Old Copper Complex
(7,000 to 3,500 years ago)
Cemeteries that seem more familiar to Wisconsin 's modern citizens were established by participants in the Old Copper complex — a technological and ritual phenomenon that spread across the Upper Midwest 7,000 years ago. A complex is a ritual system shared by many different communities.
Because of Wisconsin 's harsh winter, it was not always possible to bury the deceased right away. This may be why the oldest burial sites in Wisconsin contain only single cremations. Though cremation was still practiced during the Old Copper complex, new methods of burial were used too. Some bodies were elevated on platforms and left for about a year, until only bones remained. The platforms were placed on scaffolds, or hoisted into trees. They were probably wrapped in cloth, matting or hide, or placed in temporary coffins fashioned from canoes, bark or hollowed logs.
When enough time had passed, the bones were gathered up, arranged into a bundle and buried. Some bundles include all the parts of a skeleton, some just the largest bones, and some contain only skulls and long bones. Bundle burials found in Wisconsin can contain remains from a single person or many people. People were buried in separate bundles in small graves, or mixed together in massive communal graves called “ossuaries”.
Bodies that were buried right away, without being scaffolded, were placed in several different positions. “Extended” burials were laid out full length, either face-up or face-down. The legs of “semi-flexed” burials were loosely or sharply bent, and drawn partially up towards the torso. “Flexed” burials were placed in a fetal position, with the legs drawn up and arms bent. Some bodies may have been tied with cord or wrapped in hide, cloth or woven mats to keep their limbs in the proper position.
Four large Old Copper cemeteries were excavated in Wisconsin in the mid-20 th Century. The Osceola and Price III cemeteries are located in southwestern Wisconsin . Bundle burial was favored at both sites, but cremations and flexed burials were present as well. Both sites contained single burials surrounding large ossuary pits. The ossuary at Osceola held around 500 people, while the ossuary at Price III was used to bury 88 people. Mortuary offerings were rare at both sites, but did include antler and stone projectile points, small copper tools and various ornaments.
Evidence of specific funeral ritual at either site is scarce. Burials at Price III were either sprinkled with a powdered red paint called red ochre or covered with stone slabs. Only one individual at the site was accorded both treatments. Red ochre was not used as often at Osceola, and only three burial pits there were stone-capped. Instead, small lumps of gray clay were scattered throughout the site. The purpose of the clay is unknown.
The Oconto and Reigh sites, in eastern Wisconsin , indicate the presence of a different set of funeral rituals. Though bundled burials and cremations were found at both sites, flexed and extended burials were more common. There were no large ossuaries at either Oconto or Reigh, though some small communal burial pits were used.
Some burials at Reigh were coated with red ochre. Mortuary offerings were more common, and were associated with individual graves. Some people were buried holding tools made of copper, stone, bone or antler. One person was buried wearing a leather and copper necklace with a copper pendant. Another person was buried wearing a headdress topped by a circle of copper feathers. Other burials were accompanied by worked owl, swan and crane bones. The placement and condition of the graves at the site suggests that the cemetery was heavily re-used, since later burials disturbed earlier ones.
At least one western Old Copper complex burial site (the Bobwhite site) exhibits traits more normally associated with the eastern cemeteries. A single burial feature was identified there in the early 1990's, only a few miles away from the Price III site in Richland County , Wisconsin . The grave contained a copper bracelet, a spear-thrower weight called a bannerstone, tools, a cache of stone and spear points. This grave was not placed in a formal cemetery though — but right in the middle of a community site instead.
Excavations at the Old Copper cemeteries have told us a lot about life during the Old Copper Complex. Since two different cemetery customs were present, it is likely that at least two different cultures were as well. The eastern culture placed valuable objects with individual people rather than leaving them as shared offerings to the dead. Some eastern people were buried with a lot of wealth, while others had none. This suggests that economic differences were emerging in the east, while western societies lived more communal lifestyles.
The communal nature of life in the west is also supported by the use of ossuaries, which mingle the remains of entire communities together in a single mass. Ossuaries were probably formed during great “Feasts of the Dead”, held many years apart. Each family or village brought bone bundles to a central location, where funeral rituals were held for the group as a whole rather than for individual people.