Among the exotic materials collected by the Hopewell and used by their artisans to craft ornaments of iconic beauty none are more exotic than the chunks of iron, alloyed with nickel, that originated ultimately in outer space.
I describe the use of meteoritic iron by the Hopewell, as well as the ancient Egyptians, in my June column in the Columbus Dispatch.
Artifacts made from meteoritic iron have been found at most of the major Hopewell mounds, including Ater Mound, Harness Mound, the Hopewell Mound Group, Mound City Group, Seip-Pricer Mound, Seip-Conjoined Mound, Fort Ancient, and the Turner Earthworks.
The artifacts made from meteoritic iron include ornamental or ceremonial objects such as copper earspools plated with meteoritic iron, earspools made entirely from meteoritic iron, cylindrical beads, buttons made from various materials covered with meteoritic iron sheeting, boat-shaped hollow objects, cones, slate cones plated with meteoritic iron sheeting, panpipes, headplates, and even a human ulna, or lower arm bone, decorated with meteroritic iron foil.
In addition, Hopewell artisans used the iron to craft a number of apparently utilitarian objects, including adzes, axes, awls, celts, chisels, and drills. Since these were made from such an extraordinary raw material, however, it’s not likely that they served entirely as ordinary tools. They may have been symbols of social status or possibly religious icons.
The late Olaf Prufer speculated that the Hopewell might have realized that meteorites had fallen from the sky. We may never be able to know for sure what the Hopewell knew about these iron nuggets, but it’s certainly possible.
Prufer quotes W. J. Hoffman’s 19th century report of a Menominee myth about meteorites, which makes it clear that some American Indians knew where meteorites came from: “When a star falls from the sky, it leaves a fiery trail; it does not die, but its shade [spirit] goes to the place where it dropped to shine again. The Indians sometimes find the small stars in the prairie where they have fallen.”
Chemical studies have shown that at least some of the Hopewell meteoritic iron is from Brenham, Kansas. As I point out in my Dispatch column, there may have been no humans in North America 20,000 years ago when this meteorite left its fiery trail across the sky. But, as Prufer observed, some Hopewellians may have observed the fall of other meteorites, “in which case they may have had some knowledge of the nature of meteoric iron and how to recognize it.”
The Hopewell had a fascination with unusual raw materials, which they made extraordinary efforts to acquire. If they understood that meteoritic iron came from the sky, artifacts made from it must have been among their most sacred regalia. Prufer points out, however, that the use and treatment of meteoritic iron was “in no way different from that of other metals.” So there’s no good evidence to suggest that the Hopewell knew just how special that iron really was.
For further reading about the Hopewell use of meteroritic iron check out the following papers:
Carr, Christopher and Derek W. G. Sears
1985 Toward an analysis of the exchange of meteoritic iron in the Middle Woodland. Southeastern Archaeology 4(2):79-92.