The Mystery Stone
Does a rock in New Mexico show the Ten Commandments in ancient Hebrew? Harvard professor says yes.
Getting into Abeita’s truck is like getting onto a horse. We fly through the desert at 80 miles an hour on dirt roads. It is calving season. Velveteen cows and their 2- and 3-week-old calves stand by the side of the road in groups, unperturbed by the truck. Abeita talks about the Tribal Council of 12 who are voted in by the people every two years. I ask if they campaign. “Kinda, sorta,” he says. “Basically, the people with the biggest family get voted in.” He talks about a calf that was born yesterday and jokes that it has Down Syndrome—“I don’t know what’s wrong with him! His face is all crooked,” he says affectionately—and about the two women who broke his heart. He repeatedly and patiently explains to me the ins and outs of land ownership in New Mexico—“We own 120,000 acres, from Isleta Pueblo near the airport all the way down toward Pottery Mound. We lease some more land for the grazing rights to 12,000 other acres—that’s where your stone is. But there’s also the water rights which run underground. Used to be all ranchers here. Now they’ve been moved out because of the water rights.”
He explains to me that Comanche Ranch was bought from the Hunings by the Isleta Pueblo for $6.7 million, with proceeds from their casino and an associated Hard Rock Café. Now the Pueblo is incorporated, which some support and some don’t.
On the way in to the ranch, we meet one of his employees, Francisco, who is Hispanic. Francisco asks me gravely, “Are you going to educate us about that rock?” Abeita laughs at him.
Uncle Joe is a short man with a deeply lined, weather-worn face and a quick smile. He asks me my name and makes a big show of giving up after no tries. “What language is that? I can hardly speak English and you want me to say that!”
I ask him about the Mystery Stone.
“Well? So what?” he says, shrugging. “We didn’t know it was there. If they knew, no one said. It was a secret.” The Indians’ Christian conversion had clearly not extended to caring about the stone. “Just like the Pottery Mound. They say it’s sacred. If it’s sacred, I got no business going up there.”
Abeita had gone to check on the calf and left Shetter and me to speak with his uncle. He returns just as Uncle Joe finishes complaining about women being allowed to vote and run for council. “It’s the white man’s way. They are too light on crime.”
“So, did you get what you needed?” Abeita asks me.
“Take me to the Pottery Mound,” I say.
“Absolutely not. No one goes up there,” he says emphatically, and then, sheepishly, “Five thousand dollars.”
But it’s no use—I have sensed the half-heartedness of his resistance. I let the sum reverberate for a beat, which is all it takes.
“Oh, get in the truck,” he grumbles, and we climb back in.
If the Mystery Stone is all Truth, Pottery Mound is all Consequences. The ground is littered with a mosaic of bits of broken pottery, dried lava, and the occasional arrowhead, interspersed with the bones of foxes and other small creatures. The pottery shards are painted in all colors with beautiful designs—black on white, green on white, black on red, dots along lines with the remnants of figures. The pieces are mostly the size of my palm, though some are bigger. The mound is split down the middle by a deep ravine, and along the ravine wall a long white object is visibly protruding.
When I get back to New York I will learn from David Atlee Phillips at UNM that Pottery Mound was an Indian village between 1350 and 1500. I will learn that the pottery is in pieces because given the available technology, whole pots were fragile. Phillips gauges the average lifespan of a pot to have been no more than a couple of years. A few years ago, Abeita found some uncovered bodies and demanded that the site be returned to the Isleta Indians. As for Eva and Hobe, no one knows what became of them. Inquiries came up empty at UNM, where, like in a ghost story, their names continue to float around.
But for now, I don’t know any of this. I know only that I am in a sacred place. I walk silently along the mound, picking up pieces of pottery and putting them gently down again. The sun is beginning to set in the west, and dried lava shimmers against the desert ground. I look over at Shetter, and she is walking quietly with the same palpable reverence she radiated at the Mystery Stone. Mysteries are not there for the solving. Her blue eyes look up at me in the dying desert light.
Back in my motel room off of Route 6, the question of who wrote the Mystery Stone resumes its subtle, persistent drumming. Images of Samaritan ships intersperse in my mind with Ken Feder’s theatrical voice, demanding to know of the theoretical American Hebrews, “Where’s their garbage?” The truth of Mystery Stone is obfuscated by the stakes of the mystery’s solution, the consequences of a non-Native, pre-Columbian existence in North America requiring too much belief for some and receiving too much skepticism for others. But if we can’t agree whether the Mystery Stone is sacred artifact or profane hoax, we can agree that our debates about what constitutes the sacred and the profane, the scientific and the belief-worthy, are sanctified.
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