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The Wulfing Plates

Products of Prehistoric Americans

Virginia Drew Watson - 1950


Primitive Copper Working: An Experimental Study - Cushing

Primitive Metal Working - Willoughby

2010 Reprint Edition



An archaeologically isolated find of 8 repousse' copper plates, made in Dunklin County, Missouri in 1906 generates two questions: who made these copper plates and how did they end up buried in a field that has no known mounds or village sites in the vicinity? As Watson states: Just why the Wulfing plates should have been buried where they were found is not known. It is obvious that they had undergone considerable use prior to the time of their burial, and it would seem that this use could not have been confined solely to the area in which they were found. In other words, how they came to be buried in what is now Dunklin County, Missouri, must remain at best conjectural.

Discussion of Manufacturing Techniques

Watson discusses the manufacturing process including a detailed study of the rivets used in the copper plates to enlarge or repair them.  Frank Hamilton Cushing of the Bureau of American Ethnology was conducting experiments in copper  working utilizing aboriginal tools and techniques and his work is also discussed in the manufacturing section.  Since his work was quoted at length, we have included his paper from the American Anthropologist of 1894.   Charles Willoughby was also active in metal working experiments and we have included his paper from the American Anthropologist of 1903 as well. 

The plates were manufactured in aboriginal times of native copper, probably from the Great Lakes region, which is very pure in its natural state. The plates were cold hammered, no alloy or tempering was used, and although annealing may have been done it is very doubtful. The basic plates on which the designs were embossed were either single-layered or consisted of two very thin sheets of copper which were hammered together, at times so well that it is very difficult to detect. From all indications, the Indians were often unable to get a single, basic plate of desired size for the design, so that additional pieces of various shapes and sizes had to be added, by means of riveting, before the design could be executed. There is no positive correlation between the skill displayed in making the basic plate and that in making the design. Some of the better-executed designs, from the standpoint of symmetry, proportion, style, etc., are done on relatively inferior plates of copper, while some of the better-made plates were used for rather poorly executed designs.
The plates were evidently subjected to long and hard usage and wear. All of them have been broken, split, or bent several times and all are patched and mended. Either because of inherent structural weaknesses of the particular design when adapted to copper plate work, or because of specialized use, certain parts seem to have been broken more frequently than others: the neck, beak, crest feathers, and right wing (excluding, of course, the lower parts of the plates which were broken by the plow, if not before). The several mending techniques include: riveting the two broken pieces together by overlapping; riveting the two, side by side, to a third piece; riveting over and under, probably for added strength.

An extremely informative work on these interesting copper plates.


This 6-1/2" x 9-1/2" soft cover, facsimile reprint contains 148 pages including 15 full page plates and drawings and 13 in-text diagrams.  $16.95


Wulfing Copper Plate D Wulfing Plate D Rivet Plan Spiro Plate 4
Rivet Details Plate Engraving-Cushing Copper Working Site Map

Table of Contents

I. Introduction
II. Description of the Plates
III. General Discussion
IV. Scerco Briefly Discussed
V. Some Scerco Materials in Missouri and Illinois
VI. Comparable Materials from Etowah, Moundville,and Spiro
VII. Summary and Conclusions


     Map of southeastern United States
1. Diagrams showing techniques of repair and extension of copper plates
2. Sketch emphasizing riveting on copper plates (Wulfing Plate D)
3. Wulfing Plate A (No. 3679*)
4. Wulfing Plate B (No. 3680*)
5. Wulfing Plate C (No. 3681*)
6. Wulfing Plate D (No. 3682*)
7. Wulfing Plate E (No. 3683*)
8. Wulfing Plate F (No. 368U*)
9. Wulfing Plate G (No. 3685*)
10. Wulfing Plate H (No. 3686*)
11. Spiro Plate 4 (No. LfCrl, A6-1***)
12. Spiro Plate 6 (No. LfCrl, A6-6**)
13. Sketch of a winged being engraved on shell


  I. Comparative weights and measurements of Wulfing plates
 II. Elements present or absent on Wulfing plates
III. Some occurrences of breakage and repair on the Wulfing plates