A Reputation in Ruins

Page 4 of 4

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.

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.

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Peter Gilstrap
Contact: Peter Gilstrap