OBJECT HISTORY: Aztalan Copper Maskettes

Aztalan Copper Maskettes, 1000-1200 AD. Courtesy: Milwaukee Public Museum

Found at the Aztalan archaeological site in southeastern Wisconsin, these small copper artifacts were most likely used as ornate jewelry.[1] Specifically, Mississipian people likely wore the mask-shaped copper designs as earrings. Although Native Americans seldom used metal, they sometimes used metals from the copper deposits found in the Great Lakes region to make tools and ornamental pieces like these 5.8 x 4.6 centimeter earrings. It is worth noting that in their present form the maskettes are missing the long-nosed feature seen in other masks. According to Ho-Chunk tradition, the maskette shape honors a cultural hero of the Siouan, known as Red Horn.[2]

Image of “Big Boy,” Sculpture depicting the wearing of the Maskette as an earring.
Attribution: Herb Roe

The copper maskettes represent a complex Wisconsin culture that existed long before state lines were drawn and white settlers came to control the land. The Aztalan people were part of the greater Mississippian society that originated from the Mississippi valley, spreading throughout the length of the river, and all the way to the Southeastern coast of the modern United States from the 9th-14th centuries.[3] The Aztalan-region maskettes vary in shape and size across archaeological sites along the Mississippi, indicating diversity within the Mississippian culture from Wisconsin to the Louisianan Gulf coast.

Map of several sites where long-nosed masks were found.
Attribution: Herb Roe

Written by Trase Tracanna, December 2020.


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[1] Arik Scapellato and John D. Richards, “Undergraduate Research Symposium,” Undergraduate Research Symposium (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, 2020), https://sites.uwm.edu/undergrad-research-symposium/2020/04/17/the-native-copper-of-aztalan/.

[2] “Wisconsin Outpost,” Milwaukee Public Museum, accessed December 18, 2020, http://www.mpm.edu/research-collections/anthropology/online-collections-research/aztalan-collection/wisconsin-outpost.

[3] King, Adam. “Mississippian Period: Overview.” New Georgia Encyclopedia. 29 September 2020. Web. 15 December 2020.