By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
In December of 1925, he issued a statement saying the relics "were, without question, authentic." The dean wouldn't reveal just how old the objects were, yet he did claim that "the old relics have undoubtedly been in existence for several hundred years long before the first Spanish conquistadors entered the country."
Cummings packed up ten of the sexiest relics and headed for the American Association for the Advancement of Science meetings in Kansas City--and then went on to various eastern museums and universities to let his cynical colleagues have a firsthand gawk.
For a lot of people, the highly respected opinion of Dean Cummings was the last word in accuracy.
But not for everybody.
Let's examine what most folks were looking to 70 years ago for their information on the subject, the newspapers. At this point, the implements--Roman or not--were well outof the ground; statements were being made, sides taken. Things are about to become confusing, as headline wars begin to rage.
"ROMAN RELICS FOUND HERE BAFFLE SCIENCE" screamed Tucson's Arizona Daily Star on Sunday morning, December 13, 1925. On the same day, the New York Times broke the story for the other side of the country with an A1 lead declaring "PUZZLING RELICS DUG UP IN ARIZONA STIR SCIENTISTS," but took a more skeptical stance in the piece than did the Star, quoting established eastern archaeological authorities--who, it was implied, just maybe knew a little bit more than their cohorts out there in the still Wild West. Beginning to smell a professional tiff?
Then, a shameful 24 hours later, the December 14 evening edition of the Tucson Citizen jumped in with "LEADEN RELICS GENUINE, STATES U. OF A. ARCHAEOLOGIST, WHO REPLIES TO DOUBTING THOMASES."
Miffed at missing the Big Scoop inits own hometown, and despite a headline tending in the other direction, the Citizen sided with the Times. The tardy Tucson paper offered Cummings' faithful statements of authenticity, but added quotes from Dr. N.M. Judd, curator of the National Museum in Washington, D.C., who just happened to be in Tucson on a family visit and made himself available to examine the finds.
According to Judd--who never questioned Cummings' abilities--they were "unquestionably fraudulent." Ouch.
Now the fan is on, and increasingly largebits of nasty matter are traveling toward it.
"RELICS ARE CRIBBED FROM DICTIONARY GLOSSARY, CHARGED; ONE PHRASE TAKEN FROM CAESAR" sniffed the December 15 attack from the Citizen. "Can it be possible that the learned geologists, archaeologists and classicists who have vouched for this discovery have been imposed upon?" queried the paper. The problem here, undoubtedly a major one, centered on the discovery that many of the phrases on the relics were readily available in common Latin textbooks in use at the time. Not to mention the "Glossary of Foreign Words, Phrases, etc." in the back of "the Standard Dictionary."
Also, it was pointed out, the abbreviation "A.D." (anno Domini), inscribed on at least two of the crosses, did not come into use until roughly A.D. 1000, long after the relicshad supposedly been brought to the desert.
The Daily Star was beginning to look not so good. But the paper opted for righteous, blind loyalty on December 23: "IF DEAN CUMMINGS SAYS THEY'RE GENUINE, THEY ARE, DECLARE TUCSONANS."
Take that, Mr. New York Times, Mr. Tucson Citizen.
Our friends Bent and Manier are cooling their perplexed-but-still-believing heels back in Tucson, and 25 of the relics are on display in the Tucson Bank Building. The "earliest evidence of white man in America," reads a big sign outside the door; it costs adults 25cents to view the icons; for children, it's a mere dime.
And then the January 19, 1926, edition of the Times brings up another stumbling block. Seems that one Leandro Ruiz, an aging Tucson cattleman, remembers "an educated young Mexican sculptor and student of the classics who lived with his parents at the lime kiln forty years ago."
Young Timotio Odohui and his folks had allegedly been driven out of their native land by the revolution after the French invasion of Mexico. Ruiz recalled that the gifted Timotio not only had a way with sculpting and access to Latin texts, but he was greatly interested in buried treasure.
On March 1, 1926, the Star carried thisgrave announcement:
"Financial support of the University of Arizona for the further excavation of the land along Silver Bell Road ... has been withdrawn, according to an announcement last night by Dean Byron Cummings."
Six days later, the battle-scarred dean told the Star of the "possibility that the tablets may have been buried by a member of the Mormon faith to perpetuate the story given in the Book of Mormon which claims the Indians of America as direct descendants of the ancient Israelites."
From ancient Romans to a clever Mexican lad to conniving Mormons, the relics had quite a trip. Is there any chance at all that they were, as originally claimed, minted a few hundred years after Christ walked the Earth?
But that is where one mystery ends and another begins.
So who put the damn things out there in the desert, and why? "That's the bottom line that still persists," says Tucson archaeologist Chris Hardaker. "There's a whole bunch of weird things to this. There are no answers, man, just one huge enigma."