But many experts who've examined the real McCoys have hollered, "Fake!", dismissing even the originals as a hoax. One of the most consistent objections has been the tablets' smooth-textured inscriptions, strongly suggesting that the slabs were probably produced with tools that didn't exist prior to the 20th century. And you don't need to be a student of American technology to recognize that the etching of a horse prominently featured on one slab bears an uncanny resemblance to something out of a 1930s Max Fleischer cartoon.

Yet in spite of the tablets' dubious heritage, Mead claims that they remain one of the museum's most popular attractions. "We've had treasure hunters travel the globe in an attempt to decipher these things," says Mead. "Everyone's convinced that these are going to lead them to fabulous treasure--whatever that is. And three or four times a year, someone comes in who's absolutely sure they've solved the thing, then we never hear from them again. My personal belief is that they are old forgeries of some kind. But who knows?"

@body:Charles Spencer, perhaps.
In addition to such obvious areas of study as Arizona and Jesuit history, the bus driver claims he's pursued such arcane subject matter as geology, celestial navigation, desert flora and Hebrew in an attempt to make sense of the hieroglyphics on the tablets. Those figures that he can't readily identify may be meaningless red herrings, he theorizes.

While many might question Spencer's wisdom in devoting four years to unscrambling a monolithic rebus puzzle that may lead nowhere, you've got to admire his perseverance. After perusing photocopies of the alleged "maps," most casual observers would probably opt for a less-taxing pastime, like, say, solving Albanian cryptograms.

If the sandstone slabs are indeed a directory to hidden treasure, the tablets are certainly the most user-unfriendly maps in the history of cartography. Rand McNally on loco weed couldn't have come up with anything weirder.

The sandstone tablets consist of three major pieces--four, if you count the heart-shaped insert that fits into a corresponding heart-shaped cutout in one of the slabs. Each slab measures 20 to 25 inches long, 10 to 12 inches high and is approximately two inches thick.

Since all three slabs are inscribed on both sides, it is impossible to view the entire map at once. Adding further difficulty is the problematic heart-shaped jigsaw-puzzle piece, which is also inscribed on both sides. Because it is symmetrical, this piece can be inserted into the heart-shaped hole with either side up, drastically altering whatever meaning the surrounding jumble might have.

If Charles Spencer is correct in identifying the tablets as a guide to hidden church treasure, one can only assume that once upon a time, the Superstitions were crawling with confused Jesuit priests.

But thanks to his four years of intensive research, you won't find this bus driver asking directions. Spencer claims that while many treasure hunters randomly prowl the vast Superstition range, his research has enabled him to narrow his search to a specific area no bigger than one-fifth of a square mile.

Exactly where that might be, he's not saying--yet. "Once I get out there, it's just a systematic grid search, though," explains Spencer, who hopes that publicity about his theory will help him land financial backing to salvage the treasure. "The Jesuits [had planned] to come back to get it themselves, so they'll have left something out there--a treasure sign--to tell me where it is. It'll be a pile of rocks, three trees planted in a triangle, or maybe a rock with a picture of a snake on it."

When it's pointed out that the Superstitions are rife with hieroglyphics, manmade rock formations and other freakish natural landmarks (all of which might be considered "treasure signs), Spencer smiles patiently.

"Once I've found the treasure, it'll be obvious what the treasure sign is," announces Spencer. "For instance, the sign might be the only huge boulder in the area that does not match the geology of the area."
Charles Spencer is nothing if not determined. Folding his hands across his chest, he dutifully listens to a list of seemingly unanswerable questions that could pose insurmountable roadblocks to the so-close-yet-so-far-away Jesuit cache.

How, for instance, can Spencer be sure there are really only three pieces to the map?

How can Spencer be sure someone didn't find the treasure years ago?
And assuming that the maps are indeed authentic, how can Spencer ever hope to match the sketchy topography indicated on the ancient tablets with the Superstition landscape of today?

When that mini-inquisition is over, Spencer flashes a confident smile--he's already taken all that into account, thank you very much. "It's all in the research," he says, thumping his finger on a thick ream of photocopied documents and photographs.

@body:The curator of the Superstition Mountain Historical Society is all too familiar with the legends that have sprung up around the artifacts since they were discovered some four decades ago in the Florence Junction area.

"I've made a lot of people unhappy, but I just can't get very excited about these stone tablets." So says curator Tom Kollenborn, who is frequently quizzed about the alleged maps by would-be treasure seekers, nearly all of whom believe they have finally cracked the code that has eluded everyone before them.

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