The Mystery Stone
Does a rock in New Mexico show the Ten Commandments in ancient Hebrew? Harvard professor says yes.
Indeed, Mormons would seem to benefit the most, ideologically speaking, from authenticated Hebraic inscriptions. But in 1953, I found out, a group of five archeologists from Brigham Young University in Utah made the trip to Mystery Stone and found themselves unconvinced. Among them was John Sorenson, who wrote a letter to the editor of the Mormon Sunstone Review in the 1980s stating that though the scientists were “quite thrilled at first sight,” he notes that “the surrounding petroglyphs … were heavily patinated, whereas none of the carvings on the Phoenician stone were thus darkened.” Welby Ricks, another of the Mormon archeologists, concluded finally in the 15th Annual Symposium on the Archaeology of the Scriptures at BYU that “the Ten Commandment stone found near Los Lunas, New Mexico, is a fraud,” and probably the work of Eva and Hobe, as late as 1930.
In a similar vein, when I contacted the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to ask about Mystery Stone, spokesman Lyman Kirkland told me, “The acceptance of scripture has always been a matter of faith. Personal testimony of the Bible or Book of Mormon is not gained by weighing its historical and archeological context, but by studying and living the truths and teachings found there.”
I have almost passed the stone without noticing it. Amid the rocks, in the shade of its own heft and the mountain behind it, stands the Mystery Stone, the engraved lines absolutely straight as if drawn along a ruler down the surface of the rock, which is tilted at a 45-degree angle. The stone is blanched (from being cleaned by Boy Scouts in the 1950s, Hibben told Tabor), making dating through the patina—the surface layer of the rock—impossible. The first line has been methodically scratched out, but the rest of the inscription is completely legible. I pull out the Phoenician alphabet that I brought with me knowing the site has no signs, and begin to write the letters in their Hebrew counterparts on a notepad. “Lo Yihyeh Elohim Aheirim al Pahnay …” A chill goes down my spine.
It is then that I realize the error—a spelling mistake—Panai, or before me, is spelled with an extra Hebrew letter Hei. It’s not the only spelling error. Zakhor is spelled with an extra aleph, and Sheker is spelled with a khaph instead of a kuf. All phonetic mistakes, misspellings made by someone writing from memory and sound, rather than someone transcribing from a text. Either that, or mistakes made by a very clever impersonator.
Later I ask Tabor if spelling errors are usually a sign of authenticity or inauthenticity. He says a forger would be careful to use the exact text for fear of being found out. The ossuaries he studies in Jerusalem are often marked with spelling mistakes, which indicate a non-professional, rather than a hoax.
Across from the Mystery Stone is another stone with Indian petroglyphs on it. These appear different than the carving of the Decalogue. There is no depth to the images; they appear painted onto the surface, rather than etched into the rock, though this is an illusion. I can make out a mountain lion with a very long tail, and what seems to be a sailboat on a river. They also point upwards, facing the sun, unlike the Mystery Stone, whose face is at a 90-degree angle to the ground and therefore in the shade.
We climb to the top of the mountain. Along the way, the graffiti “EVA and HOBE 3-13-30” appears two more times, inscribed but less deeply than the words of the Decalogue. Taylor and I float various theories again between us as though this time we might solve the mystery, our curiosity turbo-charged by the site. Shetter hikes beside us quietly. A hush has fallen over her.
At the top of the mountain, the remains of dwellings and lookout posts lie in squat circles of stones at the outer edges of the plateau: the village Tabor mentioned. Another rock has “EVA and HOBE” and some petroglyphs, as well as more Paleo-Hebrew. I pull out my alphabet and read out, “Yahweh, Elohim.” Though written in the same handwriting as the Decalogue, these markings don’t have the same depth. They look like the ancient petroglyphs, which give the illusion of being painted on the surface of the stone. They are in the sun.
Shetter and I wait for Abeita at the Los Lunas Chili’s at a corner table with bar stools (he has specified the table he wanted). He arrives in the biggest white pick-up truck I have ever seen and stalks into the restaurant like a moving mountain. He is wearing a silk purple kerchief tied around his neck and a purple paisley silk shirt under his Comanche Ranch vest. He is also wearing a black, six-gallon cowboy hat and dusty boots with real silver spurs on them. He is a handsome man with a face long and grim, which he wears like it is just another burden. When I shake his hands, they feel like leather. He orders a Coke and is brought two by a waitress who lingers nearby throughout our stay.
I ask him about the Mystery Stone. He stares at me.
“It’s a pain in my ass is what it is,” he says. “And it’s a fake. It’s a money-maker for the state. We’re gonna get that land back, and then no more trespassers and whatnot.”
Shetter sits quietly, says nothing, absorbs everything.
I ask how far back the Indians remember the stone.
“I’ll tell you what. You can ask my Uncle Joe. He’s working on the ranch.”
Backed by music exec Jeff Ayeroff, composer Hillel Tigay tries to recreate the sounds of the ancient Temple