There is another cultural icon on campus as sacred as the Torchbearer.
In 1869, UT purchased the former Matthew McClung estate, an area that today is better known as the UT Institute of Agriculture. What the school may or may not have realized at the time, however, is that the property contains one of the last Native American burial mounds in East Tennessee.
Today, the mound sits at the corner of Joe Johnson Drive and Chapman Drive, a relic from long before the likes of Davy Crockett and Andrew Jackson were even born.
In the late 1800s, more than 200 burial mounds were known to be in the area. Today, however, the number is less than a few dozen, according to Gerald Schroedl, a professor of the Department of Anthropology.
Schroedl said the site on the Agriculture Campus is dated between 600 and 1100 CE and indicative of a Late Woodland Period mound.
"Most of them, they've been inundated or destroyed, for example, by reservoir construction, so TVA reservoirs destroyed them," Schroedl said. "Obviously many have been destroyed by urban development, agriculture, just about any kind of modern development you can think of."
It did not become illegal to dig into archaeological sites on federal lands until 1906. Even then, it was difficult to enforce.
While modern laws are designed to prevent such sites from vandalization, protection from public works projects, like airport terminals or highways, remains negligible. The original design for the Joe Johnson bridge was one such project.
Although the site has yet to be damaged, the bridge that now connects the main campus to the Institute of Agriculture was initially planned to cut into the side of the mound. Only large student and faculty outcry in conjunction with threat of legal action from Native American groups yielded a redesign, leaving the mound intact.
In 1976, the site was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and in 2011, a small garden was built around a portion of the mound.
David Anderson, professor and associate head of the Department of Anthropology, explained the tribal identity and number of persons inside the mound are still unknown.
Although the Cherokee people are believed to have been active in this area during the time of the mound's construction, excavation is only conducted when the site is under direct threat from humans or the environment.
"There's no reason to dig it if it isn't threatened," Anderson said. "It'd be like going out to a cemetery and excavating. There's no reason, so we respect the wishes of the descended populations. As long as it's protected, it should be left alone."
Anderson said he believes such burial sites are not only profound and essential reminders of the past, but also a way of connecting with those who passed on long before us.
"It's a way of marking spaces ... (saying) 'this is where we live,'" he said. "It's a way of knowing where your ancestors are, commemorating them. It's very similar to things we do actually."
As a locus of great cultural significance, the site deserves respect, Schroedl asserted.
"If the University of Tennessee ... came up with a plan, 'Well, we're gonna tear down the Torchbearer'... what would happen on this campus?" Schroedl said. "People would go crazy. They would argue, 'This is an essential representative, physical component part of what it means to be the University of Tennessee.'
"It's the same idea. It's part of history, it's part of American Indian heritage, it's part of our heritage, part of world heritage."