Social networking in today’s world means Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter. But hundreds of years ago, the indigenous tribes of North America had a different kind of social networking, and one Ball State archaeologist and his students are on the hunt for how copper played a role. Yes, copper.

Anthropology professor Dr. Mark Hill used National Geographic and Provost Immersive Learning grants totaling $36,000 for analysis and a field school this past Summer to study the relationship between production metals, primarily copper, and society. Hill and his students excavated an area on Lake Superior in the Keweenaw Peninsula in Michigan. It’s part of the Ottawa National Forest.

They’re looking to answer questions such as: How was the metal mined? How was labor organized? And what kind of effects do metals have on social organization and technology?

“More broadly the copper and silver from that region is featured prehistorically across North America from the Great Plains, east to the Atlantic. About half the continent is participating in exchange systems using this metal.”

In addition to excavation, Hill’s students looked for mining areas with ground penetrating radar (NSF award #1531388). They also used a portable X-ray  fluorescence analyzer to look for changes in the soil chemistry. After their analysis, Hill and his students will also produce a management plan in reference
to their dig site for the U.S. Forest Service. Hill spent nearly 20 years working for the Forest Service before returning to higher education to earn his doctorate in anthropology.


Dr. Mark Hill is pictured in class with Cecilia Szmutko, a graduate student in Anthropology

“Our principal goal is to produce a management document for the Forest Service that tells it this is what you have, this is how you should manage this resource, and this is how we should protect it, keep it, and monitor it.”

The opportunity to participate in an archaeological dig like the one in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan wasn’t lost on the students who attended the summer immersion class. “This was something that was pretty rare in archaeology because excavation can be really expensive,” said Lindsey Cron, a senior anthropology major from Okeana,

We can’t do these research projects without students. They’re learning how archaeology, in particular, functions within a federal agency and what laws and  policies are, that govern the management.” —Dr. Mark Hill

Ohio. “It was really cool Dr. Hill got the money, the time, and the support to pick students to go and see how archaeology works. I’m hoping to pursue a future in archeology. I really want to go to grad school next year for this, and this dig is a necessity to move on in my field.”

“We can’t do these research projects without students,” Hill said. “They’re learning how archaeology, in particular, functions within a federal agency and the laws and policies that govern the management.”

According to Hill, it’s possible to rewrite our past due to new information about it. The information he and his students learn about this region may enhance what’s known about this part of Michigan, already known as Copper Country. “By understanding this better, we’re not only contributing to our understanding of the past, but we’re contributing to people’s identity and value today. There are real-world implications to this. People use this to promote who they are and what
it means to be from the Copper Country.”

Hill will also be looking for any connections between copper mining in Michigan and the Ohio Hopewell culture. He just wrapped up a $260,000 National Science Foundation grant (award #1419225) where he studied the exchange of exotic metals in central Ohio. The Hopewell culture includes the Native Americans who lived along the rivers in the northeastern and Midwestern United States.

Through his research, he discovered the metals/ copper weren’t all coming from the Lake Superior basin. One school of thought was that they were. Hill said his new findings speak to a new chronology of how social interactions were taking place within the Hopewell culture. “Long term—the better we understand how that process works, how social structures were arranged, and how materials flow through these social arrangements, the better we understand how the small-scale communities come together into larger political entities.”

And, Hill said, by understanding our past, the world will better understand its present. “And it informs people’s identities. It informs people’s interactions with other people. The past is not something that is over and done with. It lives on in our perceptions, in our understandings, and in our agreements. So just the very act of trying to understand the past, helps to understand us in the first place.”

This article was written by Linda White.