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The Mystery Stone

Does a rock in New Mexico show the Ten Commandments in ancient Hebrew? Harvard professor says yes.

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(Photoillustration: Tablet Magazine)

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.

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?

Photo by Batya Ungar-Sargon

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.”

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.”

Photo by Batya Ungar-Sargon

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.

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.”

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.

If the Mystery Stone is all Truth, Pottery Mound is all Consequences.

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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That there is some good writing, I appreciate it.

New Mexico is the Land of Enchantment, which to paraphrase, the Land of Hype. There’s an enduring love of mystery here. The valley northward from Mexico to Taos has been a crossroads for all sorts of migrants for hundreds of years. The area of Santa Fe and Albuquerque attracted offbeat academics and wealthy intellectuals for its dry climate and thin air as a curative to the dreaded tuberculosis. And a strong culture of superstition gave credibility to such legends as Kokopelli and La Llorona.

Put all these factors together and you have a likely scenario in which an amateurish 19th century joke could turn into a widespread myth. But by the charm of New Mexico, fortunes have been built on less intriguing mysteries.

Gerald F. McBride says:

I enjoyed the article. One small correction. Truth or Consequences was originally called Hot Springs, not Hope Springs.

Thanks for spotting that, Gerald. We’ve corrected the text.

pkbrandon says:

Like Roswell and the UFO’s.

jcarpenter says:

Anybody check with Glenn Beck? Last I heard, he was all geeked that the Midwestern mound-builders were Lost Tribes of Israel, proto-Mormons. This tablet would definitely confirm the truth in his mind.

Patrick says:

The paleo-Hebrew script used before the exile was essentially the same as that of the Moabites and the Phoenicians. The Hebrew alphabetic script used after the exile was Aramaic / Aramean, not Assyrian. Aramaic was the Lingua Franca of the Middle East roughly the same time that Greek was the Lingua Franca of the Mediterranean. Eventually Arabic supplanted Aramaic, though it lingers among many Christian pockets in the Near East. The ancient Assyrians wrote using cuneiform, a non-alphabetic script. Today’s Assyrian people, living in Iraq, Syria and other Near Eastern countries still use a dialect of Aramaic, though they use a later alphabetic script.

Excellent story. I believe I’ve solved the mystery and the relic is authentic; the inscription is an ancient Phoenician Chinese takeout menu.

The Talmud refers to the post-exilic script as “כתב אשורי” i.e., Assyrian script. Was cuneiform still in use at the time of the Babylonian exile (586 BCE- 517 BCE)?

hg

Patrick says:

Ah, you’re probably right about that. I’m looking back too far.

tony rebello says:

Yeah, nice article and interesting comments.

Captivating journalism. Love those first two translations. I’d like to view the terrain from Google satellite imagery.

Hey, hope springs eternal.

The adjective “Assyrian” in the Talmud does not refer to the ancient Assyrians of Iraq, but to Arameans of Syria. The script in question is Aramaic.

It would have been wise for the author of this piece to consult a few paleographers. Quite apart from the spelling errors the author notes, the script of the stone is an utterly impossible mixture of forms and stances. Not one single scholar who knows anything about West Semitic scripts of the first millennium bc would credit the inscription as authentic. Whoever carved the letters thought, e.g., that the letters should “sit” on an ideal baseline. Ancient Semitic scribes “hung” their letters from an ideal ceiling. The distinction may seem subtle, but it is unassailable evidence that the inscriber was not an ancient.

Laila Rasheed says:

Hi,

If you want to know how religions are created, then study Mormonism. All the facts are easy to find & research & then you will understand how Judaism was created by Ezra. He got all his material in Babylon! He even got a revamped YHWH, by taking on the Universal God, Ahura Mazda. YHWH was a failure as a tribal god, so he evolved into the Universal God, while on holidays in Babylon. Ezra was commissioned by Cyrus to rebuild the Temple & establish Babylonian Talmudic Judaism. When he got pack he kicked out anyone who wasn’t 100% Pure Jewish Blood. Now you know where Adolf got his idea.

Remember, prior to Ezra, the Jews were a bunch of bandits, always finding & always getting the sh-t kicked out of them. Ezra said, “We need a good script to show that we are the Chosen of God & give us a history”! Jacob Spielberg said, “I’m good at writing & making up stories”! “OK, the jobs yours”! And that is how the Jews got their book & the idea that the are the Chosen People. A Big Whopper!

Another important element: some of the original settlers of New Mexico were “crypto-jews” who maintained jewish traditions in secret. So rather than it being authentically ancient, it might be something transmitted through generations before being written in stone.

http://www.nmjhs.org/crypto-jews.html

Doctor Bucephalus says:

Speak his name and the crazies shall appear.

Aptitude says:

Perhaps it proclaims the Greater Azatlan
& the birth right of La Raza.
Viva Greater Mexico !!!

3 different bogus translations
sound like Zecharia Sitchin.

francis321 says:

up to I saw the check 4 $7288, I did not believe that…my… friend woz
realie taking home money part time online.. there great aunt started
doing this 4 less than twenty two months and a short time ago cleard
the mortgage on their cottage and purchased a great Lotus Carlton. read
more at, jump15.comCHECK IT OUT

This looks kind of, but not exactly like, like the Deseret Alphabet to me.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deseret_alphabet

You guys got the date wrong. Post this again on April 1st!

disqus_qZ6DCvpsy9 says:

Neither the author nor any of the learned professors indicate WHICH of the three versions of the Ten commandments in the torah is the one inscribed. Makes a difference, y’know…

What’s written on the rock at the top of the article is no mystery. It’s the ten commandments written using a squarish version of the Canaanite/Paleo-Hebrew script. It’s easy to read. All these other theories and translations are just silly. I suppose it is an early 20 Century fake by someone wanting to fool Mormons.

desertvoice says:

Examine the age of the stone!

VinoJon says:

Can you please cite the source in the Talmud where they debate the original orthography of the Torah? I’ve wondered about this for years, because I could never reconcile my Hebrew education upbringing with the language of the Dead Sea scrolls. Thanks a lot in advance!

“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.”

In fact, Aramean was the main international language under the Neo-Babylonian Empire. Though they still spoke Akkadian (specifically, Neo-Babylonian, one dialect of that era, alongside Neo-Assyrian) and wrote cuneiform inscriptions, much official correspondence for the Empire was conducted in a form of Aramaic, thus using the Aramaic script. It is scarcely surprising that the Jews would label the script and language as “Assyrian”.

Often missed was that, though this Aramaic form of the alphabet was used in the main for post-exilic writing, there was some preservation of Paleo-Hebrew forms. This shows up, for instance, in the practice of some, of writing the Scriptures in Aramaic letters EXCEPT for the tetragrammaton, which they honored by rendering it in paleo-Hebrew letter forms.

Strixton says:

It just to goes to show that you can bring in lots of “experts” and each and every single one of them will come up with an entirely different translation of what the words may possibly mean. In old Yatzvingian_Rushden dialect the script appears to me to read ” And lo, the bus conductor has setteth fire to his dancing shoes. Haste ye now and send reinforcements for the enemy is advancing on the western flank”.

Ron Hendel says:

Very cheesy story. “Harvard professor says yes” — in 1949! No Harvard professor, or Semitic epigrapher trained at Harvard in the last half century, would say yes. This is pure hokum. One can even tell which old script charts the forger used. Lazy journalism.

Natan79 says:

Hoax. This story sounds like one the last chapters in Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn”, when Tom and Jim write some gibberish and make it pass as ancient and secret African wisdom.

something about a select group of older Hebrews spending winters in New Mexico because of the cold weather in the Bronx

knauth@lycoming.edu says:

Fun story, but I’ll never understand why people always seem to think it has to be either/or. Pre-Columbian or modern fraud. It seems to me that the evidence points to its being post-Columbian but pre-1880 authentic religiously motivated inscription of whatever community lived on top of the hill, which apparently included some religious person who liked to write in paleo-Hebrew script and thought that a paleo-Hebrew rendition of the decalog would be an appropriate marker for the entrance of the settlement. I’m pretty sure there are similar kinds of inscriptions in modern court-houses that are likewise neither pre-Columbian nor “frauds.” The architecture, pottery, and other “garbage” at the top of the hill would supply the rough date. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some Franciscan monks happened to have studied paleo-Hebrew script for example.

Don Spohn says:

Although I believe there are ancient writings on American stones, the facts as presented here lead me to believe they were probably signed and dated by their inscribers, Eva and Hobe. Many people like to add their names (graffiti) to a ancient inscriptions, but they could easily inscribed “discovered” by Eva and Hobe, but they did not.
Although notbelieving the inscription is authentic, McCulloch (retired professor of

economics at Ohio State University) makes a great point. He sees the insistence
on disbelieving the inscription’s authenticity as unscientific. “A scientist must follow the scientificmethod,” McCulloch told me in a phone interview. “We compare the theory to thedata, 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.”
Of course, a good geologists can easily tell us if the main text and Eva and Hobe text were chiseled around the same time or separated by hundreds or thousands of
years. There is no reason for this to remain a mystery!
Don Spohn

Great Lakes Copper Research

Sanhedrin 21b

Some modern Muslims are now claiming that there are Arabic inscriptions in North America, showing that Muslims got there before Columbus. It’s another hoax, of course, but it fulfills some deep cravings for precedence, a reversal of European and subsequent American moves into the Middle East and beyond.

VinoJon says:

Thanks very much!

Yes it was. Actually, cuneiform still remained in use in the ex-Akkadian kingdom during the time of Alexander the Great. See: I.J.Geld (various studies; Google the name) and Johannes Friedrich.

Only one student of archeology has lodged an assessment of this site, it was for field-work credit and he simply stated it as “Obviously recent”. In 1926 Geologist Thor Warner ascended the South side of the mesa noting extensive fortifications covered its flat top being obviously ancient. If it were possible that a group of (very knowledgable) hoaxers could coordinate such an elaborate work as these (intentionally) angled inscriptions within their surrounding symmetry of deeply inset rocks (so identical with Negev fortifications), that would be a greater mystery than an Israelite-Phoenician origin.

To enter the site one must cross a bridge over (then walk alongside) the Arroyo Garcia, which is an extention by erosion from a cataract effected in the Rio Puerco in antiquity. Erosion rates here are well established with UNM (due to the other site connected to this one “Pottery Mound”, the colony 5 miles downstream which you mention in the article) because the digs which unearthed the Kiva art displayed at Maxwell also effected erroding. Also to be seen from atop the mesa are agricultural furrows arcing out from the riverbank to perpendicular to sunlight from in-line with normal wind direction.

Strewn about this mesa and the mound is much pottery. The type found on the mountain are mostly very dark inside and brown outside -and some lighter almost golden or even red but still nearly black within. This is very old stuff, a lot of it interestingly textured and not at all like the newer stuff which came after with natives moving into the area later. These people used food contained elsewhere and broke the vessels.

The location of this agricultural outpost and clean ‘high-place altar’ with its pottery making colony makes ongoing expedition possible, but no more evidence of phonic literacy as these inscriptions exhibit has been found. Much petroglyphing of the tribal nature is to be seen which may be related, however, as with the Zodiac table on the mesa Northernmost point which records a total eclipse dating to the fall equinox of 759 BCE (during the only united monarchy of Israel-Judah with the Kings Jeroboam II and Uzziah).

The only mystery is where did these seafaring people go from here once their stock was replenished… going the way they came -from the Gulf up the Rio Grande- with the spring runoff makes sense, but it puts them out in unfavorable currents for returning across the Atlantic they could have easily crossed with “hurricane alley”. And if they managed to circumvent the Celts to return to Tarshish then well, but if going on past Greece- the world they would re-enter was no longer their ‘golden age’ but that of empires in upheaval. Israel was being exiled by Assyria and Judah was going to be destroyed and sent captive to Babylon.

There are two very important finds to be brought out from this place, and another significant development inspired from it, but this comment section is not the appropriate forum. It would be welcomed if the UNM School of Anthropology were to ‘take a good long look’ at this mountain and their PM site as originally connected, and change their stance regarding it.

Isn’t there a theory floating around that the Native Americans of the America’s are descended from the 12 Lost Tribes of Israel?? Maybe a hoax but it could also be very real. I think we sometimes don’t want to see the truth in front of us.

There is a slight problem with this theory.
Native Americans belong to the mongoloid race (i.e. Asian in common language), the Israelites were caucasoid (i.e.White). How can Whites have Asian descendants? .

The entire area from there down through El Paso-Juarez has had and still has a sizeable population of Ladino-speakers. There was already a Hebrew script Ladino project based there some years ago and the stone is one of many pilgrimage objects you would know of placed around various mountains and local holy places in the area. Policy has been that those who want to talk do so. See more about the linguistic aspect of the area here:

http://www.livestream.com/spnwnewswire (currently off air, because it never got funding but there should be a video library. See also: http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL553F178718CC9894

carlos lascoutx says:

…like parts of the Oera Linda Book, whose matrix may have been authentic, the lie
is given by modern phrasing as each millennium expresses itself in completely different
metaphor, using mnemonics as an oral code often contained in each word which produces a formalism impossible to duplicate in the present slipshod Age.

farawayplace says:

Written like either a crazed Moslem or an Iranian.

Grigalem says:

Right. Spanish/Portuguese Jews who spoke Ladino moved to Arizona so they could carve mis-spelled inscriptions in paleo-Semitic.

Got it.

Grigalem says:

Bunkum, of course, and wildly off-topic bunkum at that.

Jordan Anderson says:

Excellent Article. I love to read all of Tablet Mags great posts. I always go to Tablet Magazine or Jewish Quarterly whenever I need a good read regarding Jewish culture and politics. Thanks for sharing!

Mike H says:

Israel, as well as the Arab countries, are Semitic, not Caucasian; a west Asian sub-type.

Persia, India, even so in part, at least until Indonesia, are actually Caucasian, Aryan sub-type. in old Farsi, Eir-yan (Aryan) is shorted to Iran in English. From the Caucasas mountains there were essentially two groups – one went west and north, the other south and east. Many mixed with local tribes and peoples, others conquered.

Native Americans are east Asian sub-type as you say, but it is possible there was movement by the Jewish Israelite peoples, since we have the tradition that 10 of the 12 tribes are “lost” over the “sea of the Sambachan” perhaps meant the Pacific

The Jewish people (as well as Arab) tended to stay in their territories unless forced into exile, (which happened often) therefore the language could have spread to the Americas, two-thousand plus years ago

Mike H says:

the Torah is KTaV “inscribed” with the DVaR “word” call it whatever you want, it existed before classification and taxonomy of speech or written form. “Paleo Hebrew” is what we would call the stone carved script from at least the time of Abraham, descendant of Ever. therefore Ivrim as a people and Ivrit (i in Hebrew pronounced like a long ‘e’) from the root Ayin Bet Reish, meaning to cross over, since Ever crossed over from one side of the great river (likely Euphrates) in his own lifetime, an unusual occurence. Directly linked to the Israelite Jewish people crossing through the Yam Suf (Red Sea) on the way out of Mitsrayim (Egypt)

In human developmental terms, Assyrian script is definitely more modern than Paleo Hebrew since it requires a brush or quill implement to be written.

Mike H says:

Yes, Joy, your theory makes some sense, since as a proclamation of finally being out from under the thumb of the inquisition, they did exactly what Moses and Joshua did, inscribe the commands upon a stone, so all entering the domain could see.

Mike H says:

yeah but now i know why they drive so many mazdas in israel… fuel economy!

Mike H says:

didn’t Tim Leary teach at Harvard for a bit

BrokenRecord says:

And hence a new revelation and vision was formed in the forests (deserts now, and it will become forests by miracle ) of new mexico and in a few millenia , there will rise a new religion to replace the current ones.

Grigalem says:

Ahura !

VinoJon says:

Very compressive.

Catherine says:

There is a growing body of evidence of pre-Columbian contacts with the New World, including growing number of Viking settlements in eastern Canada that predate Columbus and other findings. Also look at how some sites in the Near East have inscriptions, but no other evidence so far.

John Eidsmoe says:

You present two possibilities for the Las Lunas Stone’s origin — ancient Hebrew/Phoenician, or modern forgery.
I suggest a third possibility — that the Decalog inscription was carved by a Jewish converso sometime in the 1500s or later.
After the surrender of Grenada and the Alhambra in 1492, Spain was entirely under Christian rule. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella required Spanish Jews to either convert to Christianity or leave the country. Some of these Jews (probably including genuine converts, pretended converts, and others who refused to convert) came to America with the conquistadors. I suggest that one of these Jewish conversos carved the Las Lunas inscription.
If the inscription was carved by a 16th-century converso for whom Hebrew was a second language, that could explain why the writer aligned the letters at the bottom rather than the top, and used vowel points and spacing.
I think this possibility deserves further consideration. I discuss this theory further in a post to be found at:
http://www.morallaw.org/LosLunasStoneEidsmoe_3_5_10.htm‎

Deborah says:

Read several articles about the Decalogue stone, very fascinating. Any thoughts on how it got to where it is? Its a long way from the Holy Land, if that is where it came from. Thank you.
Deborah

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The Mystery Stone

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