Romans in Tucson? the Story of an Archaeological Hoax

Article excerpt

Driving along Silverbell Road while returning from a trip to the Picture Rocks area west of Tucson, Arizona, on September 13, 1924, Charles Manier, his wife, Bessie, his daughter, Ethel, and his father, J. E. Manier, made a stop at an abandoned limekiln, just to look around (fig. 1). That stop would lead to a discovery that affected the lives and reputations of several people and started a controversy and mystery that persists to this day (Bent 1964). The uncovering of thirty-two artifacts, including crosses, swords, and spear points, that some believed proved the existence of a Roman colony in Tucson between AD 775 and 900 is truly one of the most bizarre and baffling incidents in the social and intellectual history of Arizona (Sayles 1968:112). These artifacts are variously described as the Silverbell Road artifacts, Silverbell artifacts, Tucson artifacts, Tucson Roman artifacts, or just lead crosses.

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To better understand this story, we need to place Tucson and the discovery in the context of the times. Not only was Tucson a hot, dry, and dusty town, but central air-conditioning was many years in the future and even evaporative coolers were a few years away (fig. 2). In 1924 Tucson received just over five inches of rain, seven inches below the average and the least ever recorded. The parched desert town had a population of twenty-five thousand. The University of Arizona had an enrollment of only sixteen hundred and a faculty of 130. In 1924 Tucson was certainly not a well-known community or a tourist destination. If the artifacts could be authenticated as Roman or of great antiquity, world history would have to be rewritten, and Tucson and the University of Arizona would make headlines around the world. The finders of the artifacts, the faculty members who were to become deeply involved in the story, and the community leaders of Tucson had a lot to gain if the artifacts proved real. They might even become as well known as Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon, who had discovered the spectacular tomb of Tutankhamen in Egypt two years earlier. Thomas W. Bent, who homesteaded the land where the artifacts were found, and his partner, Charles Manier, the discoverer of the first artifact, would stand to gain not only fame but fortune as well.

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It is important to keep in mind that during the late 1800s and early 1900s there were many great archaeological discoveries as well as several high-profile hoaxes. The most sensational of the great discoveries, of course, was the finding of the tomb of Tutankhamen in 1922. Hoaxes included the Cardiff Giant, created in 1869. A huge man was sculpted in stone, hauled by wagon to a farm near Cardiff, New York, and buried there. The creator of this hoax then hired men to dig at the spot of the burial under the pretext that he needed a well at that location. The stone man they "discovered" was accepted by some as a petrified giant tied to a biblical story (Williams 1991: 87-90).

Runic inscriptions found on a stone near Kensington, Minnesota, in 1898 caused controversy and heated discussions (Blegen 1968). The stone is purported by those who believe the carvings authentic to be a description of an expedition from Scandinavia in 1362 that preceded that of Columbus by more than one hundred years. Most scholars, both Scandinavian and American, denounce the stone as a hoax. The inscription on the stone was shown to have been copied from a contemporaneous book on runes, but the controversy continues (Kehoe 2005). An article in the Star Tribune: Newspaper of the Twin Cities (Minnesota) in 2001 reported that some believers in the "first famous rune stone" claimed they had new proof, but the doubters concluded it was another hoax.

Conclusions about the authenticity of such discoveries, even by highly respected academics, can be wrong and in some cases years go by before they are corrected. Examples are the discovery of the Taung child in 1924 and the skull and jawbone of Piltdown man found in a gravel pit on Piltdown Common in Sussex, England, in 1912. …