A Reputation in Ruins

To this day, no one has taken credit for the hoax. Not so much as a pinkie has been pointed at any likely suspects; specifically--in case you're wondering--not at Manier or Bent.

"You've got this wonderful, enigmatic Mexican, first of all, but why would he want to bury them and then wait 40years for someone maybe to come along and find them?" asks Hardaker. "If you look into hoaxes and frauds--especially archaeological hoaxes--it's kind of like an arsonist wants to see his own fire, he wants to see all these guys made into idiots."

Hardaker, who has studied the case for years and was acquainted with Thomas Bent Jr., continues:

"The motivational aspects are fascinating, and what it comes down to, the most reasonable, logical thing is that they were being planted at the time they were being dug up. Where this gets embarrassing is that you had A.E. Douglass involved in this, and he's god [in Tucson]. He was also a Freemason [it's been suggested that the artifacts bore some Masonic threads] ... He'd be my central figure, but I don't know what he'd be doing it for, if he did it at all.

"Bent, he was a lawyer who was helping the [World War I] vets down here. Through all of his actions, all of his concerns and work, I can't see him as being a hoaxer. His family got blown apart with this; his wife hated all this stuff, he suffered a lot. And Manier, on the other hand, well, he was out there one day, a retiree just goofing off with his family, when he just happened to find this.

"And if there's something deeper and darker to this, I don't know. I don't know if the trails would really lead to anything."

Though the story of the artifacts has essentially faded from the public eye, it makes you wonder why the archaeological community hasn't pursued the investigation with technology that was not available in the '20s.

"I think the bottom line is that a lot of people say, 'It's a hoax, and if it's a hoax, I don't want to deal with it.' And my feeling on that is that archaeologists should be detectives, regardless," says Hardaker. "My peers over at [the Arizona State Museum] essentially look upon it--at least they used to--as a great deal of embarrassment to the credibility of the Southwest. If you're hip to basketball, there's an eastern group, and then maybe the West is like the little brother. This is how it's kind of been with East Coast and West Coast archaeology."

Archaeologist Peter Steere, congressional archivist and manuscript librarian at the University of Arizona, sums it up quite neatly.

"Most professional archaeologists turn their noses up at this sort of stuff," offers Steere, whose nose has been down far enough for him to lecture on the subject, and even to mount a show on the artifacts a few years ago.

"My interest in them is that they're a part of the local folklore, a part of archaeology folklore, and a part of the history of southern Arizona," he explains. "And, obviously, what's interesting is that it became a very acrimonious situation, and there were a lot of people from the university involved, plus the private parties that were involved, and the on-again, off-again [public] interest in these things over the years."

For all his knowledge, Steere has no clue as to the big who-or-why questions, but he presents simple reasoning for disbelieving the relics are Roman-Jewish.

"If there was this hypothetical group of Roman-Jewish colonists living on the northwest side of Tucson--even if it was asmall group there for a short period--we'dhave some other evidence. And there's nothing. There's never been anything before, never been anything since. And that, to me as a professional archaeologist, is the most disturbing question."

You've heard from yellowed newspaper clippings and contemporary experts, but there is still one party to be consulted. A source that was there at the time; in fact, the element that has been responsible for this whole tale.

We are now going to travel into the basement of the Arizona Historical Society in Tucson, beneath the exhibits of wagon wheels, period dresses and guns, into a room awash in bright fluorescent light, to visit the relics themselves.

There, 30 pieces are laid out, each in its own formfitted spot, in five, yellow-painted wooden cases constructed by Mr. Bent himself. Every artifact is tied down with swaths of white gauze; the effect is dainty, delicate anda little ceremonial. A tasteful resting place. Afew have sloppy, crude edges, but most are refined. There are the famous inscriptions in the dull lead faces, lots of Latiny sideways "V" shapes, lots of simple drawings of angels, crowns, serpents. There's a Menorah engraved on an object that looks like a paddle, and a number of columned buildings.

I can imagine how Bent and Manier felt; I'd be fairly wigged-out myself, finding these strange prizes in the middle of nowhere.

I stare at them. I touch one, run my fingers along a phrase that's probably from a Latin textbook. I get in close, and smell the thing. I get a big whiff of plywood, which, I find, is how I'll remember them later.

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