NSF grant will shine light on ancient copper artifacts, innovation in Alaska

October 26, 2011

H. Kory Cooper, a Purdue assistant professor of anthropology, examines native copper nuggets and tools from the Copper River Basin in Alaska. Cooper received a grant from the Arctic Social Sciences Division of the National Science Foundation to study ancient copper innovation in far northwest North America. Through the project, he and his team will develop educational programming to help Alaska native youth in the Copper River Basin learn how their ancestors made and used copper tools. (Purdue University photo/Mark Simons)

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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - A Purdue University archaeologist will study ancient copper innovation in far northwest North America and will help Alaska native youth in the Copper River Basin learn how their ancestors made and used copper tools.

"Though scholars have discussed the use and importance of native copper in different areas of northwest North America, there are still many questions regarding how this technology developed and how and why it moved between different communities in the past," said H. Kory Cooper, an assistant professor of anthropology. "Native copper refers to copper found naturally in such a pure state that it can be worked without smelting or melting. Archaeological evidence indicates it was being used several thousand years ago in North America and the Near East, and because this early use of pure copper also is viewed as the origin of metallurgy, it has long been of interest to archaeologists around the globe."

South-central Alaska and southwestern Yukon have an abundance of native copper, and people in those regions were using this metal by at least A.D. 1000, Cooper said. These ancient copper workers include the ancestors of the Ahtna (pronounced AHHT-na), who live today in the Copper River region of Alaska and were famous for their expert copper-working skills.

This project is supported by a $512,950 grant from the Arctic Social Sciences Division of the National Science Foundation. It will be used to study collections of native copper artifacts from Alaska and neighboring Canadian provinces, fund graduate and undergraduate research, and support a number of collaborative activities with the Ahtna Heritage Foundation, the non-profit Native Alaskan organization responsible for education and cultural programs in the Copper River region.

"These educational opportunities fit well with Purdue's commitment to develop research that involves Native American communities and students," Cooper said. "Hopefully, this exercise will promote Ahtna heritage while generating excitement for science. What we develop can be used to teach science and engineering through archaeology to other children."

To prepare for this educational opportunity, Cooper and his team will replicate tools found in an archaeological site near the Ahtna community of Gulkana that dates to A.D. 900-1200. Cooper participated in excavations at this site in the 1990s, and it was here that he first became interested in archaeometallurgy, which is the study of ancient and historic metals. This summer, he and his team of students will use stone tools and traditional Ahtna copper-working techniques to manufacture tools out of native copper nuggets. In addition to providing information on how much effort was required to adopt this technology, this research will be used to develop an interactive program for schoolchildren that will be presented first to the Ahtna community. Ahtna youth and their families will be invited to participate in a day camp where they will be given copper from the region and some instructions on how to make a copper awl, an all-purpose tool used to punch holes in leather for sewing and a variety of other tasks.

"The goal of this collaboration is for children to learn about archaeology, ancient technology and cultural history in a way that encourages interest in science and engineering," Cooper said. "It also will provide a venue for people in the Ahtna community to share what they know about copper and other traditional technology."

Findings from Cooper's previous work and the current project will be shared during this session. A major component of the current project is to analyze previously excavated copper artifacts found throughout northwest North America. This museums collections research will include the use of portable X-ray fluorescence, a non-destructive technique for examining the composition of a variety of materials, including metals. Because native copper is very pure it can be distinguished from industrial smelted copper, which contains many elements not found in native copper that were introduced during the smelting process. Industrial-trade copper was entering Alaska and nearby regions via long-distance trade long before Europeans and Euro-North Americans arrived.

"I am especially interested in how this technology moved between different small-scale hunter-gather communities," he said. "This research will tell us a lot about the use of native copper, such as when it was first used, who was using it and how far did it move through trade networks. But it can also inform on past social and political processes. If someone can control this new valuable material then it can translate into political power and prestige. Ultimately, this research will have something to say about the innovation process more generally."

Cooper's collaborators on this project are the Ahtna Heritage Foundation; University of Alaska Museum of the North at the University of Alaska - Fairbanks; Antonio Simonetti, research associate professor at the University of Notre Dame; Bill Simeone, cultural anthropologist; and Robert "Jeff" Speakman, Associate Directo of the University of Georgia's Center for Applied Isotope Studies.

Cooper also has a courtesy appointment in Purdue's School of Materials Engineering, where, in collaboration with Carol Handwerker, Purdue's Reinhardt Schuhmann Jr. Professor of Materials Engineering, he has developed a course titled "Archaeology and Materials Science" where graduate and undergraduate students learn some of the methods and theories used to study ancient technology.

Writer: Amy Patterson Neubert, 765-494-9723, apatterson@purdue.edu

Source: H. Kory Cooper, 765-496-7430, hkcooper@purdue.edu