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Native Insight: Northfield man finds 3,000-year-old axe on Vermont lakeshore

  • Kenn Jordan of Northfield discovered this ancient copper artifact in 2016. Contributed photo

  • SANDERSON



Recorder Staff
Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The subject I want to discuss this week is a rare find that could have been addressed almost two years ago, when I first caught wind of it. I have, instead, been sitting on it in anticipation of additional information coming to light. Well, I can wait no longer, and will now go forward with what I have about an important Vermont discovery made by a Northfield metal-detecting sleuth.

That man is Kenn Jordan, proprietor of Jordan Metal Art and a talented metal artist, not to mention a devoted metal-detecting enthusiast. We’re not here to study his work, but rather his play, a hobby. What we’re looking at is an ancient copper artifact he found on the Fourth of July 2016, while working the shoreline near his NorthWoods camp on Lake Salem in Derby, Vt., a Northeast Kingdom hamlet bordering Canada. Finally, this relic made some 3,000 years ago — yes, that’s right, 1,000 years before Christ — has made it into a press account by Vermont State Archaeologist Francis “Jess” Robinson, who took possession of the adze or celt or axe soon after it was recovered from the lake.

I first learned of this discovery in a July 21, 2016 email titled “Rare find,” from Jordan’s father, Kenn Sr. Excited, I promptly reached out to my go-to source on such matters and friend Dr. Peter A. Thomas, who I knew would be interested. Thomas is a northern Vermont resident, who once served a 22-year stint as the head of the University of Vermont Archaeology Department. I figured he knew Robinson, now UVM faculty, and indeed he did.

Thomas promptly called Robinson to tell him that a fella from Massachusetts had found a 3,000-year-old copper adze in northern Vermont. He was humored when a curious Robinson responded with the question, “How do you know that? I haven’t even seen it yet. I’m scheduled to pick it up later this week.”

Thomas told him that an outdoor-writer friend of his had heard about it, shared it with him and he was sharing it with Robinson.

Anyway, Robinson finally publicized the find on April 6 in “The Bridge,” a weekly Montpelier newspaper which, coincidentally, once published a full-page eulogy I wrote for my son, also named Gary, in December 2010. The editor attended his Montpelier services at which I read it and asked if she could publish it. I was OK with it and furnished her with a photo. But back to Robinson’s article — “Digging in Vermont — Three Landmark Finds Under the Green Mountains” — a short, multi-component narrative, accompanied by a photo of Jordan’s copper artifact, which appears to have been identified as an axe. His description read like this, verbatim:

“Copper Axe: ca. 3,000 Years Old

Prior to European contact, Native Americans in the eastern woodlands did not possess any metal smelting technology. Nevertheless, sources of chemically pure drift copper in Nova Scotia and Michigan were widely known to Native American groups, and the copper from these sources was highly valued and traded across many areas of North America. This copper axe was found by a private citizen in a lake in northern Vermont. Because it was the property of the state, it was graciously turned over to the Division for Historic Preservation and is now permanently curated at the Vermont Archaeology Heritage Center (in Barre, Vt.). Although there is no way to directly date it, its shape, flaring bit end and the way it was made suggests it dates back 3,000 years. Axes such as these are very rarely discovered in Vermont and are nearly always degraded and green with verdigris. This axe, however, was submerged in lake-bottom mud, which preserved its original luster. Evidence of cold hammering and shaping are likewise still easily visible.”

So, there you have it: a rare find by a Northfield man who wrote in an email shortly after finding it that he was metal-detecting in knee-deep water upon discovery. The displayed artifact will have Jordan’s name forever attached to it in its public setting. He was mandated by law to hand it over to the state because it was taken from state waters. But he was OK with that in the name of posterity and perhaps even additional future research and analysis.

“I feel like it’s in the right place,” he wrote. “I’m good with it and think it should be in a state museum.”

This ancient woodworking tool was likely used in the dugout canoe-building process, when, instead of piecing together birch-bark vessels, ancient indigenous artisans hollowed out massive logs for sturdy water travel. It was found in a lakes region of Vermont, east of Lake Champlain and closer to major bodies of water like lakes Memphremagog, Willoughby and Seymour, where anglers and vacationers alike still flock annually.

I had been hoping that Robinson and/or the museum curating the ancient object would pin down the source of the copper, which according to paleontologist Dr. Richard Michael Gramly costs about $65. Judging from the Robinson story and the time that’s elapsed between it and the find, I’m guessing it’s not a priority. Why not? I cannot say. From my perspective, it would be interesting to know if the copper had come by ancient trade routes from Michigan or Nova Scotia or even somewhere else. The composition of the Lake Superior copper is well known, carrying a distinctive silver marker. It would also be worthwhile to pin down exactly what the object is, an adze as first named, a related woodworking celt or the “axe” on which they seem to have concluded.