Great Lakes Copper Research's Terminology, Definitions, And Theoretical Basis

Typology is the scientific study and systematic classification of copper artifacts into 'taxonomic classes,' especially the taxonomic class, 'type.' Different types of a 'genre,' spear point types, for example, have many characteristics or traits in common, but were created for many uses by a large number of cultures, over a period of thousands of years. They are, therefore, very different in many respects, yet each, studied in its type, reveals strikingly similar and parallel parts.

Typology is the methodical study of type details and the sorting of types by culture. Each type is associated with a single culture or with cultures that traded with or were influenced by the primary culture.

Each distinguishing characteristic is a cultural decision. There are an infinite number of ways a knife blade or a spear point could be crafted. A coppersmith eliminated every way but one, and his choice was directed by two guiding principles, intended use and culture

Some topologists were defeated by the conclusion; "....there are just so many ways a projectile point can be produced. In the fullness of time, craftsmen in each isolated area produced the maximum range of possible types .... without the aid of diffusion...." (Hedican and McGlade 1993).

In a continuing study of several thousand New World copper projectile points, this research has yet to discover a Roman, Greek, or Lorestan point, or any other distinct Old World type. In the "fullness of time," foreign types were not created in North America. It is too early, however, to say whether diffusion from the Old World affected New World coppersmithing. Institutional collections contain occasional misidentified counterfeits and foreign objects. (Walsh 2005). This study is limited to type characteristics found in the New World. In North America, copper artifacts' characteristics reveal their type and, therefore, their culture.  

Biologists and zoologists long ago established their taxonomic categories: kingdoms, classes, families, species and varieties. Mineralogists and other sciences have their classifications. We are overdue for the special benefits that occur when members within a branch of science understand each other's language and use that language in classifying objects of study. A unifying language involves taxonomy (typology and nomenclature).

Once taxonomy is in place, artifacts can be classified. Typed copper artifacts are diagnostic and diagnosis leads to temporal and cultural associations. Using this scientific tool (taxonomy), investigators can add much to what is known about the ancient people who prospected for, mined, manufactured, traded, and used copper in North America.

North American copper artifacts fall easily and naturally into the following taxonomic classes. See Appendix 2, 3, & 4.

1. Kingdoms

All prehistoric artifacts are crafted from materials already divided into three 'kingdoms:' plant, animal and mineral. Each kingdom is divided into 'families.'

2. Families

The mineral kingdom is divided into several distinct families. Some of these families are: lithic, bone, wood, iron and copper. Families are subdivided into 'kinds.'

3. Kinds

Within the copper family we have five kinds of artifacts: (1) tools, (2) weapons, (3) ornaments, (4) spiritual objects: religious, ceremonial and musical, and (5) economic objects such as modified pieces of copper prepared for storage and shipment, for later use, and for trade.

Copper artifacts are classified by kind according to use and use can change. Man is free to change his mind and often does. A projectile point hammered out as a spear can be used as a knife. Another piece can be worn as jewelry, but function as a totem or charm. We look to the primary function for the most exact classification (See Appendix 5, Rules In Classifying). Kinds are divided into the taxonomic subclass, 'divisions.'

4. Divisions

Each kind is subdivided into its divisions. Weapon kind, for example is divided into the axe, celt, knife, projectile points and other divisions. Ornamental kind consists of the bead division, the ring division, the bracelet division and many other ornamental divisions. Divisions are composed of 'genres.'

5. Genres

Each division has its sub-taxonomic classes called genres. The projectile point division has five distinct taxonomic genres, spear points, arrowheads, harpoon points, dart heads, and atlatl points. Genres are further divided into 'types.'

6. Types

All previous sub-taxonomic classes are aids in diagnosing type. Type is a critical taxonomic class in the study of copper; it is the essence of the copper taxonomic classification. It is the most diagnostic taxonomic class; the one most closely associated to temporal and spatial relationships, and most important of all, type is culturally diagnostic. Each type is associated with a single culture and to cultures influenced by the primary culture. Multiple types for similar utility, associated with a single cultures are proof of experimentation.  

Genres are made up of types and there are many types of spear points. Some of the established types include: Rat Tail, Swallow Tail, Serrated, the Ace of Spades and many more. Types are sub classified into 'varieties' of types.

Artifacts, alike in major details or characteristics, may differ in one or more minor traits. They may be alike in every way except one has a rivet hole, for example, while the others do not. Artifacts showing small but consistent differences are classified as a variety of the type from which they differ. There may be an exception to this rule. If the variety in traits between two artifacts is due to distinct cultures separated by significant time, the artifacts will each require their own type name. We have added to their minor differences the major attributes, culture and time. Types are divided into the final taxonomic class, 'varieties.'

7. Varieties

Significant differences in types are classified as varieties and most types consist of two or more varieties. We surmise that varieties of a type were created to meet new needs and were reactions to associations with new cultures and new technologies, and one method of dealing with social and ecological stress (Trevelyan 2004). Varieties are proof and example of experimentation.

Varieties may have been used side by side in the same time-period, or change may have taken place over a span of many generations. We know changes in both variety and type occurred in historical times upon contact with Europeans and the availability of western trade goods. Indeed, the whole family of copper artifacts gave way to those of the iron family.

Ancient craftsmen created copper artifacts to meet practical or perceived needs. The various methods they chose to solve those needs were cultural decisions. Types, varieties, and artifact parts are cultural tags left for us by these men of yore.   

The Socketed Ovate point is an example of one spear point type. It has varieties. Three of these are: those with a pinhole, those with a step, and a variety without a pinhole or a step. We know that the variety with the pinhole has the distinct advantage of stabilizing the point on its shaft. The step prevents the shaft from moving forward upon impact. We do not know for sure, however, if the pinhole variety or the step variety were later technological improvements. It is possible that they were used side by side, but for different tasks; one needing the stability of a rivet, another demanding the sturdiness of a step, while the third required neither. Nomenclature is a tool for solving such problems.

Variety is typology's last copper taxonomic sub-class. There are many more taxonomic classes, but they involve segment and part names. The diagnostic tool used to study and assign segment names to individual parts is the nomenclature half of copper taxonomy.

A final taxonomic tool is one of 'classing' copper artifacts, a diagnostic tool the fathers of typology confused with typing. Classing must be distinguished from classifying. Classifying leads to permanent taxonomic class names. Classing is temporary. Classifying associates types with cultures. Classing disregards types and cultures.


Classifying consists of all permanent categories and sub categories that make up the taxonomic classes of copper artifacts, each with its own class name. We classify an object by identifying it and assigning it to an established taxonomic class. The primary classifications are, kingdoms, families, kinds, divisions, genres, types, and varieties. A classified object receives a permanent taxonomic class name and segment names for its individual parts.


Classing is temporary. A class is created by pulling together a temporary group of artifacts with one or more chosen, common, distinguishing characteristics, regardless of their temporal, spatial and cultural associations. All tools and weapons with sockets could be chosen and called a Socket Class. This new temporary class would include axes, projectile points, knives and other socketed objects, and may represent many cultures from around the world.

Similarly, we could create a Pinhole Class for objects that were secured with rivets. A class can be as narrow or as broad as is useful for a particular research. We "class" objects for comparative studies and "classing" an object is temporary. Temporarily "classing" an object must not be confused with "classifying" one, giving it a permanent taxonomic classification and name.

Classing is an excellent tool for gathering together objects with selected parallel traits for study, as a preliminary step in identifying types. Likewise, a group of like-types may be temporarily classed to distinguish varieties. Topologists choose traits appropriate for temporary class studies.

Classing is a flexible manipulative tool, while taxonomic classes, once correctly organized, are ridged and permanent.   The conical point, for example, was one of the earliest copper projectile points, but one created and utilized by various copper-using cultures throughout history. All copper conical points, from earliest times down through brass ones of the 1900s, fall into the temporary Conical Class.  

The Conical Class must, eventually, be broken into permanent sub taxonomic classes, especially the types taxonomic class, each associated with the cultures that crafted it. In doing so, each type will receive its own set of cultural characteristics and its own taxonomic name. As a Conical Class, however, these points are associated with all copper-crafting Indians. Once classified, we seek to match each type with its temporal, spatial, and cultural primum mobile .        

Early topologists made the mistake of typing class attributes. The results were confusing. Examples were the "Ridged Point type" (Brown 1904), the "Notched Tang type" (West 1929), and the "Leaf Shaped Type" (Flaskerd 1940). Each of these so-called types represented multiple cultures. Their groupings were meaningless. West, 1928, gathered three or four types and their varieties together (Turkey Tail, Serrated, Barbed, Side-notched) to form his "Notched Tang type". His Notched Tang type was, in reality, a Notched Class representing multiple types and cultures.  

The bitter fruit of confusing class with type is misidentification. Types are attributed to specific cultures and this fact makes typing an important diagnostic tool. Classing, on the other hand, gathers up a group or class of copper artifacts based on temporary, chosen, distinguishing characteristics. These distinguishing characteristics are often shared by kinds, divisions, genres and types; produced in various cultures, at widely separated locations throughout history.

The diagnostic value of identifying classes as types is minimal at best, and misleading at worst. Classing is not wrong and classifying is good. Used correctly, both are valuable tools, but representing class as type can be confusing, and misleading.

Classing can blur, or reveal, cultural distinction between copper artifacts, which share characteristics. Blurring may lead to misidentifying cultures, or confuse foreign artifacts with American Indian creations.

We commonly find differences in objects made for the same use. These differences are the fruit of cultural decisions made by craftsmen who had many options available in fabricating an implement or ornament for a specific set of needs. Typology arranges artifacts by the cultural options that distinguish them as a type or a variety of a type, derived from a specific culture or related cultures. Classing ignores culture, but used correctly, it is a temporary, preliminary tool, which may assist in defining culture.

Most types of copper artifacts are clear and distinct in their classification. We will never find a Socketed Triangulate crafted by a five hundred year old culture, or by any culture not associated with the Old Copper culture complex. We are less adept at reading cultural tags on awls, beads and some other copper taxonomic classes.       

Typology and nomenclature make up copper taxonomy, the science of reading cultural tags. Typology is impossible without part names, nomenclature.  


In our study, 'nomenclature' is the science or art of seeing, naming, and studying copper artifacts in their parts, components, traits, and characteristics. It is the grouping of parts, segments and traits into unique set of characteristics, morphologically diagnostic of a culture. The major taxonomic classes of nomenclature are as follows:


All Copper artifacts have two or three major parts. Most projectiles points and knives have two major parts, blades and tangs. Axes have bits and polls. Fishhooks have tangs and hooks. Parts are composed of segments and traits. All parts have names and descriptions.


Segments are the areas or sub-taxonomic divisions of parts. Blades and tangs are two parts, each composed of segments. Blade segments include the blade's surface, cutting edge, point, and base. Some segments, a median ridge, for example, double as traits. Segments are defined by traits and all segments have names and descriptions. Segments are cultural decisions, cultural tags.  


Whereas a segment defines the location (tip, base, edge, outline, etc.) of a physical area, trait describes attributes of that area. Traits include rivet holes, other drilled holes, cross sectional shapes, tails, serrations, barbs, and other traits. All blades (knife and point) have segment-points, but a beveled point is a trait. All copper artifacts have cross-sectional segments, but the shape of that segment (round, oval, triangular, etc.) is a trait. An objects surface is a segment, but the convexity of that surface is a trait. Traits are refined cultural tags, each with its own taxonomic name.


The characteristics of an object are its unique morphological blend of parts, segments, and traits. A set of characteristics may describe, the whole artifact, or a component elected for study. Unique characteristics distinguish a particular artifact, and others with near-identical blends, as cultural mates. All parts, segments and traits that make up sets of characteristics, have names and descriptions. Sets of characteristics are even more closely associated to a specific culture, than are traits. Characteristics, type, and culture are closely related.

Nomenclature is used in the art of studying and typing artifacts. It is a diagnostic tool used to find and name cultural tags. Unfortunately, the literature is full of contradictory, misleading and confusing type and component names. At present, the tang is also called stem, shaft, haft, tail, base, flange, prong, and shank. Too often, there are no type or part names at all. This leads to misclassification, vague classification and, more often than not, no classification.

Typology and nomenclature are scientific tools. The assignment of type names to whole pieces and segment names to individual parts is necessary to a taxonomic order of knowledge. Nomenclature is used in the art of studying and typing artifacts. It is the diagnostic morphological tool used to find and name cultural tags. Nomenclature leads to typing and typing leads to associations with time, geography and culture.

Copper artifacts are not found with names or dates. In-situ records are often non-existent, associated carbon is rare, carbon testing is expensive, and associations with other dated or culturally known artifacts are uncommon. Metal detectors recover most of today's copper, and their archaeological records are forever lost.

If copper projectile points were even as clearly typed as flint points, it would be easier to associate various copper points with cultures we already know something about, to those we are learning more about, and to those yet to be identified. The first step in associating copper artifacts with time, geography and culture is the assignment of names to their components.

As boring as nomenclature is, it stands as the prerequisite to and the cornerstone of a copper taxonomy. If we are to learn something of the people who prospected for, mined, manufactured, traded, and used copper in prehistoric North America, we must first develop a sophisticated nomenclature for copper artifact and their parts.

A taxonomic progress is necessary to the expansion of knowledge, and nomenclature is as indispensable to a copper taxonomy, as anatomy is to medicine. Nomenclature is very diagnostic in identifying cultural tags. It is typology's strong right arm in assigning type to unclassified copper objects.

Fortunately, a copper taxonomic classification need not stand alone. Where it identifies cultural tags and links them with culture, another such instrument identifies 'creation marks' and associates them with culture.



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