A Reputation in Ruins

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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 has been withdrawn, according to an announcement last night by Dean Byron Cummings."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."

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Peter Gilstrap
Contact: Peter Gilstrap