Copper Ogee symbol sheet from the Etowah Indian Mounds

Mississippian copper plates, or plaques, are plain and repoussed plates of beaten copper crafted by peoples of the various regional expressions of the Mississippian culture between 800 to 1600 CE. They have been found as artifacts in archaeological sites in the American Midwest and Southeast. The plates, found as far afield as Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Wisconsin, were instrumental in the development of the archaeological concept known as the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex. Some of the more notable examples are representations of raptorial birds and avian-themed dancing warriors.

Copper trade routes throughout the Eastern Woodlands were established during the Archaic period (3000 - 1000 BCE) and continued into historic times. Copper was usually imported from the Great Lakes region; however other sources of copper have been found elsewhere including in the Appalachian Mountains near the Etowah Site in Alabama.

For generations the Indigenous peoples of North America pursued copper sources and transmitted the skill of copper’s manipulation and preparation as a special material for use in elite goods on to their descendants. Elites at major political and religious centers during the Mississippian period used copper ornamentation as a sign of their status by crafting the sacred material into representations connected with the Chiefly Warrior cult of the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex. These elites used a trade network that spanned most of North America to acquire exotic trade items from far away, trading their own locally manufactured elite goods and materials.

After the collapse of the Mississippian way of life in the 1500s with the advent of European colonization, copper still retained a place in Native American religious life as a special material. Copper was traditionally regarded as sacred by many historic period Eastern tribes. Copper nuggets are included in medicine bundles among Great Lakes tribes. Among 19th century Muscogee Creeks, a group of copper plates carried along the Trail of Tears are regarded as some of the tribe's most sacred items.

The native copper, as well as the knowledge to work it, is believed to have come from the Great Lakes area, hundreds of miles to the north of the Cahokia polity and most other Mississippian culture sites, although the copper workshops discovered near Mound 34 at Cahokia are so far the only copper workshops found at a Mississippian culture archaeological site. Researchers at Northwestern’s School of Engineering and Applied Science used an electron microscope to analyze pieces of the flat copper sheets found during excavations at the Mound 34 site at Cahokia. The researchers found that the metal had been repeatedly heated and cooled and while it was softened by the heat, had been hammered, a process known as annealing, similar to how blacksmiths work iron. They were also able to determine that the Cahokian coppersmiths had heated the copper in a wood fire to produce sufficient heat for this process. This process of heating and hammering was repeated over and over until a sheet of the desired thickness was obtained and was sufficient a method to allow the craftsman to work the copper into very thin sheets. Researchers have also tried different techniques to duplicate how larger pieces were manufactured. They determined that the larger pieces had not been laminated together but had most likely been riveted together with small copper knobs. Researchers were also able to determine that the artisans cut the copper into the desired shapes by bending the sheet metal back and forth until it broke in the desired location.

After the flat sheets of copper were produced, designs were then embossed into the surfaces probably with stone, bone or wooden tools. Frank Hamilton Cushing, an anthropologist working in the early 20th century, worked out a method for flattening and embossing the plates. He hammered raw nuggets of copper smooth and removed imperfections by scouring the surface with a piece of sandstone. He was then able to duplicate the avian designs by resting the sheet of copper on a rawhide pad and pressing into the surface using a piece of pointed deer antler and pressing with his chest. This produced a sharp thin line that when the plate was reversed resembled the embossed lines of the aboriginal artifacts. This process is considered to be roughly similar to how Mississippian coppersmiths probably worked.

Distribution of avian themed copper plates

Avian, or bird-related, themed plates are thought to depict aspects of the Birdman, a major figure in Mississippian iconography closely associated with warfare, ritual dancing, and the game of chunkey. Numerous examples of similar avian themed plates have been found in locations across the Midwest and Southeast, from the large cache found in Malden near the bootheel region in Dunkin County, Missouri to others from Mangum in Mississippi, Spiro in Oklahoma, Etowah in Georgia, Lake Jackson Mounds in Florida and other sites in Missouri, Illinois, and Alabama.

The “Hightower style” Birdman of Etowah (left), the “Craig style” Birdman from Spiro (center) and the “Hemphill style” Birdman on shell from Moundville (right)

“Braden style” Birdman plate from Lake Jackson (left), Birdman plate from the Upper Bluff Lake site in Illinois (center) is nearly identical to the Spiro plate, the Wilcox site plate from Western Florida (right) is also very similar to Spiro and the Upper Bluff Lake plates. (Birdman drawings by Mr. Herb Roe, Wikimedia Commons)

Years of study by archaeologists, ethnologists and historians of artifacts of different materials found at many sites throughout the Midwestern and Southeastern United States has led many of these researchers to conclude that the cosmology associated with the avian imagery of this artwork originated at Cahokia between 1100 - 1300 CE. This cosmology was expressed as the "Braden style", a label applied to ceramics, shell pieces, stone statuary and copper artifacts all bearing the hallmarks and elements of the same sophisticated style. These pieces were exported to other centers where they were emulated by regional craftsman and became the basis of local styles, such as the "Craig style" of Spiro Mounds, the "Hightower style" of Etowah Mounds and the "Hemphill style" of Moundville.

Birdman sandstone tablet and burial from Cahokia

Avian imagery occupied a central place in Cahokian iconography, with examples including an incised sandstone tablet with a birdman excavated from Monks Mound and an elaborate elite personage burial in Mound 72 with thousands of shell beads arranged in the shape of a bird.

Although no copper plates other than some small fragments have ever been found at Cahokia, it is the only Mississippian culture site to date where a copper workshop has been located by archaeologists. Excavations of the copper workshops at Mound 34, (a small mound located on the Ramey Plaza east of Monks Mound) indicate copper was worked there. The area contains the remains of three tree stumps thought to have been used to hold anvil stones used for beating out the flattened sheets of copper. However, despite the lack of copper plates, one copper artifact has been found at the site. A wooden copper covered mace 6.3 centimeters (2.5 in) by 2.5 centimeters (0.98 in) thought to have been part of a headdress was found during surface collections at the site. Several other copper ornaments have been found in nearby locations.

Other themes


Bi-lobed arrow plates and other copper plates from Etowah (left) and the dancing Birdman plate from the Upper Bluff Lake site in Illinois

Many of the hundreds of plates found have not been specifically avian themed and come in a variety of other shapes. These include embossed geometric designs, weeping eye motifs, bi-lobed arrow motif headdresses, head shapes with headdresses, and plain sheets. The unique "Upper Bluff Lake Dancing Birdmen" plate was found in the same burial in Union County, Illinois as a Malden style avian plate. Several related examples of bi-lobed arrow headdresses have been found at the Etowah Site and the Moundville Site.

A variety of non-avian themed plates were found at the Spiro site. These finds include copper feather and flame-like shapes believed to have been part of headdresses, a human head cutout wearing similar "feathers", 13 inches (33 cm) square sheets with Forked Eye motifs and concentric circle designs, and several copper covered wooden plaques also with Forked Eye motifs and circles.

A number of plates have been found in various sites in eastern Arkansas. At least three of the Arkansas examples (Rose Mound, Scott Place, and Clay Hill) and two others (a 32.6 centimeters (12.8 in) found in a Dallas Phase burial at the Henry Farm Site (40 LO 53) in Loudon County, Tennessee in 1975 and a specimen unexamined by archaeologists thought to come either from the Neeley’s Ferry (3 CS 24) or Rose Mound sites in Cross County) have stylistic similarities that indicate they may have all been made by the same artist. Four of the five were found in the St. Francis River Valley area of Arkansas. Researchers think the five plates may represent a composite creature that is part snake and part hawk as the shape of the tail feathers resemble a rattlesnakes' rattle or that the design may represent a hawk in the act of swallowing a snake.

The Clarksdale hawk bell (left) was the earliest bell form. It was traded by Hernando de Soto and most date to the 16th century. Flushloop bells (center & right) were made by the French and English and most examples date to the 17th century or later.

A copper plate found at the Clay Hill Site (3 LE 11) in Lee County, Arkansas has the same chest region design and long narrow shape and distinctive tail feathers as the Scott Site and Rose Mound examples. Although fragmented it is approximately 14 inches (36 cm) in length. It was recorded to be in a private collection in 1978 but has not been seen since. The plate was found in an Amorel Phase burial that also contained a Clarksdale bell, an item of European manufacture that is a hallmark of the 1541 Hernando de Soto excursion through the southeast. This does not date the era for the production of the plate though as such items were often kept as heirlooms for long periods, even many generations, before they ended up becoming grave goods.




This ceremonial spear point was recovered from the Rose Mound.

In 1910 Clarence Bloomfield Moore found a stylized hawk or eagle plate while excavating graves at the Rose Mound Site (3 CS 27) in Cross County, Arkansas. The plate was 16.25 inches (41.3 cm) and remarkably well preserved, missing only the tip of one wing. The plate is not embossed but merely a shape cut from a flat copper sheet.

The Rogan plates were discovered in a stone box grave within Mound C at the Etowah Site by John P. Rogan in the 1880s. Several are very similar to plates later found at Lake Jackson Mounds, and it is believed that the Lake Jackson plates came from Etowah. The designs of the plates are in the Classic Braden style from the Cahokian area, and it is generally thought that some of the plates were manufactured at Cahokia before ending up at sites in the Southeast. The two Rogan plates were interred as a pair and are very similar to one another. The first is approximately 20 inches (51 cm) and the second 16 inches (41 cm). Holes in the plates suggest they were once hung as a decoration. Other plates were found by Warren I. Moorehead at the Etowah site in excavations during the mid-1920s. The other plates are in a slightly different style and indicate that local artisans had begun production of their own copper plates in emulation of the Braden style. These plates, along with artifacts from Spiro and Moundville Archaeological Site were instrumental in the development of the archaeological concept of the S.E.C.C.

Copper Solar Ogee Deity plate (left) and the Elder Birdman (right), both found at Lake Jackson Mound Site, Florida

Although at the periphery of the Mississippian world, Florida has been the site of the discovery many S.E.C.C. associated copper artworks. Archaeologists believe that this is because of the busycon shell trade, the shells being a valuable ritual and high status trade good to Mississippian elites. It has even been proposed that the Fort Walton culture founders of the Lake Jackson Mound Site moved east and founded the settlement in approximately 1100 CE to strategically position themselves in this trade network. Lake Jackson trade for copper pieces seems to have taken place almost exclusively with the Etowah polity of north central Georgia. When Mound 3 at the site was excavated it yielded fourteen copper plates, deposited in the burial mound sometime between 1300—1500 CE. The so-called "Copper Solar Ogee Deity," a 21 inches (53 cm) high repoussé copper plate, depicts the profile of a dancing winged figure, wielding a ceremonial mace in its right hand and a severed head in the left. The extended, curling nose resembles a proboscis and resembles another S.E.C.C. motif, the long-nosed god maskette. The figures elaborate headdress includes a bi-lobed arrow motif and, at the top of the plate, an ogee motif surrounded by a chambered circle. Some art historians have argued that this plate and one of the Rogan plates may represent a female or "Birdwoman" because the breast on the figure protrudes slightly more than it does on other examples, while others have argued that the plate may represent a third gender or "two-spirit" tradition.

Two other Birdman plates have been located in central Florida. The Ole Okahumpka Site, now destroyed, was a burial mound in Lake County, Florida that was excavated by Clarence B. Moore in the 1890s. He found a burial associated plate of a dancing figure wearing a sash, kilt, cuffed moccasins, and holding a knife. The design is almost identical to two examples known from Spiro. Archaeologists estimate the plate was deposited in the mound sometime between 1100 and 1300 CE. In the 1880’s, an unknown location on the west coast of central Florida near Waldo, Florida in Levy County contained a partial avian themed copper plate showing the middle section details of scalloped wings, tail feathers and a raptors leg and claw in the Malden style. It was purchased from a local doctor by Joseph Wilcox and is now known as the Wilcox plate.


Florida’s Non-S.C.C. Sheet Copper Plates

After the collapse of the Etowah polity in approximately 1375, trade continued for the Lake Jackson peoples, albeit now with peoples located in the northern Georgia and eastern Tennessee area. No longer able to get the elaborate copper plates from Etowah, a local style developed, producing a new style of such as that depicted on the "Elder Birdman" plate, thought to represent the merger of the Birdman corpus with a local solar deity.

The “Long Nosed god” above is from the Gahagan mounds and are identical to those found at the Grant Mound by C.B. Moore in Duval County, Florida.

Further east and south into Florida were non-Mississippian culture peoples who were involved in long distance trade of local high status items such as busycon shells for gorgets and yaupon holly for the black drink. The Mill Cove Complex is a St. Johns culture site in Duval County, Florida with two sand burial mounds; one platform mound shaped and associated village habitation areas. Clarence B. Moore excavated several mounds associated with the Mill Cove Complex including Grant Mound in 1894 and found numerous copper grave goods, including two copper long-nosed god masketts and 11 copper plates.

The plate above was recovered from the Grant Mound by Moore. A statue of Saturewa, a prominent Timucuan chief, stands in his native village at the Fountain of Youth Park in St. Augustine that illustrates how these plates were worn.

The one plate found in the Shields Mound was plain, but several of the other 10 found in the Grant Mound were decorated with an oval central boss and ringed with an oval embossed or beaded line. They measured 10 centimeters (3.9 in)-15 centimeters (5.9 in) to 5 centimeters (2.0 in)-10 centimeters (3.9 in). They had perforated holes for hanging. Archaeologists speculate they were used either for gorgets or headdress ornaments. Analysis of the metal in the plaques has connected them to locations in the Great Lakes region, Wisconsin and the Appalachian Mountains.

The sheet copper plate above is from Mt. Royal in Putnam County, Florida. The plate on the right is the reverse side of a plate illustrated by C.B. Moore. The plate demonstrates that some plates were attached to a fabric garment. The reverse indentations are in the pattern of a circle with rays in the four cardinal directions.

Two of the three sheet copper plates above, all from Mt. Royal, demonstrate the same sun-like deity idea found at the Lake Jackson Site. Moore did not suggest what the figure of the central plate might represent.

Three additional plates from Mt. Royal may be a further indication away from the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex noted by the forked eye and concentric circles in the plate on the far left to the design of what appears to be a the Square Ground design on the center plate, to what looks like a sun burst on the plate at the right.

A little further down the Atlantic coast was the Mount Royal Mound (8 PU 35), a site occupied on and off since 12,000 BCE, and during the historic period a Timucua and Apalachee settlement. During the Mississippian era, construction on the mounds began in approximately 1050 CE. In 1894, Clarence B. Moore excavated a major mound at the site. Among the copper ornaments he disinterred, Moore discovered a copper breast-place with an abstract geometric pattern of hour-glass shapes of parallel lines arranged in a fylfot pattern around a circle with eight concentric rings. Plates from the Mt. Royal Mound Site in Putnam County may support the movement toward a solar deity first noted at the Lake Jackson Mounds as they appear to be images of the sun.