Reflecting on ANCESTORS: Post Exhibition Discoveries and Future Research Directions

30 Days of Tennessee Archaeology 2016, Day 23

Kevin E. Smith 
Middle Tennessee State University 

About a decade ago, James Miller and I were struggling to complete revisions for Speaking with the Ancestors: Mississippian Stone Statuary of the Tennessee-Cumberland Region (University of Alabama Press, 2009). Reaching a stopping point on a project that clearly isn’t over can be quite a challenge—but those “exclamation points” are necessary times when we focus down on where we are and, perhaps even more importantly, determine what profitable places we might go next. The temporary exhibition ANCESTORS: Ancient Native American Sculptures of Tennessee at the Tennessee State Museum (October 30, 2015-May 15, 2016) provided an opportunity for another exclamation point in the on-going story of the “Ancestors.” When I accepted the challenge in 2013 from several patrons to “bring them home to Tennessee so people can actually see them,” I did so with the notion that this would not just be a “show-and-tell” of the sculptures. I also envisioned a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to facilitate new research and new conversations that would expand our understanding and appreciation of these rare (and even unique) creations. Many friends and colleagues took up the challenge of that opportunity to collaborate during—and now after—the exhibition. So, what have we learned and where are we going next?


Four statuary pairs reunited during the exhibition. Upper left: Sellars Farm pair, Male (McClung 1940.1.1) and Female (Collection of John C. Waggoner, Jr.). Upper right: Riddleton pair, Male (Collection of John C. Waggoner, Jr.) and Female (National Museum of Natural History A334009). Lower left: Brentwood pair, Male (National Museum of the American Indian 0007277.00) and Female (Tennessee State Museum 82.100.1091). Lower right: Beasley Mounds pair, Male (National Museum of Natural History A334008) and Female (National Museum of Natural History A334011).

If a picture is worth 1000 words, then seeing the objects in person must be worth at least 100,000 words. For the first time, we brought together in the same room four male–female pairs—each pair believed to have been sculpted by a different person or workshop. Reuniting these male–female pairs—and seeing them together as they have not been seen since the time of their creation—gave us the opportunity to compare details of scale, proportion, and color that are difficult to capture in photographs taken hundreds of miles apart at different times. One of the first things I noticed on Day 1 was that the males were all sculpted from stone that was very slightly lighter colored than the stone chosen for the females. We continue to ponder the potential significance of that new observation.


Left: Facial pigments on kneeling male figure, Sellars Farm (McClung 1940.1.1). Right: Details of hands and “wrist knots” on female figure, Sellars Farm (McClung 1940.1.2)

Other fine details emerged: several females exhibit small nodes on the wrist that link them stylistically to negative-painted female effigy bottles of the same era. A tiny handful of the statues exhibit an unusual and detailed carving of the legs and feet on the base—a critical stylistic trait probably limited to a very short time period and linking the workshops of Smith and Wilson counties in Tennessee with those of the Etowah Mounds in Georgia. This trait is also exhibited on a very small number of bottles and figurines from Tennessee—raising new things to ponder there as well. The chance to notice new details on one statue—and then immediately step across the room to see if it occurs on others (or not)—is an opportunity difficult to reproduce. Even something as seemingly simple as the locations and direction of plow damage on presumed pairs may eventually yield new insights into their burial position and relative orientation.


Details of feet and legs on bases. Left: Kneeling male figure, Sellars Farm (McClung 1940.1.1). Right: Kneeling female figure, at or near Moss Mounds, Collection of John C. Waggoner Jr.

Among the scholars who joined us as collaborators were Dr. Jan Simek and Sierra Bow (University of Tennessee), who expanded their research on prehistoric pigments to include examination of the raw stone as well. Detailed examinations using portable X-ray fluorescence and reflectance spectrometry revealed that at least one of the statues had been spiffed up with modern paint by a recent owner, along with more details on the types, colors, and location of genuine prehistoric pigments. While the presence of pigments on the four statues from Sellars Farm has long been known, the exhibition enabled us to capture images of some of the most vivid depictions to date, including the yellow face mask on the male and the black painted hair on his mate.


Sierra Bow using portable X-ray fluorescence (left) and reflectance spectrometry (right) to examine pigments and raw materials of statuary.

Among the most stunning of discoveries—which occurred during the first day of exhibition installation—was that three of the statues were made of crystalline minerals, later confirmed as calcite. Although the materials from which these pieces had been carved had previously been described as marble, hard limestone, and quartzite sandstone, we now can suggest that the raw materials for these three had to come from caves. Even these preliminary results open up amazing new possibilities for understanding more about the process of creation.

During the course of putting together the corpus for the exhibition, previously unknown and apparently genuine statues made their existence known, two of which we were able to include in the exhibition. An even larger number of known but “long lost” statues reappeared, though most came to our attention too late to be included in the show, but not too late for detailed future examination and documentation. Unfortunately, our hope that “Eve,” the female from the Link Mounds in Humphreys County (missing in action since 1895), might emerge during the exhibition remained unfulfilled. However, a few tantalizing clues to the post-1895 story of this “Holy Grail” of lost statues did emerge, and so the search for her continues. Two of Thomas Jefferson’s long lost pieces recently made their way back to Monticello. And another long misplaced and very important statue from the Etowah Mounds was located recently and is now on the list for an upcoming visit.


Statue discovered during the exhibition (left, Kneeling female figure, at or near Moss Mounds, Collection of John C. Waggoner, Jr.) and the still missing “Eve,” Link Mounds.

And so, while ANCESTORS the exhibition served as another important “!” in the story of these amazing examples of native artisanship, it was by no means an end. We continue to study and digest the multitude of “new things” learned over the past four years, and planning continues to present a post-exhibition catalogue in the not-so-distant future outlining new conclusions and guiding us in new directions for the next exclamation point. Although most of the exhibition statues have long since made their way back to their respective curating institutions, one statuary pair remains temporarily united at the McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture in Knoxville. Thanks to the generosity of the private owner of the female statue from Sellars, this premier male–female pair (the male half of which is the Tennessee State Artifact) will remain together through the end of 2016. If you missed your chance to see them at the Tennessee State Museum, you can still visit them in Knoxville.

Acknowledgments: First and foremost, my thanks to James V. Miller (Independent Choctaw scholar, deceased) – my friend and co-author of Speaking with the Ancestors. The exhibition itself, of course, could not have happened without the able work of co-curators Rex Weeks (Tennessee State Museum) and Robert V. Sharp (Independent Scholar). David H. Dye’s many decades of experience photographing difficult subjects like statuary enabled him to create an enormous set of images that will fuel additional research for many years. In addition to funding, the extraordinary work of the “behind-the-scenes” museum staff in capturing a constantly changing “vision” for the exhibition in the final product was above and beyond. Finally, I thank the Mississippian sculptors who captured these truly magnificent images in stone so many centuries ago.