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Ontarian who found ancient spearhead thrilled to hold ‘a piece of history’ in his hands

A spear tip discovered near Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., may be thousands of years old, but the man who found it says it “looks like it was made yesterday.”

Rob Gioia, a metal detector hobbyist, happened upon the copper item in June along the shores of the St. Marys River. He said it was buried under about 90 centimetres of water and 30 centimetres of sand.

“It’s in phenomenal condition because of where it was found,” Gioia told As It Happens guest host Susan Bonner. “It still bears the marks of the person who hammered it out.”

Gioia has spent much of his retirement scouring the shores of Sault Ste. Marie for relics with his metal detector, and has come across 18th-century cutlery, and several remnants of a First World War training camp.

But when he happened upon this latest discovery, he said he knew immediately it was something special. 

“The only thing you have to do after that is basically find out what it is,” he said. 

So he connected with the Milwaukee Public Museum on Facebook.

Dawn Scher Thomae, the museum’s curator of anthropology collections, told As It Happens it appears from the photos to be a socketed point from between 4000 to 1000 BC.

“You’re basically holding a piece of history in your hand that’s that old and it’s a personal connection with an ancient past,” Gioia said. “It’s a humbling experience, to be honest with you.”

However, Thomae said she can’t fully authenticate it from a photo alone. 

“Interesting that it shows no oxidation unless the owner cleaned it. This later part concerns me regarding authentication since many people have tried to replicate Indigenous technology. The green patina is a big part of being able to authenticate the piece,” she said in an email. 

Gioia credits the relic’s pristine condition to where it was found, buried under the sand and protected from the elements.

The conical item — most likely a spear tip — was in exceptional condition. It could be between 3,000 and 5,000 years old, a spokesperson for the Milwaukee Public says. (Submitted by Rob Gioia)

Thomae said the item appears to be a relic of what’s called Old Copper Culture, which the Milwaukee Public Museum describes online as “items made by early inhabitants of the Great Lakes region during a period that spans several thousand years and covers several thousand square miles.”

“During the 19th and early 20th centuries, the prevailing theories of Old Copper production in Wisconsin reflected the social climate of the period, which was rooted in both naiveté and racism. The popular belief was that this sophisticated technology could not have been the product of the Indigenous tribes who occupied the Great Lakes region before European settlement,” reads the museum’s website.

“Previous theories claimed that Bronze Age peoples from Europe made their way to Lake Superior to supply the demand for copper across the Atlantic Ocean. Other dubious theories attributed this copper production variously to the Phoenicians, the Berbers, and the Vikings (Griffin 1961, Martin, 1999). Not surprisingly, no archaeological evidence has been found to substantiate such notions.”

Thomae said Copper Culture relics are common in upper Michigan and Canada.

“Copper was considered a sacred material, and it was not uncommon [for people to use] copper material in burials. Copper was the only metal mined in large quantities in North America before European contact,” she said.

However, there’s no way to be sure which Indigenous people’s ancestors crafted it.

“At that time, the groups of people did not have the names as they exist now. We know them as Archaic or Old Copper Culture people based on time period and commonly shared cultural elements, like working copper,” she said. 

The museum has more than 1,500 pieces from Old Copper Culture, including weapons, fish hooks and harpoons. 

“You’ve got to give it to the ancient North American societies. I mean, it shows their resilience and their ingenuity. They found a substance that they could exploit and use for a daily life, for existence, not only for protection, for these weapon tips, but utilitarian things,” Gioia said. 

“For whoever may have lost it, that, to me, would have been a tragic loss.”

Gioia donated the item to the Sault Ste. Marie Museum. (Submitted by Rob Gioia )

Gioia donated the item to the Sault Ste. Marie Museum.

“How could you not? You can’t possibly keep something of that magnitude. Its importance can’t be overstated, as far I’m concerned,” he said.

“I’ve always said history shouldn’t be possessed or denied. It has to be shared with everyone who holds the stake collectively in history and our past. And that’s pretty much everyone.”

It’s a welcome gift, says William Hollingshead, the museum’s executive director and chief curator.

“Artifacts like this offer us the ability to better learn from and understand this history, and to present it in a more complete way to our community. Often as time passes, we inherently lose certain aspects or insights into the full aspect of any history at a specific point,” Hollingshead told SooToday.com, which first reported this story.

“To bring these items back into the narrative allows us to gain this better understanding and reflection of the past in order to inform both the present and future.”

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview with Rob Gioia produced by Menaka Raman-Wilms

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