The Mystery Stone
Does a rock in New Mexico show the Ten Commandments in ancient Hebrew? Harvard professor says yes.
But there are those who think that a context does exist for the stone. James Tabor, chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, says that the archeological context is to be found at the top of the mountain, where there are the remains of dwellings and more Hebrew writings. The organization of the dwellings on the mountaintop plateau is reminiscent of Masada. But even more convincing to Tabor is the star map engraved on one of the stones that records a solar eclipse dated to Sept. 15, 107 BCE. That was the date of Rosh Hashanah of that year. All this adds up to a context compelling enough to rule out the possibility of it being a hoax, Tabor explained to me in a phone interview in February.
Tabor bases his opinion on the expertise of Cyrus Gordon, late professor of Near Eastern cultures and ancient languages at Brandeis and NYU. Gordon, who died in 2001, was greatly respected for his work in all areas save one. “His colleagues were very embarrassed that Gordon thought that ancient peoples visited the New World before Columbus,” Tabor tells me.
Yet Gordon did cite evidence for his claim. The Samaritans, who continued to use Paleo-Hebrew, had a special tax put on their ships, indicating that they were maritime and prosperous. Furthermore, the Mystery Stone is sized and placed appropriately to be a Samaritan mezuzah, which tended to be a large slab, rather than a small scroll, and was placed at the entrance to the town. As it happens, the Mystery Stone is located at the entrance to the only path leading to the mountaintop village. “The better question,” Tabor points out, “is why it is so odd to think that ancient people could have ended up in the New World in the thousand years between Solomon and the Common Era.”
After meeting Gordon at a conference at Harvard in 1995, Tabor made the trip to see the stone in 1996. During the trip, he spoke to Frank Hibben, who told him that an Indian guide recalled having seen the inscription as early as 1880. This suggested to Tabor that if it was a hoax, it was a 19th-century hoax, not a 20th-century one.
The story of Hibben being shown the rock by a guide is discomfortingly close to the one Huning told Shetter. Still, it seems a lot more likely that Hibben “borrowed” the story, than that he wrote the inscription.
Tabor published a paper on the Mystery Stone in David Horovitz’s United Israel Bulletin, but he has since retracted it, though he is still tentatively convinced that the site is ancient. “People tend to misrepresent things,” he says. I ask if he is religious, and he says, “Not in a way that is relevant.”
Interestingly, both those who think the stone is of ancient origin as well as those who think it is a hoax see the truth of the issue to be marred by a lack of objectivity in the scientific community. David Atlee Phillips, curator of Archeology at the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology and professor of anthropology at the University of New Mexico, finds it much more likely that the inscription is the work of con artists than evidence of an ancient civilization. Preferring to communicate via email due to the “touchy nature of the subject,” Phillips writes, “As every con man knows, the essence of a good fraud is allowing the victim to believe what that victim wishes to believe. The ‘true believers’ I have encountered vis a vis the Los Lunas inscription fall into two categories. First, individuals for whom an ancient Old World inscription in the New World would validate their particular religious beliefs. Second, individuals who are looking to make the Next Great Scientific Discovery. Some humans are able to resist the temptation of the more self-serving path, but others are not—and once they are on that path, they use their certainty to determine which potential facts are correct and which are not. In my experience, once people have started down that path, they are quite impervious to whatever information I provide them.”
The smoking gun for Phillips is the “caret,” symbolizing a correction, a modern symbol. “I infer that the person who inscribed the words was not fluent in the language, but was working off a photograph or drawing and temporarily overlooked part of the inscription.” Furthermore, Phillips writes, “when you stand and look at the inscription, a glance downward will show the possible signature of the creators. There in the bedrock is inscribed ‘Eva and Hobe 3-13-30.’ There is an oral tradition at UNM that Eva and Hobe were anthropology majors who prepared the inscription as a hoax, and who were found out. They were told that if they ever did something like that again, their careers in the field would be over.”
When I press Phillips on the “touchy nature of the subject,” he writes, “It is touchy because there are people out there who want very, very much to prove that the inscription is ancient, to the point that they will use only the parts of what I say that fit their preconceptions.”
The same charge is leveled—this time, against Mystery Stone skeptics—by J. Huston McCulloch, a retired professor of economics at Ohio State University who has published on the subject of Hebrew inscriptions in America. While Phillips says he is too much of a scientist to believe in the stone’s authenticity, McCulloch sees the insistence on disbelieving the inscription’s authenticity as unscientific. “A scientist must follow the scientific method,” McCulloch told me in a phone interview. “We compare the theory to the data, and if it doesn’t match, we revise the theory, not the data.” But when it comes to archeological findings, especially those that seem to corroborate the claim that non-Native Americans lived in America pre-Columbus, he says, “Archeologists claim that the data is wrong. Each time something is found, they claim it is unique and thus discredit it for having no context. They did that with the Bat Creek inscription, and the Newark Stones, and now with the Los Lunas Decalogue Stone,” referring to other finds of artifacts of disputed origin.
McCulloch’s interest in ancient inscriptions began with his interest as an economist in congressional appropriations. Specifically, in 1881, Congress appropriated $5,000 to the Smithsonian Institution to conduct a “Mound Survey” for “ethnological research” that included the inscribed stones. McCulloch sees this not uncommon occurrence as a blatant attempt to keep the inscriptions from being viewed as Hebraic, possibly due to anti-Mormon sentiment at that time.
Backed by music exec Jeff Ayeroff, composer Hillel Tigay tries to recreate the sounds of the ancient Temple