We know and love our history on the mountain and I find great comfort in that. It’s a wonderful feeling to drive around the area and remember someone from or something about nearly every hill and hollow. I get a lot of teasing that maybe my family tree doesn’t have enough branches if I start talking about all of my cousins. Yet people are amazed that I know my great-grandparents’ names without looking them up – all of them. Still, there are mysteries buried on our plateau and that’s pretty fascinating too.
Last week Scott Phillips with Backwoods Adventures posted a photo on Facebook and prompted a healthy debate about its origin and history. Ultimately it remains a mystery and like so many unanswered questions I can’t see how we could uncover its origin. But it got me to thinking about how very much we don’t know about our own history.
Many years ago an East Tennessee friend told me about a legend in the Smokies that a lost, or hidden, people still lived in seclusion among the mountains. That’s the only time I’ve heard such a story and a quick internet search yielded no additional information. Somehow it isn’t too much of a stretch for me to believe it possible for a small band to hide in the vastness of the Smoky Mountains and the mystery of the tale is beguiling. Our little plateau home doesn’t seem as untamed as those big eastern mountains but maybe that’s because I’m so familiar with them. I’ve roamed our woods and know so many stories about home-places and communities that are now consumed by trees and brush that it seems like I can walk among them and almost feel my ancestors there. Sure, I know there are stories I haven’t heard – and I’m always working to learn more of them. And I know there are questions from those stories that I may never get answered.
But a real mystery on our mountain, is that too much to hope for? Not if you take a look at and do a bit of research on the sign that Mr. Phillips graciously shared. This appears to be an ancient Greek symbol called Chi Rho. It is a combination of the first two Greek letters in Kristos which is the translation for Christ. While the symbol seems to pre-date Christianity, it was adopted by the early church. Just as a fascinating aside, Ancient-Symbols.com explains the Chi Rho is behind the practice of abbreviating Christmas as “Xmas”(and we all thought that was an attempt to remove Christ from Christmas).
So what’s an ancient Greek symbol doing on a rock in the backcountry of the Cumberland Plateau? Well that’s a very good question for we don’t see a lot of Greek influence in our historic culture owing to strong Scots-Irish ancestry, lack of classical education, and an aversion to all things “furrin”.
Well a couple of Greek letters carved into a rock-face is about the most foreign thing I can imagine finding in our woods. Yet there it is, well formed and quite aged. I’m no archeologist but it just doesn’t look like common graffiti to me with the straight lines and clear angles. Someone suggested it may have been the cornerstone of an old church but the location is wrong as it is in a solid rock overlook.
We are well accustomed to the traces of the Native Americans who first claimed the plateau for hunting grounds. But the pictures they left are very different than this carving. In fact, with only a few exceptions, their artistic remnants are usually paintings, baskets or pottery. Moreover, they would surely have only been exposed to this symbol by European missionaries and I’ve never known of those evangelists utilizing such ancient markings.
Another suggestion was that Colonel John Wilder was in the habit of marking areas he believed to have coal seams while he was still in the Army and may have left this sort of symbol. While Colonel Wilder clearly had his eyes on Tennessee’s undiscovered wealth during the war years, I’ve never known of any other such signs and you would think they would be found in the Wilder-Davidson areas where he eventually opened coal mines. Moreover, he doesn’t use Greek symbols in his other enterprises.
So today I’ve once again presented you with more questions than answers. I like to finish a story by wrapping up all the open plot-lines but sometimes history just doesn’t do that for us. And for me, the questions just draw me in deeper and keep me coming back for more.