A few days ago, I stopped my car along the side of Silver Bell Road, about seven miles north of Tucson, at the site of a thoroughly dilapidated, 19th-century lime kiln. In addition to a lot of scrub brush and dirt, this is what I found: a twisted tire tread, an empty bag of Purina Cat Chow, a Pepsi bottle, a Styrofoam cup with a green superhero on it and a disintegrating diaper.
This is what Charles Manier and his family--out for a little desert quality time in the autumn of 1924--found when they stopped at the same spot: a lot of scrub brush and dirt. As well as two lead crosses weighing 62 pounds, stuck together with wax, emblazoned with Latin inscriptions that seemed to indicate that there had been a Roman-Jewish settlement there around A.D. 700.
After I made my discoveries, I got back into my car, switched the radio to a country station and drove off to get some lunch.
After Charles Manier and his family wrenched their discoveries from the earth, they got back into their car and drove off to begin a bizarre little chapter in Southwestern archaeological history that would see ruined reputations, bitter allegations of fraud, vociferous claims of authenticity, blaring national headlines and at least one great, big mystery, still unsolved to this day.
Whether they got any lunch along the way, I do not know.
Anyone with a library card can read about the alleged Roman relics of Tucson--as I did--in books on oddball archaeology and unexplained tales of nature. Find mentions of Sasquatch, sea serpents, lost gold mines or advanced civilizations that have vanished into thin air, and the relics won't be far behind.
So I got to thinking, as I am wont to do: Hoax or not, whatever happened to these things? Numerous phone calls to Arizona State University and Arizona Historical Society in Tempe led nowhere. Some officials had never heard of the story, others revealed only vague, cryptic knowledge; none had any idea where the artifacts were. Until a gentleman at the Tucson branch of the historical society got on the line.
"Sure, we have 'em here."
Could I see them?
Though that doesn't seem like too much detective work, even the mighty Arizona Republic was stonewalled. In an article on AZ legends dated January 28, the paper quoted University of Arizona archaeology professor James Reid: "[T]he artifacts ... disappeared but may be in the Phoenix area. ... I would dearly, dearly love to see them."
Hey, doc, me too. And I did, as well as talking with one devoted expert on the relics who had yet to lay eyes on them, one who didn't know where they were and another who gasped with disbelief when I revealed that I'd had an audience with the enigmatic remains.
"You're kidding! Who did you talk to? Who set this up? I didn't know they were allowing the press to see them--you're opening up a Pandora's box!"
And so the story goes ...
More than 70 years ago, a baffled Charles Manier bore a cross over to the Arizona State Museum and showed it to an archaeologist named Karl Ruppert, who accompanied Manier to the site the next day. Digging into the side of a small ridge at a depth about five feet beneath the surface (afact that would propone the notion that these items had been in the ground for quite a while), they found a seven-pound chunk of caliche--a hard soil cemented by calcium carbonate--curiously inscribed and dated A.D. 800. A long time ago.
Now we will meet Thomas Bent, lawyer, friend of Manier and owner of this magical piece of roadside desert property. Shovels inhand, the two men spent the ensuing months excavating swords, spears and crosses, finds that ranged in execution from crude to not-so-crude, most engraved with Latin and Hebrew inscriptions.
And a few more pros from the university were on hand to help out.
Enter Dr. Andrew E. Douglass, father of dendrochronology (that's dating by tree rings), Ruppert, assistant director of the State Museum, Dr. Frank Fowler, professor of classical languages, and Emil W. Haury, an archaeology student at the university.
Opinions on the authenticity of the finds would ricochet within this group, as they would between institutions, including the Smithsonian and the British Museum. But, according to an article in the Tucson Citizen from February 1925, these officials "have interested themselves in aiding the finders unravel the mystery of the Latin-inscribed crosses."
The article went on to say that "when the first cross was discovered ... the professors at the university were inclined to discount the importance of the find, in the belief thatthe inscription was the work of some religious fanatic or hermit, although unquestionably a man of education and skill in the art of engraving."
But then Dr. Byron Cummings, dean of the Archaeological Department at the University of Arizona and the director of the State Museum, certainly among the heaviest of hitters--archaeologically speaking--in the Southwest, returned from a dig in Mexico. Immediately, he dove deep into the excavation, and even deeper into the controversy that would dog him for the rest of his career. His determination? Cummings was a believer!
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."
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.
Collections manager Mark Santiago, the man who has allowed me into this inner sanctum, says that Thomas Bent Jr. donated them to the historical society two years ago. Bent had them at his house for the last 40 years. I am not allowed to photograph them--Bent's stipulation--and I am the first reporter to see them since they arrived here. No one else has asked.
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What is the future of the relics?
"The one thing that we'll try to do, if we get a grant or whatever, is to try to have them analyzed by a metallurgist," Santiago explains. "If it's possible to take a sample of the lead and see when it was smelted, then that should end it right there. But even if you did that, it still won't solve the central mystery of why and who."
A grant is something Hardaker, among others, would dearly love to get--quickly. There are plans to widen Silver Bell Road, which would either force renewed excavations or obliterate the site where Roman Jews supposedly dropped their crosses once and for all.
A few minutes later, Santiago has to go photocopy something, and he leaves me alone with the pieces. I try to concentrate on them, see if I can establish some psychic channel with ... an ancient Roman, a Mexican kid, a religious fanatic or hermit, maybe some unknown prankster in history. It's quiet in there, real quiet as 30 pieces of lead stare up at me.
And I don't hear a thing.
No dusty whispers from 15 centuries ago. Not even a 100-year-old smirk.