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Copper Artifacts

The Universality of the Old Copper Rat Tail Point

by E.J. Neiburger, Waukegan, Illinois

Originally Published in the Central States Archaeological Journal, Vol.56, No.1, pg.36

The Old Copper Culture began around 8,000 years ago (YBP) in the upper Midwest. The local natives gathered and mined wide­spread deposits of float copper which were left after the glaciers receded. Among the var­ied tools, weapons and ornaments made from this 99.9% pure metal was the rat tail point (Figure 1).

This copper design consisted of a pointed leaf-shaped blade and a rounded tail shaft which tapered to a point; like the tail of a rat. The blade and shaft were of varying lengths relative to each other. Most rat tails had a shaft 1.5 to 2 times the length of the blade (Figure 2). The shaft attached to a handle (knife) or a harpoon-spear pole. Some may have had a dual purpose in the case of the awl-knife; a cutting blade and a protruding pointed awl on the opposite side of the tools handle. What is unique about the rat tail design is that it is aes­thetically pleasing; in many cases, beautiful. The design is smooth, balanced and "cool" looking to the human mind.

Though greatly promoted as North Ameri­can, the rat tail is in fact, a universal, world wide design. Not only is it pretty to see but its design is quite practical and efficient ergo­nomically. It is a great metal tool and many ancient cultures discovered and used the de­sign.


Figure 1.  Four rat tails from the upper Midwest.  Old Copper Culture, USA.  Circa 4000 BCE.


Figure 2:  Numberous Midwestern rat tail and other spear points with a variety of size and tail lengths.  From the Field Museum, Chicago.  Est 4000-500 BCE.


Figure 3:  A rat tail (top) and other cast copper points from an ancient Egyptian tomb. 2000 BCE.


Figure 4:  A thin rat tail (upper left) and other socketed points from Roman period Spain. Circa 200 AD.
Figure 5:  Two rat tails from ancient Luristan, Afghanistan.  1000 BCE.
Left - Figure 6:  Two rat tails from Kish, an ancient Babylonian regional city, Iraq.  Dated 3000 BCE.
Right- Figure 7:  Three rat tail points (iron) from Zulu culture, South Africa.  Before AD 1800.
A special note. Since many cultures around the world made rat tails of essentially similar design and wrought manufacture, there is an "inducement" for rat tails to be sold to mu­seums and collectors under the label of the country/local which brings the highest prices. Luristani rat tails are plentiful and inexpen­sive as compared with North American rat tails. Thus many Luristani rat tails are flood­ing the collector markets under the name of North American Old Copper Culture.  These relics have excellent shapes, patinas (they are ancient) and are made of copper or copper alloys.  Without a destructive metal analysis, you cannot tell the difference.
Figure 8:  Two bronze rat tail points from Etruscan Culture, Italy circa 300 BCE.

The rat tail point design is not unique to North American Old Copper Culture. Exam­ples of its identical design can be found in Eu­rope, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.

"Used by Permission of the Author"
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