A Reputation in Ruins

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?
"No problem."

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."