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Chuckling wanly, Kollenborn reports that over the years, he's heard practically every stone-tablet theory imaginable--not to mention a few that border on the unimaginable.
"Some people believe they show where the treasure is, some say they are really surveying maps, other people say this, others that. Someone's always coming up with a 'new' angle.
"I can't prove it, of course, but I've always thought they were some sort of hoax," insists Kollenborn. Although he concedes the tablets are "undoubtedly old" (or at least appear to be), the curator claims he has extreme doubts that the tablets are actually of Spanish origin. Instead, he theorizes that the tablets may actually have been manufactured as "evidence" in hopes of swaying a judge in a long-ago land-rights lawsuit.
In any event, Kollenborn suggests that from a purely practical standpoint, the mysterious "maps" (if that's indeed what they are) are almost certainly a hoax.
"Those rocks are big--they probably weigh 90 pounds apiece," says Kollenborn. "Why would anyone put a map on stone unless it was for some sort of permanent display? Can you imagine anyone packing these things around? It simply doesn't make sense."
@body:So much has been published about Superstition Mountains treasure that Kollenborn has compiled a computerized listing of literature, cataloguing (at last count) 72 different books and some 18,000 newspaper articles dating from 1859.
Randomly scanning an additional list of the hundreds of articles about Superstition treasure that have been published in various magazines over the years, it's easy to see how many an armchair adventurer has been inspired to throw a pickax in the back of the family sedan and head for the hills.
Never mind that many of the articles (like the ominously titled "Stay Away From Up There!", a piece that appeared in a 1938 issue of Family Circle) warned of the horrors of the sinister Superstitions. For every cautionary tale of the perils of the mountains, gold-digging wanna-bes could find five articles ballyhooing "The Richest Mine in the World" or, even more promising, "Treasure Enough for Everyone." Besides, no pain, no gain. Rattlesnake fangs be damned! Come and get it!
That gilt-edged clarion call was never louder than when Life magazine trumpeted the stone tablets in an article that it ran in June 1964, perhaps the first (and best-known) article about the artifacts to be printed in a mainstream publication.
While long on photos of the sandstone curiosities, the article was suspiciously short on facts regarding the tablets' origins. Oddly, the question of the tablets' authenticity was never even broached.
Instead, the article focused on the melodramatic trials and tribulations of one "Travis Marlowe," a 58-year-old Apache Junction prospector who was so busy staring down bobcats, sidestepping sidewinders and dodging bullets that he scarcely had time to decipher the tablets that were to be his claim to fame. The article read more like a slick piece of Western pulp fiction--hardly the kind of coverage you'd expect to find in a national news magazine with Life's fact-finding resources. Despite a dearth of any verifiable information about the tablets, the nearly-30-year-old magazine story continues to be one of the best-known pieces of literature on the subject.
Not to Superstition historian Robert Sikorsky, author of two books (Fools' Gold and Quest for the Dutchman's Gold) that delve into legends and lore regarding lost mines and treasure in the area.
"The reason Life glossed over the facts was that there was nothing substantive there in the first place," contends Sikorsky, a syndicated automotive columnist who lives in Tucson. "You see, that's the bread and butter of most 'lost treasure' tales: You can't go and verify anything." As a result, he contends that treasure hunters can easily delude themselves into believing anything is possible.
A good-natured skeptic who is, nonetheless, fascinated with the lore enshrouding the Superstition Mountains (the writer jokes that "the Lost Dutchman is the most 'found' lost mine in the world), Sikorsky explains that he initially included material about the stone tablets in his books simply as "an interesting sidelight" to "show the ridiculous lengths to which this thing can be carried and to show how gullible some really are."
The plan backfired.
Although Sikorsky's books question the stones' authenticity (the writer reveals that he has since developed information that a couple of Apache Junction cowboys carved the tablets and buried them in the desert as a practical joke), some readers who were previously unaware of the tablets apparently felt as if they'd just stumbled upon the key to the southwest branch of Fort Knox.
And according to Sikorsky, some treasure hunters have gone broke trying to break that bank.
"There are cases where people have given their whole life to the search for a treasure that was never really there in the first place," says Sikorsky. "Once you dip into this area, there's a good chance you're eventually going to drown in this stuff. It's nearly impossible to sift whatever facts there may be from all the chaff of lies and innuendo and hearsay and tall tales and wishful thinking. Yet this kind of mindset is very common among treasure hunters. Whenever someone thinks they've got the key to something, they think anyone else who tells them anything to the contrary is simply trying to get them off the path."
Informed of Charles Spencer's four-year effort to make sense of the tablets, Sikorsky says, "I personally feel sorry for this guy. There's really nothing there to decipher."