Local Historian Tom Baird to Discuss Rare Copper Artifact at Museum – NCC8 Presentation Coincides with Museum’s Holiday Shopping Spree
Chris Andy adjusted his earphones and swung his metal detector left, then right, in a measured, cautious gesture. The sound, more clear this time, was distinct. The detector’s digital readout read copper, and he wondered if he would find another coin. Cautious to dig only a small divot from the turf, he heard the distinct
Chris Andy adjusted his earphones and swung his metal detector left, then right, in a measured, cautious gesture. The sound, more clear this time, was distinct. The detector’s digital readout read copper, and he wondered if he would find another coin. Cautious to dig only a small divot from the turf, he heard the distinct sound of metal against metal. It was larger than he thought. Not a coin. Not a nail. Seconds later, he held the green, rectangular object in his hands, the first time in more than 5,000 years the copper ax had been in the sunlight.
This was not a historic find — not a lost penny or a chunk of garbage discarded in the past 100 years or so. This was an ancient Indian artifact, one that had made its way through various hands along the prehistoric trade routes, from the pure copper mines of what is now called Michigan, to a lonely cornfield along Muncy Creek in Pennsylvania.
But Andy wouldn’t confirm all of this for several years — not until he saw an article in the local newspaper about an upcoming Indian Artifact Show. He was scheduled to work that Saturday, and couldn’t attend, so he contacted the show’s organizers and handed it over.
Man on a Mission
Tom “Tank” Baird, a local avocational archaeologist and historian with Northcentral Chapter 8, Society for Pennsylvania, made it his mission to learn as much as he could about the oxidized, irregular chunk of metal that had somehow ended up more than a thousand miles, and thousands of years, from the copper nugget outcrop that yielded it.
Baird estimates the artifact is possibly 5,000-years-old, a copper ax that is one among several copper items found in Lycoming County. He’ll discuss the artifact, and the copper culture and trade routes of Native Americans in Pennsylvania, at an upcoming talk at the Lycoming County Historical Society. Slated for 2 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 9, the presentation coincides with the Taber Museum’s Holiday Shop, which is open from 1 to 4 p.m.
Technically, the artifact is termed a “celt,” but “ax” is a clear definition for most people.
“This rare find was a prestige item, probably carried by a person of high rank amongst the Native American population here,” Baird said. “Remember, Europeans were not the first to bring trade to the Americas. The people already living here traded for goods for many thousands of years before their arrival.”
Baird said he had an informed opinion about the people who made it, and where is it from. “I believe this ax was made by the Old Copper Culture of upper Michigan. Noninvasive testing shows the purity of the copper is consistent with the Keweenaw Peninsula, which extends into Lake Superior.”
Native Americans could not “smelt” copper so it had to be layered and how they bonded the layers remains a question.
Baird said that the process of taking raw copper and either shaping a tool from a large nugget or pounding it into sheets and layering those sheets is one of the mysteries surrounding these artifacts. That’s because the system of layering and annealing used by Native Americans has not been duplicated by modern means or experimental archaeology.
How Did It Get Here?
Baird has a theory about who may have lost the artifact, and that it may have a connection to other copper items found locally.
“The other copper artifact found in Lycoming County is a biface, or spear point, found at the 1965 Airport excavation,” Baird said. “It is now in the Thomas Taber Museum. That object was dated to the same time period, and all indications are it was brought here in trade by the Otter Creek Culture, a people based in New Hampshire.
“Archaeological evidence from all around New England, and as far south as Pennsylvania, suggests their trade with this precious metal,” he continued. “Traveling on foot, these native people really got around. This ax had to be brought as a finished item from Michigan and then down to our area.”
Even though the avocational archaeologist may be able to trace where it was made, where it ended up, and the approximate age of the object, the item’s amazing travel path may be lost to the ages.
“Since the ax was found near Muncy Creek, it may have been a grave item and simply got washed away, or it might have simply been misplaced in the darkness of the forest,” Baird said, speculating. “This was a time before Native agriculture, and this area was heavily forested. There might have been conflict involved, but these groups were hunter-gatherer societies, and as far as we know the barriers to trade were minimal.
“It seems that the borders of these cultures were open to all trade activities. Since this was found close to Warrior Springs, a meeting place on the West Branch of the Susquehanna River for over 10,000 years, and along the Wyalusing Trail coming out of the north, I can easily imagine it coming or going to that ancient site. If, in fact, it was simply lost it was a very bad day for those that lost it.”
Trade in Prehistoric North America
According to Baird, the prehistoric people of the Americas were adept and traveled more than most people think.
“North Americans, 5,000 years ago and further back, were sophisticated traders and travelers,” he said. “They were far from the small bands of hunter-gatherers living isolated in the dark forests in primitive conditions that have been imagined. In Louisiana, 5,000 years ago, these same archaic people built an amazing earthen observatory that predates Stonehenge and even the pyramids!”
His research on the copper artifact took him to Ohio to study cultures that were not as old, but who also made these type of items, namely the mound building cultures of the Adena and Hopewell. Even though some of their items show up here in Pennsylvania from time to time, typology (size and shape of the artifact) pretty much rule them out for this particular artifact, he said.
“The only suspected items found here in Lycoming County attributed to these ancient people (the Adena and Hopewell) are pipes and projectile points,” Baird said. “These items could have been brought back to the area, but these cultures were traveling to the Great Lakes, the Gulf of Mexico, the East Coast and as far west as Yellowstone. I have little trouble believing that they themselves left these items. The lesson here is that these people were sophisticated traders and travelers.”
Public Invited to View the Copper Ax
Baird now owns the copper artifact and plans to introduce it to fans of prehistory at upcoming artifact shows and lectures.
“It needs to be seen by the general public,” Baird said. “Very few people know that these ancient people had the technology to produce a high-quality item such as this, and it needs to be shown. “To illustrate: I recently visited an immense private collection of Native American artifacts,” he continued. “The family had been collecting in this area for over 100 years. When I asked if they had any copper items, the owner answered ‘Huh?’ That’s how rare they are. So this item needs to be displayed.”
Baird is working on plans to display the copper artifact at a museum, similar to the effigy he has loaned to the Lycoming County Historical Society, Taber Museum. That item, a rare Native American human effigy, was made by the Clemson’s Island People, a Native American culture living in the Susquehanna River valley area approximately 1,000 years ago.
Visitors to Baird’s December 9th presentation may also view the rare human effigy, on display in the art gallery of the museum.
- August 14, 2019
- August 14, 2019