it for a ccr kinda hard but with this much info i can work with it

  • Anonymous

    copper is cool lol. i wonder how ancient miners found copper