Tag Archives: Sandy

PBS Antiques Roadshow Appraises Duck River Cache and The Ancestor

by Tracy C. Brown

Note: For many decades, the male statue in Figure 1 (below) was referred to casually by the nickname “Sandy” in discussions among professional archaeologists, avocational archaeologists, and artifact collectors in Tennessee. It is my understanding that the Native American community in Tennessee was not pleased with the nickname “Sandy” and thought it to be disrespectful. In response to this concern, the name of this male statue has been changed to “The Ancestor.” This change in name refers to the current archaeological interpretation that male statues like this represent the original founding male ancestor of the chiefly hereditary lineage that governed the Mississippian period Sellars Mound site near Lebanon, Tennessee.  Therefore, we have changed the name to The Ancestor in the main blog article below.

This was an interesting and surprising evening! While the rest of my family was at a concert, I prepared some food in the kitchen at home, plopped my bottom into a den chair, munched on dinner, and watched some television. After Erin Burnett had regaled me with assorted Ebola horrors on CNN, I did some quick channel surfing and landed on the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) channel where The Antiques Roadshow was already underway―from Knoxville, Tennessee. After watching a few minutes, the camera suddenly cut away to a program emcee standing in front of the Frank H. McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture at The University of Tennessee in Knoxville, Tennessee. The primary subject of concern was the museum’s permanent exhibit called Archaeology and the Native Peoples of Tennessee.

Once inside the museum, the emcee was accompanied by a professional art appraiser with knowledge of Native American artifacts and their monetary values. The focus was on the The Ancestor statue (Figure 1), a famous Mississippian period artifact from the Sellars Mound site near Lebanon, Tennessee, and the equally famous Duck River Cache (Figure 2) of Dover chert ceremonial objects from the Link Farm site in West Tennessee. Somewhat less interest was placed on a crudely executed female Mississippian statue that sits near The Ancestor in the exhibit.


Figure 1.  Sandy

 Duck River Cash

Figure 2.  Duck River Cache (Seever 1897:143)

The art appraiser examined The Ancestor and the Duck River Cache,  and he offered an appraised dollar value for each of them. As a matter of ethics, we professional archaeologists normally refrain from offering such appraisals to private individuals because they could contribute to commercial trafficking in artifacts, which has the ultimate effect of encouraging looting at archaeological sites. I would also say that most of us professional archaeologists do not keep up with current monetary valuations on artifacts because we do not need to know such things in the course of our daily work. No doubt being aware of this fact, the professional art appraiser was very careful to note that his appraisals for The Ancestor and the Duck River Cache were recommended valuations for insurance purposes only.

Lady Gaga’s new song, Artpop, says that she is in the entertainment business for the music and not the “bling” (flashy possessions). Similarly, we professional archaeologists are in our business for archaeological information and data——not the bling. Nonetheless, it was interesting and a bit fun to find out how valuable these artifacts are in crass monetary terms.

For insurance purposes, the Duck River Cache was formally appraised at $600,000 to $800,000. Considering the fact that the State of Tennessee bought these chipped stone artifacts from the University of Missouri for only $2,500 in 1947 (Peacock 1984:26), that is not a bad return on our state’s long-term investment in professional archaeology.

I thought the Duck River Cache would certainly be valued higher than The Ancestor, but you have to remember that The Ancestor has become a national celebrity since his appearance on a U.S. postage stamp. This star quality and his new status as an official state artifact has no doubt increased his value. For insurance purposes, The Ancestor was appraised at $800,000 to $1,200,000, which in my mind further raises the ancient Sellars artist to bonafide master sculptor status.

Now that PBS has brought The Ancestor and the Duck River Cache to the attention of both national and international television audiences via regular television transmissions, cable connections, and satellite hookups—and placed a very high monetary value on these artifacts—we all trust that Dr. Jefferson Chapman (Museum Director) and his fine staff at the Frank H. McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture have implemented security measures sufficient to protect these famous artifacts from theft both now and in the years to come.

Update on 2/16/19: Male statues like The Ancestor often have  a female mate statue. As it turned out, a prominent Tennessee local historian and avocational archaeologist (Mr. John Waggoner of Carthage, Tennessee) owned the female mate statue to The Ancestor. This female statue was found long ago on the same archaeological site (Sellars Mound site) as The Ancestor and was without doubt carved by the same ancient sculptor who created The Ancestor. A couple of years ago, the owner of the female statue kindly offered the McClung Museum of  Natural  History and Culture a golden opportunity to purchase the female statue for a reasonable price. With donations of money from various folks, the museum was able to acquire this female statue.

Today The Ancestor and his female mate sit together at the museum just as they did at the Sellars Mound site in ancient times. I would guess that the current insured value of the female statue is probably $1,000,000 or more, especially now that she is together with The Ancestor.

If you are ever on vacation or business travel to Knoxville, Tennessee (or you are just passing through Knoxville), please stop and visit the McClung Museum of  Natural  History and Culture. The Ancestor and his female mate are on permanent display for the public to see. The famous Duck River Cache is also on permanent display for the public to view. In addition, the museum has a massive and highly educational display of other rare Native American artifacts. Parking and admission to the museum are free, but if you want to do so, you may make a small or large donation in the plexiglass donation box near the front doors of the museum (no pressure). However, after the wonderful Native American archaeology exhibit “blows your socks off,” I suspect your heart will be moved to donate at least some amount.


Peacock, Charles K., Duck River Cache: Tennessee’s Greatest Archaeological Find. Reprinted and updated by H.C. Brehm and Quentin R. Bass II in the Mini-Histories Series, 1984.

Seever, William J.,  “A Cache of Idols and Chipped Flint Instruments In Tennessee,” The Antiquarian, Volume 1, Part 6, June 1897.

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.