By Don Spohn


Effigies are representations or images used to capture distinguishing powers attributed to the objects symbolized.  One can easily imagine shapes in partially pounded copper, just as one can visualize objects among the clouds or in water stains. To see objects in copper or other materials, we are often required to call upon our imagination. And parts of the imagined item may be vague, missing or exaggerated. The vision can often be seen from only one angle and is not always visible to all who search for it. Such intangible objects are seldom effigies.


This zoomorphic effigy has all the characteristics of a buffalo. We can clearly distinguish the head, tail, legs, back, stomach, and hump. These characteristics are just as clearly distinguished on the reverse side. The overall object looks like a buffalo. The head resembles a buffalo’s head. Still, effigies are only crude caricatures of the objects portrayed by primitive man. More sophisticated objects of art are called by other names.


All this being true, the object pictured above is probably a copper effigy representing ancient buffalo that once roamed the prairies of prehistoric Wisconsin. Although rare, several other copper effigies are documented. Serpents are perhaps the most common, while bear and other animal effigies have been confirmed. An even larger assortment of effigies were carved or    chipped from stone and other materials.

This buffalo effigy is 1-3/4” long, 1-1/2” wide,  1/4” thick, slightly convex on the front   and similarly concave on the back. It has a noble patina, a pitted erosion pattern, and was      found among a cache of modified pieces of copper on private property in Vilas Co., Wisconsin (2003). It is curated by Great Lakes Copper Research.


Pictured below is an anthropomorphic effigy, one dealing with human parts. It is also anthropomorphous as it clearly depicts human behavior, a howling moon with the following human features in profile: forehead, eye, nose, an open howling mouth, chin and neck. Effigies were spiritual symbols, created to capture the powers of objects they represent. This effigy was a particular powerful one. It is wolves, of course, that howl at the moon. Here we have a man in the moon howling like a wolf. The power of three entities, man, moon and wolf were captured in this simple crescent depiction. As potent as the effigy is, additional power was garnered through its crescent shape, a spiritually powerful symbol. Many New World knives, Old Copper crescent knives, the Eskimo ulu, and the South American tumi are cresent shaped, as are numerous knives from primitive cultures in the Old World. The moon itself is represented by the crescent silhouette and symbolizes fertility, birth, death, the seasons and rebirth.


This howling moon effigy, 1-11/16” by 1-9/16” by 3/32”, weighs 1/3 oz. It has a noble patina, a worm track erosion pattern and was found in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in the first half of the 20th century. It was probably crafted by an Old Copper culture. The howling moon effigy is similar in size, but thinner and weighs less than the buffalo effigy. It is curated by Great Lakes Copper Research.


Some effigies were buried in dirt floors of dwellings while others were carried in leather pouches or on a string. Copper effigies were especially potent because of copper’s red color, representing both blood (death) and the color of the sun. This potent color was often reflected in the moon and copper like red ocher is found associated with the dead. Three kinds of effigies exist in Indian cultures; first, there are spiritually symbolic objects like the two above that were created as self-contained and served no practical purpose. A second group was crafted to adorn objects of utility and ornaments, pipes, pottery and pendants, for example. Effigy pots and pipes are shaped like or resemble the human or animal from which they drew their power. And finally, some objects were found in nature that vaguely suggested man or animal. Indians then improved upon these naturally created objects.


Unlike the buffalo and howling moon effigies, the mass of native copper pictured to the right weighs 483 pounds. It was torn from copper country bedrock by Pleistocene ice and was found buried in a Houghton County glacial drift. Indians apparently discovered this unusual piece of copper, smoothed its edges and added an eye to increase its resemblance to an Indian chief’s head (Dorr and Eschman 1970).


Glacial scratches can be seen running diagonally from upper right to lower left. The University of Michigan Department of Geology and Mineralogy curate this unusual effigy.

The most common copper effigies were those created in the form of serpents.  At least three types of serpents are represented in this group of copper effigies, the land serpent which crawls upon the earth, the flying serpent or serpent of the sky often seen in the thunder bolts, and the underground snakes. These three serpents may have symbolized three realms.

Land Serpent

The terrestrial serpent, which shed its skin appears to have signified new birth and life, while the serpent of the sky symbolized the spiritual world. Snakes, whose bites often cause death, also live underground and as such they were associated with the grave, death and afterlife (Trevelyan 2004:101). A third type of serpent effigy may have also existed. The water snake may have represented the water realm, a place closely associated with both the underground realm of death and the celestial realm of spiritual beings. The serpent’s relationship to man and its projected powers are not altogether understood.