Ancient Copper Mining in the Upper Peninsula

The geology that created copper is easy to understand from this vantage point, as well. “The layers of rock at one time laid like this,” Ruutila says, placing his one hand over the other like a sandwich. “Then they tilted,” he says, and tilts his hands. What we are standing on now is the edge of one of the tilted layers. When the land tilted, it opened cracks deep in the earth that allowed super-heated steam to rise, and when it did, it carried minute quantities of dissolved copper. As the steam cooled, the copper precipitated out of the steam and coated the sides of the fissures, eventually building into deposits.

The next day we drive to meet one of the area’s most experienced amateur archaeologists, 95-year-old Werner Lamsa. He opens the door wearing white running shoes, newer blue jeans and a button up cotton shirt. Somehow he exudes more energy than most people 30 years younger. Lamsa grew up here, but spent 30 years downstate in a tool shop. He retired in 1975 and shortly afterwards began hunting for artifacts. One day he saw somebody using a metal detector to hunt jewelry at a beach. “I looked at that and thought, I could use that,” he says.

For the next couple of decades he spent what time he could roaming the hills near his home in Mass City, metal detector in hand, and put together a nice collection. “Just a minute,” he says. He heads through a door to the basement and returns, breathing hard, carrying two flat, glass-topped cases. The collection is better than the Ontonagon museum’s. Multiple spear points, rough squares that could be crude ax heads, one item is a semi-circle—perhaps a decorative breast plate, Lamsa speculates. One spear point, maybe 6 inches long, has a ridge running its length, revealing more advanced skills. “Look, they even beveled that off real nice,” he says, his toolmaker’s eye picking up the details.

Lamsa’s son is a nuclear physicist who worked his career in Switzerland. When the son heard once that Lamsa had sold a piece to a collector, he asked Lamsa how much he would take for the entire collection. Lamsa told him, his son paid him and then instructed Lamsa to hang onto the collection. Lamsa reaches for a red cookie tin filled halfway with green chunks of copper about the size of matchbooks. Some people speculate that these were trade pieces, blanks to be fashioned by the buyer. “I’ve given away I don’t know how many of these things,” he says. “Just pounded pieces of metal. Who knows, maybe the kids made them.” He holds out five pieces. “Take them,” he says. “Keep them.” Ruutila looks at me. “Take them,” he says. I put them in my pocket.

Lamsa is going to take us to an unusual site, but suggests we drive separately because he has to be back for an 11:30 lunch. We follow him as he barrels down the road. Soon he parks on a two-track and we all get out. He pulls a large ski pole from this car and marches off into the woods, to the edge of a ridge. The rusting framework remnant of a white-man’s mine rises nearby. We walk to the edge of the ridge. “Down there is where the mine dumped its poor rock (waste rock) right on top of a big pile of hammerstones,” Lamsa says. “Then years later when they had to make a road bed, they just came in with the rock crusher and fed it all right through, hundreds, maybe thousands of hammerstones just crushed.” Lamsa shakes his head in sad disbelief. But that’s not what Lamsa brought us here to see. We walk along the ridge until we reach a place where shallow, narrow trenches, just a couple of inches wide and deep run across a bulbous lobe of basalt. He digs the tip of his ski pole into the crevice and scrapes along their length, cleaning out mud, moss and leaves. The lines are relatively straight for a few feet then intersect another trench going a different direction, but they don’t create a recognizable pattern. Lamsa wonders what they mean. Are they art? Are they some sort of communication? I can’t help but wonder if they are just scrapes in the rock from the last glacier that moved through.

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