The Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre echoed with the din of an ancient worksite Saturday as metallurgists wielding stones hammered away at nuggets of native copper, hoping to produce more than noise.
At least two hours of determined effort is needed to shape a small lump of raw metal into an awl, the simplest of the many copper artifacts recovered from archaeological sites across North America, Matthew Pike told the two dozen people who attended his lecture and demonstration.
A doctoral candidate at Duke University, Pike is looking at implements and adornments made by ancient people from Alaska to Greenland to understand how they used iron chipped from meteorites and rare outcrops of pure copper.
By subjecting the artifacts to non-invasive X-ray technology, Pike said researchers can determine if copper and iron used across ancient North America came from local sources, shipwrecks or through trade networks that reached as far as China.
Native copper is 99 per cent pure and contains the same impurities, so it is not yet possible to pinpoint the source of metal in artifacts created by artisans living on the British Columbia coast who traded for their raw material, Pike said.
Copper used in B.C. could have come from Alaska or Yukon, but it also might have been acquired through trade with people on the Arctic coast or the Great Lakes region – other sources of native copper, Pike said.
Metallurgists worked copper and iron in the Arctic for thousands of years before contact with Europeans and the desire to acquire and control sources of the metals may have influenced migration patterns and settlement choices, Pike said.
There is no evidence that new world cultures outside of Mexico and South America knew anything of smelting ore to obtain gold, silver and copper, or made objects by casting molten metal. Arctic artisans usually hammered away at cold nuggets.
“Heating copper makes it more malleable and changes its structure so that it is no longer brittle, but fuel isn’t abundant in the Arctic,” Pike said.
“I know it takes about two hours to make a simple awl, which is the most common copper artifact,” Pike said. “I can’t imagine how long it would take to hammer out an object as complex as a knife, or an ulu.”
Apart from patience, the greatest challenge to new age metallurgists pounding away in the Prince of Wales auditorium was keeping fingers clear of stone hammers and anvils.