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The Red Ochre Complex

(3,500 to 2,500 years ago)

Around 3,500 years ago the Old Copper complex slowly gave way to the Red Ochre complex. During the Old Copper complex, copper was mainly used to make knives, spear points and other tools. Some of these objects, and a few copper ornaments, were buried with the dead. During the Red Ochre complex, most copper was used to make jewelry. Red ochre, used sparingly in Old Copper Complex cemeteries, is found in abundance in Red Ochre complex cemeteries, giving the complex its name.

All of the burial types used in the Old Copper complex continued to be used during the Red Ochre complex. Burials were accompanied by ceremonial and exotic goods, such as copper ornaments, fine stone tools made from imported materials, ground-stone artifacts, and bone tools. Exotic materials were obtained through long-distance trade, including obsidian from Yellowstone, hornstone from Indiana , chalcedony from the Dakotas and marine shell from the Gulf coast. Sometimes caches of fine ceremonial items made of these materials were buried with the dead, and sometimes they were buried as offerings in their own right.

Most early Red Ochre complex sites in Wisconsin are known from accidental finds and avocational or amateur excavations. The discoverers of the Molash Creek site in Manitowoc County in the early 1900's found human bone in association with a large offering cache of stone and copper spear points, a necklace of copper beads, one white stone "sword", and 165 chipped stone tools. The cache, like the burial, had been coated in red ochre.

In the 1950's, two burials were found in a sandy knoll in Ozaukee County. One was a woman buried in a flexed position and covered with ochre. She was accompanied by a cache of five hornstone knives, two hafted knives, 43 other stone tools, four copper awls and four copper beads. The grave of a man was found nearby, near a marine shell bead and a polished stone ornament.

Only one early Red Ochre site has been scientifically excavated in Wisconsin. In the 1970's salvage excavations at Convent Knoll, in Waukesha County , uncovered three intact Red Ochre burial pits. Two pits contained flexed and semi-flexed burials accompanied by mortuary offerings. A third pit contained the disordered remains of six adult males without mortuary offerings. All six died violently. Evidence of violence was found in the first burial pit as well - the adult man buried there had been scalped, and a stone dart point was still lodged in his body.

This is some of the earliest evidence of warfare in Wisconsin. Violence leaves behind distinctive marks on human bones. Deep cut marks are left behind on skulls and bones when people are scalped or stabbed. Spear, dart and arrow points may become deeply lodged in bone. Axes and clubs leave behind distinctive crushing injuries and fractures.

The removal of heads, hands, limbs and scalps as war trophies is a world-wide phenomenon that extends back into deep time. There is abundant evidence for this practice in North America, ranging from eyewitness accounts to pre-contact engravings and sculptures, to the archaeological remains of the trophies themselves and the bodies they were taken from. Heads and scalps were the most common body parts taken in North America. The man buried in the first grave at Convent Knoll had been scalped. Several isolated skulls found among the victims in the third burial pit may represent trophies taken in battle.
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