Another Engraved Mississippian Tablet

The portable petroglyph tablet with the Kellogg’s Corn Flakes Rooster was not alone.  Shortly after it was found, an individual who lived in the Nashville area stepped forward to present another engraved tablet that either he or one of his associates had found on the same archaeological site.

The name of the individual who found this second tablet, the exact historical circumstances surrounding its discovery, and its precise in-situ archaeological context on the site remain unknown at this time.  I have not seen this tablet in about 30 years.  Apparently, it does not surface for display at artifact collector shows, no one in the Nashville area artifact-collecting community knows anything about it, no one knows for sure who owns it, and it has never made an appearance in the professional archaeological literature.

This tablet has one definitive engraved image on its surface and one possible image.  The definitive image is a typical iconographic theme that shows up on Mississippian ceramics and other artifacts from this period.  It is sometimes referred to as the scalp-and-cross theme.  You may see a graphite rubbing of this image below.  The elemental lines that comprise the engraving are drawn in over the rubbing so the total image shows clearly:

Scalp and Cross

The other engraved image leaves me skeptical.  Shortly after this tablet was found, at least one person in the Nashville area opined that this second image is a crude attempt to show a ceremonial monolithic ax or one of its variant forms, which show up in our current ”compendium” of Mississippian period iconographic elements,  motifs, and themes (to use Jon Muller’s terminology). 

Why am I skeptical?   When I had an opportunity to examine this tablet about 30 years ago, the elemental lines that comprise the engraved image appeared to be no more than two sets of deep parallel and not so parallel incisions in the stone.  The concept of a monolithic ax came from the fact that the short set of deep incisions crosses over the longer set of deep incisions.  I would hasten to add that this engraved “image” is clearly not an amalgamation of random natural scratches in the stone.  They are without any doubt whatsoever intentional incisions.  The matter in doubt is whether they constitute an intentional graphic image or symbolic representation of a familiar Mississippian object.  My net tendency is to say “no.”  These deeply incised lines look very much like the deep lines one normally sees in ancient whetstones (or sharpening stones), which are often made of sandstone and are commonly found in Middle Archaic and Late Archaic contexts in Middle Tennessee.  The presence of such similar lineations on the same side of the tablet as the scalp-and-cross theme suggests to me that the Mississippian artist who was incising this theme into the tablet was simultaneously using another small, isolated area of the same tablet to sharpen his engraving tools and did so throughout the engraving process.  I suppose it might be possible that the ancient artist saw an opportunity to do his tool sharpening in a shape roughly like that of a monolithic ax to maintain some sort of spiritual relatedness among all of the intentional marks being placed on this tablet.  However, this is purely a matter of speculation, and I would like to again re-emphasize the fact that these incisions in the stone do not clearly resolve into any sort of definitive graphic image like the scalp-and cross image.  Please click on the file below, which is a graphite rubbing of the so-called monolithic ax image on this tablet, and tell me what you see:

Purported Monolithic Ax

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