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
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.