TN State Museum holds homecoming for 28 Native-American stone sculptures
Twenty-eight ancient stone sculptures, found primarily between the Tennessee and Cumberland rivers, are spending a bit of quality time together, courtesy of the Tennessee State Museum.
The free exhibit, "Ancestors: Ancient Native American Sculptures of Tennessee," continues in the museum's Changing Galleries through May 15 and features four Pre-Columbian ancestral human figural statues found in Lebanon's backyard and believed to have been carved 600 to 800 years ago.
Tour TN State Museum and Sellars Farm in a day
The Friends of Long Hunter State Park group tentatively is planning a tour this spring that will allow those interested to take a bus from Long Hunter State Park to the Tennessee State Museum where a museum host will provide a guided tour of the "Ancestors: Ancient Native American Sculptures of Tennessee" exhibit. After lunch (on your own) at Nashville Farmers Market, the bus will transport guests to the Sellars Farm State Archaeological Area for a guided tour by a state park ranger. Those interested may check for details in the near future online at friendsoflonghunter.com or on the group's Facebook page, Facebook.com/longhunterstatepark/ or email email@example.com
"It's the first time in my knowledge that more than three have been exhibited together ever out of the 80 or so known to exist from the book, 'Speaking With the Ancestors: Mississippian Stone Statuary of the Tennessee-Cumberland Region,' by Dr. Kevin E. Smith and James V. Miller," said exhibit curator Dr. Rex Weeks.
"The museum is very excited to present this extraordinary exhibition of Pre-Columbian stone statues--Native-American male and female ancestral pairs. This is the first time, and quite possibly the only time, these pairs have been reunited and placed on public view. Many of pairs have been separated ever since their discovery, and most have been taken far outside the state to museums such as the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City," added Mary Skinner, who handles community and media relations for the Tennessee State Museum.
All 28 stone sculptures are from Tennessee with the exception of one found on the border of Kentucky and Tennessee, north of Clarksville. These include 14 from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C., two from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, two from the McClung Museum, five from the State Museum's collection, and five that are held in private collections.
Wilson County sculpture considered 'finest piece'
One of the Wilson County sculptures, a male statue sculpture, is considered by antiquarians as "the finest piece of prehistoric sculpture found in the U.S." He has appeared on numerous magazine and book covers and was included on a U.S. postage stamp for the Art of the American Indian series. Two years ago, the statue, on loan from the McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, officially became recognized as the State Artifact.
"It's breathtaking, amazing," said Betty Rogers Reeder, of the sculpture, which was found by her grandfather Jeff Rogers in late 1939 near Sellars Mound four miles southeast of Lebanon.
Over the years the 18½-inch-high statue has been referred to as "the Stooping Man," "Rogo the Chief" and "Sandy," but now has no name.
Reeder said that her grandfather "was out there plowing, getting ready to do his tobacco plants. He said when his plow hit the statue he thought it was a big rock. He was gonna try to pull the rock out, and it was that statue, and there was another rock, the female statue"
Indeed, Rogers found three of the four Sellars Mound images on display at the museum, the first, a female image, in late 1938 or early 1939, and then the pair he dug up in late 1939. He sold the latter two in 1940 for $150 to the McClung Museum in Knoxville.
Experts believe the first statue Rogers found is the mate to the male found in 1939, thus they are paired together in the exhibit.
Curator Weeks said, "The State Artifact and the sculptural mate look like they have been made by the same hand. Their features, especially in the face, are so similar and so personal that we think they belong together because they look so much alike. When you look at the Sellars' images, it's as fine a carvings as you can get of human in stone when you look in their faces."
Once 'Sandy,' now nameless
Weeks says that some call the famous male sculpture "Sandy," but that he is actually made of siltstone and not sandstone. The nickname has been dropped recently by McClung Museum in respect to some Native Americans who expressed concern about calling an important ancestral figure a trivial name and making him a mascot.
"We've decided to not give him a name, so we don't know what his name is, and just call him an ancestral male figure from Sellars Farm State Archeological Area," Weeks said, "however, as an American you have a choice to use it.
"Beside him sits the piece owned by John Waggoner of Carthage. It is sculpted so much like him that it is thought to be the mate. The Sellars Farm pair was presented together for a small gathering of people at a Tennessee Archaeological Society meeting on a weekend in Knoxville for a few hours in the 1960s."
The exhibit marks the first time that the public can see four ancestral pairs, and three other possible pairs together.
Back together again?
"This is a homecoming bringing them back to Tennessee. We're assuming that with a lot of confidence based on how similar they look and where they were found and what we know from historical circumstances and archaeological context," said Weeks. "Our confidence is about as strong as we can have about archaeological things because archaeology is always a mystery."
Among the other ancestral pairs being shown are a set found in Castalian Springs in Sumner County and two pairs found in Smith County.
Another star of the exhibit is the largest Pre-Columbian male ancestral human figural statue in the U.S. and Canada, found in Humphreys County, which is over two feet tall and weighs more than 100 pounds.
Found while plowing a field
As for the farmer who found three of the statues on the ground now known as Sellars Farm State Archaeological Area, Jeff Rogers was born in Wilson County in 1888 and died in 1975 at 86. He was 50 when he found the last two stone images on Dec. 14, 1939. At the time he lived in a tenant shack near the mound on the banks of Spring Creek.
In several interviews over the following years with local writer Hugh Walker, Rogers told him that he went out that December morning with an ax and grubbing hole to prepare a tobacco bed. Working in a mound four feet wide and 18 inches high, less than two feet beneath the soil, he dug up the male and female statues. Each weighs about 50 pounds. The male stands 18½ inches tall and 12½ inches across the shoulders. The female is the same height and nine inches across the shoulders.
The male has black eyes and a black band that runs across the bridge of its nose and down each cheek. Its tongue and lip are colored with red pigment. (Although only visible under professional lighting, he also has a "mask" of yellow pigment over the upper part of his face.)
"My grandmother said when it rained he would sweat and the color would start to come out," said Reeder. "I've gotten to touch them when they were over here in the (Lebanon) courthouse. I could just feel my granddaddy being amazed looking at it. That he found something really big. He would never think of his name being out to thousands of people."
(Former state representative Stratton Bone of Lebanon arranged for the two McClung Museum images to be exhibited at the Wilson County courthouse in 2005. He slept in the courthouse two nights to make sure they didn't wander off.)
Reeder a humble man
Reeder described her grandfather as a man who "loved his family, a good Christian man who went to church every Sunday and always wore overalls and a white shirt and hat. He was part Cherokee and was a quiet person and a really good checker player.
"If he hadn't dug those up (the statues), and nobody thought a thing about that piece of land out there, and nobody knowed that, they might have had a bulldozer come in there and have built a subdivision out there," she said.
"In my opinion he doesn't get the credit he deserves. He didn't talk about it a whole lot. I think when they were taken, he didn't care to talk about it anymore."
As an aside, both of Reeder's grandparents were baptized in the Melton Hole in Spring Creek, about a half mile from where Rogers dug up the stones. The sculptor possibly may have taken a swim in the same spot centuries earlier.
Who's the 'Chief?'
As for some confusion about which statue was originally called Rogo the Chief, Middle Tennessee State University professor of anthropology Kevin Smith, who, with Robert Sharp, serve as guest curators of the exhibit, reports that interviews done with J.T. Arrington and Raymond Wetherly many years ago led Middle Tennessee archaeologists James Miller and H.C. "Buddy" Brehm to the conclusion that the second statue found (the female) was the one named Rogo the Chief, but it later got also tagged onto the statue that would become known as "Sandy" in the 1950s.
Smith said that while it seems clear that "Sandy" was called Rogo the Chief by some locally, Brehm was convinced after all of his interviews that the name was first used for the female.
He also clarifies that the first statue found by Rogers is the one believed to be the mate to the statue known for many years as "Sandy." The latter two, found at the same time, are not a pair (at least not with each other) and are owned by the McClung Museum.
"Although we cannot be certain, it seems probable that all four statues were originally housed in the same large temple at the site and were possibly all buried beneath the floor of that structure when the site was abandoned," said Smith.
He adds, "Over the years, the State Artifact has traveled an estimated 15,000-plus miles for exhibitions in Manhattan, New York; Washington, D.C.; Detroit, Michigan; Houston, Texas; Brussels, Belgium (at the Royal Museums of Art and History); Chicago, Illinois; St. Louis, Missouri; and most recently Lebanon and now Nashville. So, in a very real sense, he has been an emissary for both ancient and modern Tennesseans around the country and the globe."
As for the Tennessee State Museum exhibit, that took several years to orchestrate, curator Weeks notes, "This is the only chance people in Tennessee will probably ever get to see these together. This is once in a lifetime, and these are spectacular archeological finds, world-class art and found right in your own backyard and taken out of the state, and on May 15 they have to return."
Writer Ken Beck may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.