|The stone statues of male and female figures, above, which were found in Wilson County, are believed to date from 1200 to 1250 A.D. Archeologists believe they depict the ancestral deities of the prehistoric civilization in Middle Tennessee at the time. The pieces are part of the collection at the Frank H. McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. Photos by David H. Dye
When Robert Sharp was growing up on Primrose Avenue near Christ the King Church in Nashville in the late 1950s and 1960s, he and his siblings and friends would roam throughout the surrounding neighborhoods playing. It wasn’t until he was in his 50s that he realized that his playground was the home of a once thriving, prehistoric culture.
In 2004, while he was working as the executive director of publications for the Art Institute of Chicago, Sharp edited a book that accompanied the exhibit “Hero, Hawk and Open Hand,” which featured ancient art from the Midwest and the South. Working on the project, “Every day I had another moment of discovery and revelation,” as he realized that many of the pieces in the exhibit were from the area where he grew up.
“I missed this stuff growing up here,” said Sharp, who, after graduating from Father Ryan High School in 1968 earned degrees from St. Louis University and Vanderbilt University. “I didn’t know about any of it. It was not until I was 55 … that I had my own experience on the road to Damascus on prehistoric culture.”
Since then, it has become his avocation and specialty. Earlier this year, Sharp returned to his alma mater to talk to Father Ryan students in art and history classes about the prehistoric culture that thrived all around them.
“I wanted them to be aware … there was a civilization that rose and ultimately collapsed in the Nashville area,” Sharp said.
“I think this is as important to us as knowing what the Romans, the Greeks and the Egyptians believed,” he added. “Why do we want to know anything about history? We learn something about ourselves.”
Some of those lessons were found in an exhibit of stone statuary that Sharp curated with Dr. Kevin Smith, a professor of archeology at Middle Tennessee State University. The exhibit, “Ancestors: Ancient Stone Sculptures from Tennessee,” was hosted by the Tennessee State Museum and closed in May 2016.
|The ceramic female effigy bottle, left, dating from 1250 to 1350 A.D., was found in Smith County, Tennessee. The figure is one of many discovered in prehistoric gravesites, buried with the remains of children.
across the country, and for the exhibit they were borrowed from a variety of museums and private collections.
The focus of the exhibit was to reunite pieces that depict a male and female “that would have sat in temples in this area,” Sharp said. It was the first time the statues were displayed as a pair, he added.
The sets, all strikingly similar, show the male figure sitting and the female kneeling. There were four pairs in the exhibit. “When we put them together, it’s pretty convincing they’re by the same artist,” Sharp said.
“These are really unusual pieces,” Sharp said. “You don’t find stone sculptures all around the U.S.”
The statues were carved about 1200 or 1250 A.D., and the largest is about two feet tall.
Archeologists and art historians believe the images depict the civilization’s “founding family. This great couple … our king and queen,” Sharp said. “They’re almost ancestral deities, the people who are responsible for us being here. They’re venerated.”
Many of the other pieces in the exhibit were ceramic bottles depicting women, which were buried with a person’s remains, particularly those of children, Sharp said. “They’re there for a sacred purpose, for the recycling of their souls.”
The figures date back to a time of a devastating drought that caused massive problems with child mortality, Sharp said.
The figures show the women holding their waist or crossing their hands over the waists, which archeologists believes indicate it is a depiction of a pregnant woman, Sharp said. “The female figure is a sort of an earth mother who will take care of these children,” he said.
“We think it’s a figure trying to aid the spirit of the dead child in their return in a new life,” said Sharp.
These female figures are found all across Middle Tennessee and share a similar design. It looks as if they are by the same artist, Sharp said. “She’s handing them out.”
“The longer I work with these pieces, to see how similar they are,” Sharp said, it’s becoming clearer “these people are talking to each other.”
In the prehistoric civilizations that lived in this area, women were isolated from the rest of the community when they were menstruating, ill or delivering a child, Sharp said. “This is where the women are going to tell their stories and share their beliefs and teaching each other how to do ceramics,” he said. “I think that’s when they’re sharing stories of the earth mother.”
The patterns painted on the figures are unlike similar figures found in Northeast Arkansas or Southeast Missouri, and other parts of the Southeast haven’t produced any figures like them at all, Sharp said. “They’re unique to the Nashville area,” he said.
“The story of Our Lady of the Cumberland to me is as compelling as any story of prehistoric times,” Sharp said.
Other pieces in the exhibit depict dogs, owls and a set of twins. The twins are believed to be the Hero Twins, an origin story common among Native American cultures. According to the myth, when the twins are born, the mother doesn’t realize there are twins and discards one with the placenta. But the child survives and is raised in the wild. When the twins meet years later, they have mythic powers to defeat their enemies.
“It’s probably the most widespread Native American myth,” Sharp said. “Almost every Native American tribal community has a twins myth.”
Drought eventually drove the prehistoric civilizations out of Middle Tennessee, Sharp said. “By 1450, people … had pretty much abandoned the Nashville area.”
Sharp combined his visit to Father Ryan with a trip to Nashville for a conference on Current Research in Tennessee Archeology, where he gave a presentation on the bottles depicting the “earth mother” and their distribution through the area.
Sharp, whose father Tom was a long-time member of the Metro Nashville City Council, earned his degrees in English literature and ended up working for 34 years for the Art Institute of Chicago. In his retirement, he has embarked on a new career as a publications and editorial services consultant with interests in Native American art, archeology and iconography.
His varied career experiences are part of the message the teachers at Father Ryan wanted him to convey to the students, he said. “You never know what’s going to happen to you. You need to be a life-long learner.”