The Mystery Stone
Does a rock in New Mexico show the Ten Commandments in ancient Hebrew? Harvard professor says yes.
There are many more mysteries in the Albuquerque area than just the Mystery Stone, Taylor tells us as we turn off Route 6 and onto the dirt road that leads to the stone. For example, when the Franciscans came in the 16th century to convert the Isleta Indians who now live on the reservation just north of Los Lunas, it turned out that they had already been converted—they are said to have asked the friars for sacraments. So, who had converted them? Sister Maria de Jesus de Agreda, the legend held, a Franciscan nun who lived in Spain and had never traveled but who had appeared to them in a collective vision over 500 times and preached to them in their own language. There is also the fact, Taylor tells me, that Elizabeth Taylor’s third husband died in a plane crash not far from Los Lunas.
Mystery Stone lies at the foot of Hidden Mountain, so named by the Indians, though no one seems to know why. I had procured a permit from the State Land Office, but on the way, Shetter says she has to make another call to Martin Abeita (she pronounces it Mar-teen), the manager of Comanche Ranch, which now belongs to the Isleta Indians. We will be crossing Indian land to get to State Trust Land, she explains. “I once came out here with some folks from University of New Mexico and Martin came and shut us down. He was pissed,” she adds to herself, dialing. Her tone when she informs him that we are going to be on Indian land is exactly the one I would have used: firm, but conciliatory.
The gate that leads to the Indian Reservation land is located square in the middle of the desert, 16 miles west of Los Lunas. The day is chilly, despite the sun. The ground is yellow, covered in a thick brush of thistles and sage bushes. To the east and west, red mountains erupt from the landscape in clusters. Hidden Mountain is a mile high.
“See that?” Shetter points to another mountain, lower than Hidden Mountain and to the east of where we are standing. I shade my eyes and look. “That’s Pottery Mound. It’s an ancient Indian site. No whites can go there anymore, since UNM returned it to the tribe. That was Abeita’s doing. I’ve been in this town 25 years and I’ve never seen it.”
We begin the mile hike to the base of Hidden Mountain. I ask Taylor who he thinks is responsible for the engraving. He is of the opinion that the inscription was a hoax perpetrated sometime in the 1930s. I ask him if he thinks that Jack Huning was lying or mistaken when he said it had been seen as early as the 1880s. He looks diplomatically at the ground and smiles.
“The groups who advocate for the ancient solution are mostly the ‘Young Earthers,’ ” Taylor says, referring to those who believe they can prove scientifically that the earth is only as old as the Bible claims. “They are committed to Biblical Inerrancy, which is dangerous, because it means that if one thing is found to be incorrect in the Bible, the whole thing becomes worthless.” I ask him if he is a religious man, and he says, “I am a Catholic, but I am a scientist by training. I don’t need the Bible to be true literally. ‘Myth’ is a loaded term, but I believe the Bible has stories meant to suggest the relationship between God and men, to guide us morally and ethically. To me that’s just more satisfying; otherwise, it’s a house of cards just waiting to collapse.”
“And besides,” Shetter muses, “who knows how long a year is to God? Here’s the stone,” she says quietly, pointing.
Many ascribe the first mention of the stone in print to the late Frank C. Hibben in 1933, though no record exists of his having published anything on the subject. Hibben was a famous mid-century archeologist who married into money and had a reputation for being an astoundingly charismatic professor and gaming enthusiast. But his reputation for being the life of the party was finally outweighed by his reputation for “salting” his sites—adding or antiquating materials, or misrepresenting the process of excavation, or the state of the artifacts he discovered. He was involved in the unfortunate Sandia Man affair, in which fraudulent salt was added to the Sandia Cave findings to suggest ancient American inhabitants. As a result, when Hibben’s name is attached to an archeological artifact, skepticism rides high. But it seems a long shot from seeding a site to creating one wholesale. Could Hibben really have invented the site, as some skeptics believe?
Not all skeptics believe the inscription was Hibben’s doing. Some think it might have been the work of students of his, trying to either help him or make a fool of him. Still others believe that it might have been the work of a 19th-century Mormon Battalion in the Spanish War, trying to drum up evidence for claims in the Book of Mormon that prophets lived in America until the fifth century. Alternatively, it is possible that the inscription is proof of a Mediterranean presence in the area, pre-Columbus—“America, B.C.” as one writer has called it.
Contrary to what one might expect, the debate about the rock’s authenticity does not rage but rather whispers along. No comprehensive archeological excavation of the area has ever been performed. The site doesn’t have an official name; it is referred to as “Decalogue Stone” and “Commandment Rock,” as well as “Mystery Stone” or “Los Lunas Stone” and to some as simply “Inscription Stone.”
Of the archeologists who have spoken or written about the site, the question of its authenticity seems to hang on whether a context exists for such a finding. It is a truism that in archeology, context is everything. “Nowhere in the history of the world do people leave one inscription and nothing else,” Kenneth L. Feder told me in a phone interview in January. He is a professor of archaeology at Central Connecticut State University and author of Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archeology. “Such people don’t exist,” he added emphatically. “I know what it looks like when humans live somewhere. It’s my trade. Archeological findings are accidental; it’s all about how traditions become evidence. If people lived here, where’s their garbage?” He ended in a crescendo. He is a man used to speaking publicly about such things, with an IMDB page that boasts appearances on TV shows called Is It Real? and History’s Mysteries. When I asked him why others are so ready to believe in the possibility of pre-Columbian non-Native Americans, he said, “It’s kind of a fascinating possibility, and scientists are humans like everyone else. Sometimes they check their skepticism at the door because they want something to be the case due to religious reasons. But I don’t have a holy book. I just have ideas.”
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