Why Are Sandy’s Eyes Incomplete: A Hypothesis


The Great State of Tennessee now has an official state artifact. The Tennessee Council for Professional Archaeology, its officers, and its members deserve enormous credit for advancing the idea of a state artifact and lobbying for it on Capitol Hill in Nashville. The Tennessee General Assembly and Tennessee State Senate just passed the bill in recent weeks, and Governor Bill Haslam has signed it. This artifact is named “Sandy,” and Dr. David Dye, an archaeologist at the University of Memphis, has taken what the Archaeology in Tennessee blog considers to be one of the best photographs of him. You can see that photograph below:


The best available information indicates that Sandy was found in 1939 on the Sellars site (40WI1), which is near the city of Lebanon in Wilson County, Tennessee. Sellars is a Mississippian Period (A.D. 1000-1475) mound center in the Nashville Basin (Smith and Miller 2009: 38 and 43). The Sellars site has the unique distinction of being the only Middle Cumberland mound center located on the floor of the Inner Nashville Basin, an area where native limestone rock is often exposed at the ground surface over large areas or lies only a few inches below the ground surface. Naturally occurring prickly pear cactus (Opuntia humifusa) and American red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) glades are common in this area.

Sandy acquired his name long ago, apparently because someone in the 20th century thought he was carved from a hefty chunk of sandstone. However, Smith and Miller (2009: Appendix A, Table A.1) indicate that he is actually carved from siltstone. His height is 47 cm (18.5 in).

This Mississippian statue is famous at both the national and state levels in the United States. Being a long-time stamp collector, I can tell you that Sandy has been the featured image on one U.S. postage stamp in a set of stamps dedicated to the art of Native Americans. For many years Sandy was also the official logo of the Tennessee Archaeological Society, a professional-amateur archaeological organization that was dissolved in 1977.

A full description of Sandy and the fascinating story surrounding his discovery are provided in Smith and Miller (2009). This book can be purchased from The University of Alabama Press in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

Some Brief Artistic Considerations

As you can readily see in the photograph above, the ancient person who carved Sandy was a master artisan―arguably an artistic genius in his own time and place. However, he intentionally gave much more artistic attention to the head than he did to the rest of Sandy’s body.

One can perhaps argue whether Sandy represents a real Native American person who was alive at one time in prehistory or whether he is a supernatural being in some ancient mythological narrative. For our purposes here, it really does not matter because both the ancient human and the ancient mythological being had a persona that was well known to the people at the Sellars site, and the ancient artistic master labored long and carefully to accurately capture it. This persona consisted of three critical parts: (1) the physical appearance of the individual; (2) a strong sense of his personality; and (3) the essence of his demeanor in a moment of social interaction. From the attention to detail on Sandy’s face, it is clear that the artist was reaching for all three and that he succeeded in capturing them in what one might call a nearly perfect constellation of anatomical and expressional elements. One could argue that even selection of the siltstone medium was specifically designed to recreate the facial skin pores on an elderly male. However, even with all of that wonderful attention to detail, one critical element is missing from the face. For some unknown reason, the artist chose to leave out the irises and pupils on Sandy’s eyes.

Smith and Miller (2009:21) note that the known Mississippian statuary does not have the pupils of the eyes represented in stone. We assume their term “pupils” is referring to both the central pupil of the eye and the iris that surrounds it. They further indicate that some of the statues have the pupils represented by applied paint. For example, the famous marble statuary pair found at the Etowah mound site near Cartersville, Georgia, has nicely painted irises and pupils represented by simple black circles, probably because Native American eyes tend to be black—with the iris and pupil not easily distinguishable from each other. A rapid perusal of the statuary photographs in Smith and Miller (2009) suggests that most of the statues with no iris and pupil are those that were crudely executed by ancient artists who were not nearly as talented as those at Sellars and Etowah. However, of those ancient Mississippian artists who were indeed very talented, some were willing to “go for it” on completing the eyes. The artist at Etowah was willing to do so, but the arguably more talented artist at Sellars did not. This is not to say that all Mississippian statues without irises and pupils were solely related to questionable artistic talent. It is quite possible that the absence of these anatomical features was related to widespread and shared ideological or folklore narrative concerns, with some chiefdoms like the one at Etowah not sharing in those concerns.

Sandy and his Incomplete Eyes

I have always wondered why the ancient artist who sculpted Sandy did not complete the eyes, especially considering his enormous talent and his extraordinary attention to detail on the face, head, and neck. Our Euroamerican culture has generated the long-standing notion that the “eyes are the window to the soul.” Although ancient Native Americans in the Middle Cumberland region may not have shared in that notion, one would nonetheless think that completed eyes would be essential to fully and accurately capturing the real life personality and demeanor of the Sandy individual.

In the ancient of days (1960s), I was a student at Gallatin Junior High School in Gallatin, Tennessee. Such institutions are called “middle schools” today. Nearly every student had at least one study hall period in those days, and all study hall students assembled in the school library, which was well stocked with periodicals. A number of bored study hall students were sometimes in a pranking frame of mine, and one of their favorite articles of mischief was to draw crossed eyes and mustaches on fashion models and other people depicted in the magazines. My mind was not one with their tribe on this issue, but I must confess that I have always wondered what Sandy would have looked like if the ancient artist had completed his eyes. In light of all the recent media publicity surrounding Sandy and his new status as an official state artifact, the issue of his eyes came to my attention again, and this time I was unable to resist membership in the Magazine Graffiti tribe. I had to see Sandy with eyes.

The first issue in doing this was where to find a photograph of Sandy that exhibits an excellent, clear, straight-on view of the face and eyes. An enlarged version of David Dye’s photograph (above) was deemed the best for this purpose. The next issue was: “What kind of eyes?” As previously noted, Native American eyes tend to present themselves anatomically as singular black circles where the iris and pupil are not clearly distinguishable from each other. Considering the ancient Sellars artist and his careful attention to facial details, it was assumed that he would have depicted such eyes, which would have been the eyes he was familiar with in his own community. The last issue was how to draw in the iris and pupil on Sandy. Recognizing that my artistic talent is on the same plane as that of the person who sculpted statue CSS-063 in Smith and Miller (2009:155), I knew that any of my freehand circles would be a similar disaster. Obviously, it was necessary to use a draftsman’s template and select the circle hole with the most appropriate diameter to mesh with the selected photograph. A decision was made to use a Staedtler Professional Sketch Master Template with a generous selection of circles. After a little trial and error exercise, one of which resulted in a Japanese anime Sandy that only Lady Gaga could appreciate, the 3.175 mm circle was selected as the best option.

With the last preliminary issue addressed, Insertion of the iris and pupil began in earnest. (We will call both just the iris henceforth.) Immediately, an old artistic principle that every cartoonist knows presented itself. The positioning of the iris on the sclera of the eye to a large degree controls overall facial expression and thus the appearance of the Sandy persona (the sense of personality and individual demeanor that was mentioned earlier). Indeed, just a fraction of a millimeter change in the position of the iris vertically, horizontally, or in any location between appeared to result in some degree of shift in Sandy’s overall facial expression―with greater changes in position resulting in more profound shifts in expression. Moreover, the moving of the iris appeared to be engaging in subtle dance movements with that “nearly perfect constellation of anatomical and expressional elements” the ancient artist had gentled into Sandy’s overall face. At the recognized risk of crossing over that perilous and ephemeral line in the sand where one imagines (probably wrongly) that he can get inside the mind of a prehistoric person, an issue argued over for years in archaeological method and theory, I was nonetheless trying to capture that perfect iris positioning that might have been the look the ancient artist would have aimed for had he tried. I just tried it a few times, and the foregoing iris positioning problem gave me immediate fits of tension and frustration, and it was evident that it would continue to do so no matter how many times I repositioned the iris. However, in one of those few tries, I might have captured the unique Sandy persona I was looking for in this exercise.

As a result of this exercise, I suspect that our excellent ancient artist at the Sellars site was well aware of the delicate relationship between iris positioning and overall facial expression. He was most likely aware of how this iris positioning would variably dance with the unique combination of facial elements he had given to Sandy. Perhaps most important of all, he understood what a simultaneously delicate and perilous artistic maneuver it would take to perfectly capture the Sandy persona he hoped to obtain, especially with primitive painting and carving tools. Basically, our artist recognized that he had just one shot at getting it right, and the odds were highly against getting it right in that one shot―and now we descend into clichés to make our final point. As the old saying goes, “discretion is often the better part of valor,” and our very talented Mississippian artist may have recognized that “it is sometimes best to leave well enough alone.” Therefore, our operative hypothesis can be stated as follows:

The artist who sculpted Sandy made a conscious decision to avoid completing the eyes because he understood the technical issues involved in iris placement, their implications for varying facial expressions, and the inherently high risk of obtaining an undesirable expression in the single attempt available to him.

Photographs of Sandy with Completed Eyes

The items below are a few PDF photographs of Sandy with completed eyes. You can see how the slightly varying positions of the inserted irises result in concomitantly varying overall facial expressions. The first photograph might be what the ancient artist would have gone for, but that is of course pure conjecture on my part.

The only scanner readily available to me on a Sunday afternoon was not behaving at its best. Therefore, after you click on each of the PDF files, you should attempt to reduce the magnification level to 75 percent, if WordPress will allow you to do it.  That maneuver will provide you with a “best look” at each photograph. Just for some amusement, the last photograph is our accidental Japanese anime Sandy.

Now, prepare to be haunted by our best shot at the full face of the ancient old man who may have been the progenitor of the ancestral chiefly lineage at the Sellars mound center:

Sandy with Eyes No. 1

Here is Sandy with some iris positions that vary from those in the preceding photograph.  Notice how the facial expression changes:

Sandy with Eyes No. 2

Sandy with Eyes No. 3

Finally, we have the Japanese anime Sandy:

Sandy with Eyes No. 4

One other significant issue needs to be addressed here. In the discussion above, and even here, our Leonardo da Sellars is referred to as a “he.” The Archaeology in Tennessee blog recognizes that many women in American archaeology and anthropology have been on the receiving end of both conscious and unconscious male prejudices across many decades and that these prejudices have not only hurt women but have bled rather thoughtlessly into our past interpretations of the archaeological record. With that thought in mind, we acknowledge that the sculptor of Sandy could have been an exceptionally talented Native American woman.  In addition, and we know this is speculation, extraordinarily talented people often have additional defining characteristics that set them apart from the other people in a community, and the possession of such characteristics may have imparted some special level of status in a ranked society.


Smith, Kevin E. and James V. Miller, Speaking with the Ancestors: Mississippian Stone Statuary of the Tennessee-Cumberland Region. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2009.

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