Articles

INDIAN BRASS HAWK BELLS

The date of October 12, 1492 was very notable, for that was the day the ships of the initial Christopher Columbus voyage anchored off the island that was to be named San Salvador or as the local Taino Indians called it, Guanahani which would translate as Iguana.  The expedition commander wrote in his log book that natives of the island rowed their canoes out to his vessels and brought parrots, cotton threads and spears as gifts for the foreigners.  The Spaniards, in turn, gave the natives glass beads and small bells.  But it took the Europeans over a hundred years to begin seriously exploring the large land mass that was near the island – the land mass that would become the United States.  They performed their explorations in our country with the hope of acquiring gold and silver as was greedily taken by the Spanish from the natives in Mexico and South America.  They found no precious metals but what they did find was many thousands of natives who knew how to grow and harvest corn and tobacco as well as how to kill and skin the many animals living in the region.  These things, along with the major prize – the land itself – were what these Euro-invaders decided they wanted after their search for gold ended.  They also discovered the natives were willing to trade these treasures for the items the Europeans considered only trinkets – glass beads and other baubles including the small ringing ornaments that have come to be known as Indian brass hawk bells.

Brass is an alloy of copper and zinc that was first actively made and used late in the first millennium BC in the Near East, after it had been accidently discovered in Mesopotamia about a thousand years before that time.  Since early artisans did not understand that zinc was actually a metal, it took centuries for them to be able to produce zinc solids to use in the smelting process of making brass.  Initially smithsonite, also known as Calamine ore of zinc, was melted in a crucible along with copper ore and the zinc fumes melded with the copper to produce a rudimentary compound called Calamine brass.  Even though this brass was difficult to make, the ancient metalworkers did manufacture the shiny substance and it quickly supplanted the alloy of copper and tin that was known as bronze because it is much less brittle and much harder - so it did not break so easily in battle.  Brass producing industries developed in Germany and the Netherlands around AD 300 but were on a small scale both in quantities produced and sizes of the items made.  It was not until the eighteenth century AD, in England, that a method of creating large quantities of easily made brass was patented and the use of the metal expanded tremendously.  But the fact that only diminutive amounts and modest sizes of the dark reddish brown to pale yellow metal could be initially made, did not stop the ancient alchemists from producing the alloy.

Around 2,000 BC, people in Mongolia and China began training raptors to hunt small animals and birds.  It is now believed that the Huns, who were native to modern Russia, brought the practice of using these female flying predators, called falcons, and their male counterparts, known as tiercels, to Europe around AD 400, as the sport of falconry.  The Europeans slowly took up this entertainment and around AD 1200 metal craftsmen in the continent began making small brass bells, to attach to the raptors, in order to make it easier for the handlers to locate their diurnal birds of prey during and after the hunt.  These bells, which are technically percussion instruments or idiophones, were tied to the legs or tail or neck of the raptors by using a small leather thong called a bewit.  The European aristocracy, especially in class conscious France and England, became falconers and had laws passed so as to allow falconry to be practiced only by the elite of society.  In fact, if a person on a lower rung of the social ladder attempted to raise and hunt any type of raptor, the penalty could be as severe as death.  Over time these little round idiophones came to be known as hawk bells, even though they also had other uses, and that terminology is still being used today in modern falconry.

As the European explorers, in modern-day United States, began to move inland from the coastal regions early in the seventeenth century AD, they discovered the natives were willing to exchange items they considered to be of little value, animal furs and skins and land, for the metal tools and shiny knickknacks the English, French and Spanish brought with them.  A trading enterprise quickly arose as the intruders bartered brass and iron cooking pots and kettles, clay smoking pipes, iron axes and knives, black powder muskets and a multitude of small items the natives wanted for bodily decoration – glass and metal beads, conical shaped brass tinklers, sheet brass to be used for rolled tubular beads and arrowheads and the ubiquitous hawk bells.  The Amerinds tied these various bibelots to their limbs and/or wore them around their necks as well as being sewn onto clothing, especially when participating in ceremonial dances.

These ancient hawk bells are reasonably uniform in size and shape.  They are usually round or spherical in shape and some were formed using flat sheet metal while the better ones were cast brass or occasionally bronze.  They all have a small flange encircling the center of the bell, that is known to collectors as the equator flange, and most of these bells are around one inch in diameter though the sizes vary from less than a half inch for the smallest ones to more than 1 ½ inches for the largest.   The raised equator flange denotes where the two halves of the bell were pressed together to make the sphere.  Most have a narrow slit with a small hole at either end that extends around the lower half of the bell.   The actual noise making part of the bell was called a clapper or ball or ringer and was usually made of iron in a either round or square shape and was placed in the bell before the two halves were swaged together. They all had a cast tang or bent wire at the top of the object with which the bell was attached to a falcon/tiercel or to a human and many of them still retain these fasteners today.  The preponderance have two small holes near the attachment tang/wire which, along with the two lower half holes and slit, are there to allow the ringing bell to be heard for a greater distance.  Nearly all hawk bells are plain brass without any further embellishment but some were engraved with a variety of lines and circles and other geometric shapes.  These trade bells were apparently cheap and easy to make in Europe and since the American Indians liked the little clamorous objects, a great abundance of them was obviously brought into this country.  Of course, like many perishable items that are lost or buried underground for a long period, they are reasonably few in number today except for the modern shiny reproductions of which there may be tens of thousands.  Some unscrupulous sellers of the new bells will bury them in fertilizer or attach them to a car battery so as to alter the color to a supposed ancient green patina- so beware of buying green hawk bells.   An oddity of the old Indian bells is that since the internal clappers were usually made of iron, they corroded in the soil more quickly than the actual brass bells and are often entirely gone or can be seen through the slits and holes to be considerably rusted away.  The records do not fully tell us when the Europeans began actually trading these hawk bells to the natives in large quantities but it possibly began as early as around AD 1625 and continued in the western regions of our country during the fur trading era that ended around 1850.  During that two hundred plus year period, many thousands of these little noise makers were traded to the American natives and if you are really lucky and diligent in your artifact hunting, you just might be able to find, in a plowed agricultural field, one or maybe more than one, of these little Indian brass hawk bells.

 

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