Oconto County WIGenWeb Project
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.Copper Culture Burial Site.
Oconto County, Wisconsin
contributed by: Sarah Baldueck -
from the family heirloom scrapbook of her grandmother, believed published in the
Oconto County Reporter, date unknown.

To the Copper Culture Main Page 

(NOTE: the time of this article's writing is in the early 1950's, shortly after the site was discovered. Scientific analysis has progressed tremendously since that time, and many of the conclusions have undoubtably changed. The purpose of this posting is to share these historic findings as of the time they happened - Rita)   

13 Year Old 
Donald  Baldwin who discovered the Copper Culture Burial ground in June 1952.

Oconto County Reporter Reuben LaFave, Oconto County Archaeologist, Police Chief Henry Toole Oconto, and George E. Hall, President of the Oconto County Historical Society inspecting relics at the Old Indian Burial Grounds a short time after the discovery was made.

           By Robert E. Ritzenthaler and Warren L. Wittry


           The purpose of this preliminary paper is to present a descriptive report of a recently discovered Old Copper site on the western outskirts of the city of Oconto in Oconto County, Wisconsin. The importance of the site lies in the fact that it is only the second instance of Old Copper artifacts found in sites with burials, the first being the Osceola Site in Grant County, Wisconsin, discovered and excavated in 1945. While Osceola added some important information to this little-known culture of Wisconsin, it was obvious that more such sites were necessary for comparative purposes and to expand the picture of the life of these early Wisconsin inhabitants. The Oconto Site provided valuable data along these lines. It has been generally believed that the Old Copper people were the earliest Indians to inhabit Wisconsin, and estimates run as much as 5000 years ago for their arrival. Their name is derived from the fact of their having made a considerable variety of tools and ornaments out of Lake Superior copper by the processes of cold hammering or heating and hammering. The copper artifacts, most of which have occurred as surface finds, are distinctive for their thick coat of copper salts and heavy acid erosion which suggest considerable antiquity. The Osceola Site (Ritzenthaler, 1945) showed that a-long with such Old Copper artifacts as socket-tang spear points, spuds, knives, awls, conical points, beads, and bracelets there occurred a rather distinctive chipped-stone industry. The chipped-stone work exhibited fine workmanship in primary flaking and secondary  retouching, and included in its products a characteristic type of drill, scraper, and point. The points were consistent in having a lanceoate shape with rather parallel sides, side notching, and a concave or sometimes straight base. Two bannerstones, of the "bow-tie" and prismoidal type, found by amateurs at the site provide evidence  that they also made ground-stone artifacts.

Their burial complex consisted of interment in a cemetery (no mounds) and the employment of the bundle burial method as most common, but partial cremation was also practiced. Their type of implements indicate an economy based on  hunting and fishing.

With this rather meager picture of Old Copper culture the Oconto Site was approached. One chief objective was to obtain enough charred wood for a Carbon 14 analysis as to accurately date this group. We were also interested in getting information on house type, ground-stone work, and in obtaining data which could be compared with Osceola in terms of burial practices, and types of copper and  chipped-stone artifacts.

Diagram of the archaeological dig site

          The Oconto Site

          The Oconto Site was discovered in June, 1952, by Donald Baldwin, a 13 year old boy, while digging in an abandoned gravel quarry on the western outskirts of the city of Oconto. His discovery of human bones was investigated by Mr. Reuben  LaFave and Mr. George Hall of the Oconto County Historical Society, and their test excavations revealed burials accompanied by copper artifacts. The find was reported to the Milwaukee Public Museum, and two members of the anthropology department made a one day trip to examine the site and artifacts obtained thus  far. Arrangements were made to excavate the site, and on July 16th, Mr. Warren Wittry representing the Wisconsin State Historical Society, and Mr. Robert  Ritzenthaler and Mr. Arthur Niehoff of the Milwaukee Public Museum arrived at Oconto and began work. The project was conducted as part of the program of the Wisconsin Archaeological Survey.
General View of Site

The site lies within the western limits of the city of Oconto with the burial area about 150 yards north of the Oconto River. Specifically it is within Part 4 of Government Lot 8, Section 24 of Oconto Township, and is now the property of the Oconto Historical Society. The area was formerly a fairly level one1, but commercial gravel operations during the 1920's removed and disturbed a large area and there is little doubt that a considerable portion of the burial site was destroyed in the process. It is probable that the burial site originally enclosed an area at least 100 feet square. There is no indication of mounds. Beneath the eight-inch topsoil lie several feet of Plainfield fine sand, underlain by gravel.


Method of Excavation

A base line running north-south was established nd a five-foot grid system employed. Excavation procedure was to strip a square rapidly down to the bottom of the approximately eight inches humus layer which was sterile except for quantities of sawn animal bones existing as refuse from a slaughterhouse formerly located just to the east of the burial area. When the yellowish sand lying below the humus line was reached, stripping proceeded more cautiously as occasional copper implements (particularly awls) were found only a few inches below the top of the sand layer. Near the bottom of the roughly two foot deep sand layer, the burial pits would begin to show up.. The burial pits were rectangular as seen from above, roughly two by four and one-half feet in size, and  basin-shape in cross-section.

They had been dug into the gravel, the burials laid-in and covered with sand, so the pits were discernible by the gravel outline when approached from above. The cremation pits appeared as roughly circular when seen from above,  basin-shaped in cross-section, and in instances did not penetrate into the gravel layer. Each pH was given a feature number.

            The Burial Complex

Nearly all the burials occurred in pits, and both burial pits and cremation pits were found. Eighteen burial pits were discovered, with one of these sterile. Three others had been discovered by Mr. LaFave before our arrival. While the usual size was about two by four and one-half feet, they ranged in length from four to eight feet, and in width from two to nearly four feet. The shape was rectanguloid as seen from above, with rounded corners, sometimes to the extent of resulting in  the outline being more elliptical than rectanguloid.
(Out of respect for the Ancestors, photographs of their burial excavations have been removed).

 Feature 10 showing pit shaped and extended burial.

(Out of respect for the Ancestors, photographs of their burial excavations have been removed).

Feature 7 showing partial flexed burial with shull of bundle burial near pelvis, and skull of child and two antler tips near feet

They were basin-shaped in vertical cross-section and from one to two feet in depth. Most were "custom dug." just large enough to  house the individual or individuals interred. Of the twenty-one burial pits, one contained nothing, eleven contained a single individual, seven contained two  individuals, one contained three, and one contained five. A variety of burial  positions were sometimes found to occur in a single pit. In Feature 7, for example,  there were three bundle burials, one partially flexed, and one extended. In the two instances in which the secondary burials occurred in the same pit with primary ones, the secondary burials were above the primaries. Apparently the individuals who died in the winter were kept until the spring thaw made digging possible. Then the recently dead were interred in the flesh and the bones of those  left over from the winter were thrown on top as secondary burials. In eight of the pits one or more artifacts were found, but there was no consistent or significant  position of artifacts in relation to the skeleton.

 (Out of respect for the Ancestors, photographs of their burial excavations have been removed).

Feature 5  Double burial in pit showing whistle at back of head of child.

The bone whistle, however, lay at the back of the head of the child. (See Webb, 1950, p. 291, for a similar occurrence.) Thirteen of the pits were  orientated with the longitudinal axis running in a roughly north-south direction, but there seems to be no significance to it, as some had an east-west orientation and others fell somewhere in between. Furthermore, there seemed to be no pattern as to how the individuals were faced. A total of seven cremation pits were discovered plus one reported by the LaFave excavation. They were roughly circular as seen from above, and basin-shaped in vertical cross-section. Their diameters ranged from two to four

Method Number of Individuals
  certain        probable
Extended  9 (2 of these were prone positions)
Partially flexed  4                      3
Fully flexed  3                      1
Bundle 12
Partial cremation 8 pits (number of individuals un-known)
(Unidentified)  5
Total 45 individuals


 Physical type:
 A study of the skeletal material has yet to be made, but it is readily apparent that they were a fairly robust group, of average stature for Wisconsin Indians, but  with well-developed musculature. The state of bone preservation ranged from fair to very poor.

Evidence of Occupation

Besides the cemetery there was little in the way of evidence of occupation. Copper implements, particularly awls, occurred sporadically in the upper levels of  the sand layer and bore no apparent relationship to the burials. Four chipped-stone points were found apart from an association with burials. It is probably that they represent lost or discarded items. Numerous post molds were found and mapped, but no discernable pattern was apparent. A considerable number were of consistent size usually 8 feet in diameter, and in some cases three or four would line up with fairly consistent spacing and direction, then abruptly end. Fragments of charcoal were found in two  of the molds. The end product was a map showing such disorderly scattering that  no resemblance of a wall or house could be ascertained.


A detailed list of the Oconto specimens with description, measurements, and association appears as Appendix A of this report. This section will concern itselfwith a summary of the types found and comparisons with Osceola materials.

Oconto yielded fewer copper artifacts and fewer types than Osceola. There was  a total of 26 specimens found, including those dug by local residents and turned in for measurement and photographing.






The types are listed as follows:
             Seven awls , four crescents, three clasps, and one each of the following: spear-point with broken tang, fishhook, bracelet, section of spirally-coiled tubing, rivet, and spatula.

There were also four  small unidentified pieces.

           As with Osceola, awls were the most numerous type of artifact, but the Oconto specimens were of smaller size.

           Crescents were more numerous at Oconto, but in contrast with Osceola no spuds  were found and only one socketed-tang spear-point. At both sites utilitarian products were much more numerous that the ornamental.

            Chipped Stone

SCRAPER (bottom)

Somewhat surprising, in contrast to Osceola, was the paucity of chipped-stone implements. A total of seven such artifacts were found, with only three being associated with burials. Of the remaining four, one, a straight-stemmed point fragment, occurred in the humus layer and could represent a different culture, one was found in a disturbed area and stratigraphy could not be determined, and two were near the top of the sand layer. All were projectile points with the exception of one, a triangular scraper found with a burial. Of the two points found with burials one was triangular in basic shape with the side notches, but the sides of the blade appear to be re-chipped; the other was ovoid with a straight base and  side notches. The latter was the nearest in type to the Osceola type, but none were characteristic Osceola points. Besides the variation in type, the Oconto  points were smaller, none being over two inches in length. Like Osceola, however, the technique of primary flaking with secondary retouching along the edges was employed.


Two bone artifacts were found, the first bone Implements to be associated with the Old Copper complex thus far. The most interesting was a fine specimen of a whistle made from a leg bone of a swan. It was six inches long with a rectangular opening near the center, and three rows of short, incised lines running the full length as decoration. The second specimen was a awl 2  5/8 inches in length and made from a portion of a fish jaw.




Two well-preserved antler tips, suitable for use as flaking tools although the polished ends gave no indication of such use, were found together in a burial bit. A third specimen, a charred short end-section occurred in a concentration of charred wood.




A series of 14 pond snail (Campeloma decisum) beads plus fragments of several more were found with a burial before our arrival. They were reported as occurring at the wrist of the skeleton and apparently 1/8 inches in diameter near the center with the stringing presumbably done through this hole and the natural aperture.


Portions of two unworked shells were also found in a burial pit. One was a fresh-water clam {Unio ellipsis), the nearest present source of which is the Mississippi River. The second was part of the shoulder of a large lightning shell, a type of whelk (Fulgar perversus) the present distribution of which is the Atlantic Coast from North Carolina to Florida. It was from a shell originally about a foot  in length, and its importance lies in its indication of trade or contact with a region over a thousand miles away.
Two lumps of iron ore were found near the head of the extended child burial, with which the bone whistle was found. A rounded facet, apparently of natural origin, appears on the smaller of the two.

No pottery was found. 

           Animal Remains:
 Near the head of an extended burial in a pit, Feature 4, were found a number of small bones. They were indentified as parts of turtle and a duck (unidentified asto species but about the size of a mallard).


 While the Oconto and Osceola sites are obviously closely related in culture and must be considered as belonging to the Old Copper Culture, it is also apparent that there are a number of differences between the two. The variation is most strongly evident in the chipped-stone types, but the differences also exists in terms of types of copper artifacts, burial methods, bone and antler work, and polished stone.

To a considerable extent it is merely the absence of a trait, such as bone work for Osceola, that creates the difference, and it is very possible that what we have here are inadequate inventories of the culture at both places. Future excavation might fill in these gaps to the extent that such negative variations will cancel out. The variations apparent at this point could be theoretically accounted for on either special or temporal grounds, or both. Considering the special approach the two sites are at opposite ends of the state some 210 miles apart as the crow flies. If contact were lacking, the variation could easily occur within a relatively short period of time. As to a temporal difference, there is no evidence to indicate either that one is older than the other, or that they were contemporaneous. It might be noted that Oconto is near the heart of the Old Copper center as indicated by distributional studies based on surface finds (Wittry, 1951, pp. 14, 18) while Osceola exists as a lonely outpost, but it is impossible at this point to determine  which group was the earlier.

Concerning the problem of dating, there was nothing at either site to dispute the theory that Old Copper represents an archaic horizon in Wisconsin, and that these were the earliest Indians to occupy the site. The Oconto site, in fact, bolsters this theory because of such evidence as the absence of pottery and the bone whistle of a type found in archaic sites outside the state (see Ritchie, 1944, p. 294, and Webb,  1946, p. 305). As for more precise dating, enough charred wood was obtained at Oconto for a carbon 14 analysis and it is hoped that the forthcoming analysis will  provide the answer to the problem of the age of the Old Copper culture in Wisconsin.

  *   Ritchie, William A., The Pre-Iroquoian Occupations of New York State. Rochester Museum Memoir No. 1, 1944.
  *   Ritzenthaler, Robert E., The Osceola Site. Wisconsin Archeologist. N. S. Vol. 27, No. 3,  Sept. 1946.
  *   Webb, Wm. S., Indian Knoll. University of Kentucky Reports in Anthrop. and Arch., Vol. 4, No. 3, Part 1, 1946.
  *    ——————————————, The Carlson Annis Mound. University of Kentucky Reports in Anthrop. antl Arch., Vol. 7, No. 4, 1950.
  *     Wittry, Warren L., A Preliminary Study of the Old Copper Complex. Wisconsin Archeologist N. S. Vol. 32, No. 1, Mar. 1951.