The Mystery Stone
Does a rock in New Mexico show the Ten Commandments in ancient Hebrew? Harvard professor says yes.
Twenty miles south of Albuquerque in the Rio Grande Valley lies the town of Los Lunas, home to roughly 14,000 souls who tend to be religious but vote Democratic, and listen to country music but not Rush Limbaugh. Main Street coincides with Route 6, along which one passes the middle school, the Los Lunas Public Library, and the fire department. The biggest employer here is Walmart; the second biggest is a prison located at the edge of an empty field.
Los Lunas is also home to a curious artifact of mysterious origin: an 80-ton stone bearing a written code that is eight and a half lines long. The stone itself is about four and a half feet tall, its back end embedded into the mountain in the desert that is near the town. The characters etched into its surface are white, deeply engraved, and strangely geometric. They are chiseled in long, precise lines and seem to be grouped together in clusters resembling words. Every so often, a dot approximating a period appears after one of the clusters.
Who wrote this code in the heart of the Rio Abajo desert, and in what language is it written? For a while, the jury was out. Since the stone’s discovery in the 1930s, three different translations appeared. Robert Hoath La Follette, a lawyer and dabbler in archaeology, suggested that the inscription is a combination of Phoenician, Etruscan, and Egyptian letters that tell a halting, indeterminate tale of ambiguous survival and responsive weather: “We retreated while under attack … then we traveled over the surface of the water; then we climbed without eating,” he said it reads; “just when we were greatly in need of water, we had rain. … In the water we sat down.”
Dixie L. Perkins, another lay enthusiast, suggested that the inscription is an early version of Greek. Her translation is slightly more gothic: “I have come up this point. … The other one met with an untimely death one year ago; dishonored, insulted, and stripped of flesh; the men thought him to be an object of care, whom I looked after, considered crazed, wandering in mind, to be tossed about as if in a wind; to perish, streaked with blood. … I, Zakynerous, am dross, scum, refuse, just as on board a ship a soft effeminate sailor is flogged with an animal’s hide.”
In 1949, Robert Pfeiffer of Harvard’s Semitic Museum arrived in Los Lunas to inspect the stone. He concluded that it was written in a mixture of Moabite, Greek, and ancient Phoenician—an orthography that is basically Paleo-Hebrew, the script of the Jews prior to their exile to Babylon. There is even a debate in the Talmud as to whether the Torah that was originally given to the Israelites was written in Paleo-Hebrew or Assyrian, today’s Hebrew orthography. The alphabet continued to be used by Samaritans and was known by Irish theologian and scholar Henry Dodwell as early as 1691, who wrote in his A Discourse Concerning Sanchoniathon’s Phoenician History that “[the Samaritans] still preserve [the Pentateuch] in the Old Hebrew character.”
But it was Pfeiffer’s translation of the mysterious inscription on the stone that created the greatest interest among scholars and others: “I am Yahweh, the God who brought thee out of the land of Egypt out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image.” The stone began to be referred to as the “Mystery Stone” or “Commandment Rock,” a title that gained further currency when The Epigraphic Society accepted Pfeiffer’s reading of the inscription as a truncated form of the Ten Commandments that, according to the Hebrew Bible, were given to Moses at Mount Sinai.
So, what explanation could possibly lead to the inscription of the Ten Commandments in Hebrew on a rock in the middle of the New Mexico desert? When I arrived in Los Lunas early one morning in February, I was told that the person to speak to about the Mystery Stone was Cynthia Shetter, the town librarian. “She knows everything about that stone,” said the receptionist at the Visitor’s Center, which is unusual: Very few people in town seemed to have heard of the stone, and no one I met had ever seen it. Shetter learned about the rock in her capacity as librarian because, as she put it, “a lot of people such as yourself were calling and coming into the library.”
Shetter is from a town south of Los Lunas originally called Hot Springs until its inhabitants voted to rename it “Truth or Consequences”—“after the game show,” she says. Shetter grew up on a ranch before becoming the “story hour mom” and then the chief librarian, and her cowgirl past is never far from the surface. She has an easy, unpretentious manner, is quick to laugh, and absorbs knowledge like a sponge. Throughout the day I observe her patiently waiting for various men to finish speaking and then subtly correcting them, in a tone of voice that makes it sound like she is agreeing with them. In her fifties, Shetter is still an attractive woman with long blonde hair and a twinkle in her blue eyes. She knows everyone and everything about Los Lunas and may well be the town’s next mayor.
She clears her schedule at the opportunity to take me to see the Mystery Stone. When I ask her who she thinks wrote the inscription, she smiles and says, “It’s a mystery.” She tells me that former mayor Louis Huning’s father, Jack Huning, remembers the stone as a child. The Hunings were German homesteaders who moved to the area in the 1850s, fleeing the German army. “Louis died last year at the age of 80,” she says. “So, that puts it way back in the 1920s or ’30s. And he says that he was shown it by an Indian sheep herder, who had seen it when he was a kid, so that’s back to the 1880s.” She shrugs and smiles, and says again, “It’s a good mystery.” Shetter seems proud of the stone for keeping its secrets.
Shetter buys water and Clif Bars, and we make the journey out to the Mystery Stone. Along for the ride is John Taylor, a former engineer who has written two books about the Civil War in New Mexico and is now working on a book called Murder, Mystery and Mayhem in the Rio Abajo. Well over six feet tall, with a deep, booming voice and big gray eyes, he has never seen the stone before.
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