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 Post subject: wonderful power
PostPosted: Wed Jun 28, 2017 8:57 pm 
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Location: Broomfield, Colorado
One would think a book with the title Wonderful Power would be about nuclear reactors or solar energy, but I’s actually about ancient Native American copper mining in the Upper Peninsula (the title comes from anthropological observation that the native copper nuggets conferred “wonderful power” on the possessor). The discussion in straightforward; native copper is found in “trap rock” in the Keweenaw Peninsula and Isle Royale (which turn out to be opposite limbs of a syncline). Native Americans mined the stuff by locating a lode or vein and pounding with rocks; sometimes the pounders were deliberately shaped to make them more efficient, sometimes they were just whatever was to hand. The miners preferred vein copper, since it was already in narrow sheets and therefore didn’t need a lot of subsequent work to make it into tools and ornaments. Large lumps were usually left in place, since there was no easy way to cut off small pieces for further work. Copper was traded all over North America, with isotopic and trace metal identified Lake Superior copper ending up as far away as Ohio and Alabama. The industry vanished with the arrival of Europeans, who provided trade metals.

Author Susan Martin explores a number of ideas about native copper mining. Despite Agricola’s mention of fire as a mining tool (you heat up a rock face or pit floor, then throw cold water on it to shatter the rock), there’s no evidence that Native Americans ever did this; although some of the mining pits have charcoal, it’s better explained by debris from forest fires, and experimental attempts to mine with fire didn’t have any effect. There is evidence that Native Americans knew about annealing; repeated hammering of copper hardens and embrittles it but heating to a few hundred degrees will restore malleability. There’s no evidence for casting or swaging, although there are a couple of copper beads that look like they have been welded. Martin notes that the melting point of copper is outside an ordinary wood fire, although a charcoal fire with bellows or human-blown tuyerès could have done it. There’s no evidence for copper smelting (reduction from oxide ores or conversion of sulfides to oxides and subsequent reduction) from the Upper Peninsula, although there were some subtle hints around Ducktown, Tennessee which were unfortunately destroyed by subsequent mining.

Martin decries metal detectionists, although conceding that the English system might work, and even quotes an American archaeologist who worked with metal detectionists at the Battle of the Little Big Horn as noted that he learned from hobbyist metal detections that archaeologists really didn’t know anything about metal detecting. Unfortunately, Martin doesn’t explain how the English system works: a metal detectionists who finds an object reports it to the local archaeology officer. The State has the option to buy it at appraised value; if not it is returned to the finder. The system works in England because the land has been plowed for millennia and find context has been lost; it would be more problematical in North America where archaeological metal finds are probably still in their original location.

Martin also goes into considerable if polite debunking of various modern myths about Lake Superior copper, particularly those attributed to Barry Fell. Fell was a marine biologist who became an amateur archaeologist; I’ve read one of his books (America B.C) which is mostly concerned with various “inscriptions” from around North America that Fell “translated”, supposedly providing evidence for extensive pre-Columbian European presence in North America. “Inscriptions” and “translated” are in quotes here, since a lot of the “inscriptions” look like natural markings, and Fell’s “translations” are often from languages that only Fell claimed to be able to read, including “Old Punic” and “Vowel-Less Ogham”. I hadn’t realized Fell had published two more books (Saga America and Bronze Age America), that claimed an extensive pre-Columbian trans-Atlantic trade in Lake Superior copper, run by Carthaginians and supplying Celts and Celtiberians. Martin sadly notes that Fell’s books have much more extensive readership than conventional archaeological works, and many of the amateurs she met took their validity for granted.

Extensively referenced and footnoted, with a large bibliography including both legitimate archaeological works and weird stuff. Martin has to depend fairly heavily on archaeology done in the 19th century, since archaeologists of that time excavated all the easy sites – often using less than ideal methods. Illustrations include artifacts and archaeologists. Esoteric but educational.


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 Post subject: Re: wonderful power
PostPosted: Sun Jul 02, 2017 8:08 pm 
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Huh. Mining by fire is still pretty much the story told about the Cerillos mines here in my neck of the woods. I had no idea it wasn't universally accepted.


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 Post subject: Re: wonderful power
PostPosted: Sun Jul 02, 2017 11:06 pm 
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That was my understanding too; it's certainly documented by Agricola, and archaeologists have been using it for years to explain ancient mining and quarrying practices. Martin quotes an actual experiment as being ineffective, but perhaps the experimenters were working with unsuitable rock or didn't really know what they were doing.


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