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Main: Hopewell burial mounds in Ohio (CC by SA 3.0). Inset: One of the meteoritic iron beads found in a Hopewell mound.

Jewelry from Outer Space: Hopewell Culture Made Beads from Meteoritic Iron


A team of scientists has discovered the origins of the ancient Hopewell culture's meteorite jewelry. The beads were found in a burial mound in Havana, Illinois, in 1945. Many questions about the origins of the meteoritic iron used to create these artifacts have remained unanswered until now. A new study solves at least part of the puzzle.

The Hopewell Culture Artifacts

The Hopewell culture flourished along rivers in the Northeastern and Midwestern United States from 200 BC to 500 AD, in the Middle Woodland period. It was not a single culture or society, but a widely dispersed set of related populations that were connected by a common network of trade routes, known as the Hopewell exchange system. The culture survives today through several impressive artifacts made from exotic materials such as copper and silver. However, the most extravagant Hopewell artifacts are undoubtedly those created from iron extracted from meteorites, IBTimes UK reports. Even though we don’t know exactly how these stunning artifacts were seen among the Hopewell, historians are confident that they were very treated as very precious because the meteoritic iron that was used couldn’t be found elsewhere.

Not the Only “Space” Artifacts in History

If you think that these are the only artifacts made by “alien material” then your assumptions would be false. As Liz Leafloor reports in a previous Ancient Origins article, meteorites have long fascinated humanity. Many cultures saw fallen meteorites as religious icons to be worshiped and as a result they would often create jewelry and art from space rocks. Ancient Egyptians, for example, incorporated meteorites into symbolic objects or jewelry, creating objects of ‘power’. An ancient gem in Tutankhamun’s adornments is thought to have been created by a blast more powerful than a modern atomic bomb.

Tutankhamun’s brooch which contains a striking yellow-brown scarab made of a yellow silica glass stone, produced when an ancient comet entered the earth’s atmosphere.

Tutankhamun’s brooch which contains a striking yellow-brown scarab made of a yellow silica glass stone, produced when an ancient comet entered the earth’s atmosphere.

Additionally, beads made from iron meteorite were found in a 5000-year-old tomb south of Cairo. Researchers claim that the material would have been very difficult to work with, nevertheless the ancient craftsmen were able to hammer, thin, and shape the metals into fine beads and stringed necklaces. They’re the oldest known iron artifacts in the world, created thousands of years before Egypt’s Iron Age.

More recently, it was discovered that the Inuit people of Greenland also worked meteoritic iron. About 10,000 years ago a big meteorite fell to the Earth on northern Greenland and broke apart. About 1,300 years ago, Dorset Culture people in the Innaanganeq or Cape York Peninsula area of Greenland began extracting iron from it. The iron had to be processed before Inuit people could use it as tools. Piles of stones that have marks on them were found all around the meteorite, which were used to extract iron and make arrowheads, harpoon blades, or knives. 

Interestingly, even in our modern world, celestial objects are still attributed with supernatural origins and religious significance. Let’s not forget that for the Sochi Olympics of 2014 in Russia, the Olympic medals were formed with shards of the Chelyabinsk meteor inside them which symbolized triumph over adversity.

Could the Hopewell Culture's Artifacts Mystery be Solved?

Back to the Hopewell culture’s meteorite jewelry, the twenty-two beads made of meteoritic iron were discovered back in 1945, hidden in a burial mound at the Havana site in Illinois. Several scientific researches and studies followed in the next decades in order to analyze the chemical composition and understand the significance of the peculiar beads for the Hopewell people with no particular success.

Rockwell Mound, a major site at Havana

Rockwell Mound, a major site at Havana (public domain)

Many questions remained unanswered about the roots of the meteoritic iron used to create these beads or how the craftsmen who produced them worked with this unearthly material. One of the many difficulties the scientists had to go through in order to describe and understand the importance of the meteorites in the Hopewell culture is the lack of a verified link between Hopewell meteoritic artifacts and known meteorites.

In a study published in the journal of Archaeological Science, a team of scientists led by Timothy McCoy from the National Museum of Natural History, took action and decided to explore the topic further in order to link the beads to a specific meteorite found in North America. "Meteorites have a long history of use by humans, reaching back at least 5,000 years including to make knives, hammer stones, beads, adzes (axes), and, among more recent objects, a camel charm. This kind of study helps to learn about relationships between ancient objects, but it really provides a window into how meteorites have been collected and used in the past," McCoy told IBTimes UK.

Link with Anoka Iron is Verified

The scientists decided to conduct this research after new masses of Anoka iron in Minnesota were recovered recently. That made them speculate that there could be a possible link between the iron used to create the Havana beads and the iron from Anoka’s meteorite.

The Anoka meteorite

The Anoka meteorite (CC by SA 2.0)

The scientists examined three of the meteoritic iron beads and samples and a polished section of Anoka iron from a sample unearthed in 1983. These analyses helped them to recognize a resemblance in major, minor and trace element chemistry between Anoka iron and the Havana beads. In other words, the scientists suggest that the beads could have been produced in Havana from a mass of the Anoka iron. "Meteorites are exceptionally rare objects. While it might make sense for an individual to travel to the site of large copper deposits and bring back material, it is difficult to reconcile that kind of model with something like a meteorite. By establishing a link between Anoka, Minnesota and Havana, Illinois – two places within reach of known Hopewell centers and connected by major river systems – the trade model seems much more plausible", McCoy concluded.

Top image: Main: Hopewell burial mounds in Ohio (CC by SA 3.0). Inset: One of the meteoritic iron beads found in a Hopewell mound. Credit: Journal of Archaeological Science.

By Theodoros Karasavvas



Actually, have you come across any evidence for the ancients deliberately, putting meteorite iron at peaks to create magnetite?
There seem to be some artefacts that imply they were using bowls to reference magnetic north, but the chances of finding magnetite are so rare (and it will lose its magnetism), I just wonder if they placing naturally occurring iron at peaks and tried to magnitise it when lightning struck.

That's the way to do it! The only way anyone is going to work out this tech, is to have a go at reproducing it. This is interesting. Iron was believed to be first be processed in Crete and Troy around this time, 1200BCE. There was a reason for it, no tin was coming in from Iberia, they needed something to replace bronze. To process Iron you need much higher furnace temp though, forcing air into the coals using bellows. It would be interesting to see what you need to do to get the temp up to process?
Best of luck with the experiment!

Fascinating, I would imagine that the craftsman out looking for material to work might whack a rock to see if it looked nice once the crud was knocked off and saw *shiney* and decided he would treat it like copper. I might consider getting a cheap piece of an iron meteor, or tossing some iron filings and chemicals in a crucible and smelting it into a faux meteorite piece to see how it works using granite hammer and anvil [or possibly basalt, I would have to see what seriously hard rocks they had in area first]

It would be a fun bit of experimental archeology to mess around and see what hapens.

Theodoros Karasavvas's picture


Theodoros Karasavvas, J.D.-M.A. has a cum laude degree in Law from the University of Athens, a Masters Degree in Legal History from the University of Pisa, and a First Certificate in English from Cambridge University. When called upon to do... Read More

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