Academic journal article Southeastern Archaeology

The North-South Copper Axis

Academic journal article Southeastern Archaeology

The North-South Copper Axis

Article excerpt

Two native copper axes were recovered during the early twentieth century by looters of a historic Neutral cemetery near Niagara Falls, Ontario. These specimens are described and compared to similar axes and axe form plates from Mississippian sites in the southeastern United States. Archaeological constructs and ethnographic information from the latter region are considered in an attempt to understand the cultural significance of these unique Ontario artifacts. It is determined that there was contact over a distance of 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles) between central Alabama and southern Ontario during the early seventeenth century.

Sand and gravel quarrying just south of St. David's, Ontario, uncovered in 1908 what appears to have been an extensive early-seventeenth-century (Glass Bead Period 3, Lennox and Fitzgerald 1990:414, Table 13.1) cemetery relating to one of the tribes of the Neutral confederacy (Figure 1). This discovery attracted the attention of looters from both sides of the international border and led to the dispersal of an unknown volume and range of mortuary artifacts (Boyle 1911:9; Fox 2002a:4-5). Among these were two native copper axes of a distinctive form, one of which was recovered by David Boyle for the Provincial Museum (now held by the Royal Ontario Museum), and one that was obtained by the Heye Foundation of the American Indian in New York (now held by the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian). So distinctive were these specimens that their presence in the institutional collections was published in an Annual Archaeological Report for Ontario (Boyle 1911:11, Figure 28771) and the Heye Foundation's Indian Notes and Monographs series (Skinner 1920). Skinner (1920:6) noted their resemblance to copper axes recovered from southeastern Mississippian sites such as Moundville.

The Neutral confederacy appears to have been established in the sixteenth century (Fitzgerald 1992: 3-4), as various Iroquoian-speaking groups converged at the head (western end) of Lake Ontario, joining groups already resident in the Niagara Peninsula and adjacent Grand River drainage basin. While recorded direct contact with the Neutral confederacy is limited, seventeenth-century French records suggest that the confederacy comprised some eight or nine tribes (Lennox and Fitzgerald 1990:410, Figure 13.3), situated strategically to control travel routes around the west end of Lake Ontario and east end of Lake Erie. It has been suggested that an exceptionally high level chiefdom existed among the Neutral peoples during the early seventeenth century (Noble 1985); however, there is no archaeological evidence to date to support this proposition. The confederacy was destroyed in A.D. 1651 as a result of a conflict with the Seneca and allied Five Nations, leading to the dispersal of the Neutral peoples and the adoption of many by the Seneca (Wright 1963:50-57).

The axe curated by the Royal Ontario Museum (Figure 2a) is 451.5 mm in length, 50.9 mm wide at the poll, 70.4 mm wide at mid-length, has a 116.5-mm-wide flaring bit, and is a mere 3.3 mm in thickness. It has been confirmed as manufactured of native copper through trace element analysis (Fox et al. 1995:277, 285), and the high cobalt signature for this specimen suggests a Southeast source (Sharon Goad, personal communication 2002). Goad (1980:270-71) has determined that local native copper sources were used for the production of a majority of Mississippian period artifacts in the Southeast. The Smithsonian specimen (Figure 2b) is 421.0 mm in length, 52.6 mm wide at the poll, 75.7 mm wide at mid-length, has a 98.3-mm-wide bit, and is 3.5 mm thick. While it has not been tested chemically, the evident laminated structure and thickness of this axe strongly indicate manufacture from native copper.

Mississippian Axes

Waring and Holder (1977:18) in 1945 identified non-utilitarian copper axes among their diagnostics of "a prehistoric ceremonial complex in the southeastern United States," which later came to be known as the "Southern Cult" and, later still, the "Southeastern Ceremonial Complex" (SECC) (Galloway 1989:1-7). …

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