Q&A: Historian Documents Prehistoric Copper Trade Network

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument | Courtesy of National Park Service

Casa Grande Ruins National Monument | Courtesy of National Park Service

Author and historian Monette Bebow-Reinhard has been working with copper artifacts since 2000, when she began her work with the Oconto County (Wisconsin) Historical Society, home of the oldest copper burial site in the nation. Now, her research has spread to include all of North America, as well as South America. In 2004, Bebow-Reinhard received her master’s degree in history, with a focus on “Aztec origins.” Her degree has led her to begin compiling a database of copper artifacts throughout the nation in an effort to track a trade network. Because she is neither a private collector nor an archaeologist, her focus is on being a mediator between the two groups and offering her findings to the public. Bebow-Reinhard answered a few of our questions about her work in copper research.

Q: What exactly do you do, and how did you get started?
A: I contact museums and private collectors, and I stop at every antiques store, in an effort to compile a master database of all Pre-Columbian copper artifacts found in the Americas. I felt that the first metal industry in this country was not receiving the attention it deserved, and this database would be of great value to researchers — and a source of enlightenment and further understanding of prehistory to the general public.

Q: Why is this kind of work significant to you personally?
I got interested in the Anasazi, Hohokam and Mogollon, as well as in Mesoamerica, back in 1996, when I was doing my undergraduate work in history. I took an art-history class and became so enamored that I also student-taught the class two more times, until that professor retired. Until this class, I had little knowledge of anything in prehistoric times, and I felt like I had been denied. Their wonderful pre-contact societies, all they were able to create and do, needs to be understood, and I believe this copper contribution will help.

Q: Why is this kind of work significant to society?
A: What I feel most important about this research is the ability to track trade networks, to demonstrate that there were so many people on these continents at one time that they could share easily — from Peru all the way up into Canada.  This kind of trade can be tracked through a compilation of copper artifacts that are currently “hidden” away in museum archives or private collectors’ back rooms; this database stores that information in one easy-access location. Then it can be sorted by state or country and we can easily see, regardless of where the artifacts are stored, where they were found, created and used by people, and what those finds indicate about their social connections in their time.

Without this, we’ll never fully understand how well populated and civilized this country was before the Europeans arrived. Without this, the true history of the native experience in this country might never get written.

Q: What is your goal in tracking artifacts in North America and South America?
I want to see researchers and historians and others able to access this data to answer all kinds of lingering questions. I want to see people who think that the native American Indians who lived here were savages come to understand how smart and civilized they really were. I want people to stop saying that Europeans must have come over and created the copper industry long before Columbus, because “those people weren’t capable.”  And I want people who travel to understand the landscape just a little better.

Q: Where were these artifacts found?
To date, my database includes Arizona artifacts from Harvard’s Peabody Museum, Denver’s Museum of Natural Science, the Santa Fe History Museum, the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., and the museum in Beloit, Wisconsin. I have also just obtained the database from Flagstaff that includes Wupatki ruins artifacts, indicating this as a perfect stop on a curious traveler’s route. Other locations in Arizona found in the database include Gila Pueblo, Casa Grande and Antelope Mesa. I’ll be looking at these sites more in depth, but carefully, so that I don’t give any locations away. I always want to get more in depth on the bells that have been discovered, as there’s a potential they were being smelted by the Hohokam in Southern Arizona.

Q: What does this indicate in the bigger picture?
This will show how Arizona’s peoples connected to those farther away, in Mexico and elsewhere, and this will also show what the people were like who created this pieces. I also am in search of a mystery: Did the Hohokam start to smelt copper? Did they begin to create their own bells? I have some interesting geological material that I’m going to get analyzed by one of my colleagues. If they were being smelted there, it indicates the first area in the U.S. where people were starting to get into the Bronze Age, which had begun in South America and Mexico before the Conquest. Eventually, I hope to do presentations on the topic in Arizona.

Q: What are some of the historical sites we can visit?
This research will include some of the places I’ve contacted, and will also encourage people to share anything they might know about copper artifacts, too.

  • Museum of Northern Arizona, Flagstaff: a great anthropology/archaeology repository of more than 600,000 pieces. They also offer festivals that feature a balance of ancient and modern cultural presentations, performances and activities.
  • Arizona Museum of Natural History, Phoenix: includes a re-creation of a Hohokam village, updated in 2000 to show it in two parts, Pre-Classic and later Classic period structures.
  • Wupatki National Monument, near Flagstaff: My database indicates they have a copper bell on display. I have personal photos from my 1998 visit to this site.
  • Tohono O’odham Cultural Center and Museum, Topawa: They promote understanding and respect through educational programs and public outreach.
  • Cocopah Museum, Somerton: In the Yuma area.
  • Case Grande Ruins National Monument: Another place I’ve visited, this has preserved Hohokam structures and is a definite location of copper artifacts found in this database.
  • Casa Malpais, near Springerville: Another site I’ve visited in the past, it is a look at the Mogollon culture within Arizona. Most of their cultural sites are in New Mexico. Their museum features artifacts found there, and I’m in the process of learning if any were copper.

I’ve contacted other sites, too, and hope I get more responses.

— Alexandra Winter


Filed under Et Cetera, History, Q&A

4 responses to “Q&A: Historian Documents Prehistoric Copper Trade Network

  1. Terence Orin

    Is there a connection to the copper used in Europe during the Bronze Age? Does it have a chemical signature?

  2. No, Terrence, and I don’t see the need to make one. It’s enough to know that the people on this continent were able to create their own copper tools – and it may be possible they were created here before they were in the Old World. Lake Superior has the purest copper in the world, and the largest deposits, and the Old World had plenty of its own sources, less pure, and more easily smelted into alloys.

  3. You actually make it seem really easy along with your presentation but I to find this topic to be really something that I
    think I might never understand. It kind of feels too complex and very extensive for me.
    I’m having a look ahead to your next publish, I
    will attempt to get the grasp of it!

    • I enjoy your thoughts! I can see where it would be difficult to grasp, but think of it this way – the people who lived in this country before the Europeans got here were a lot smarter than we give them credit for. They had a lot of people, were involved in trading, had civilization. This copper research is all part of that. Let me know if you have a specific question you’d like me to address.

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