Drive eighteen miles west of the central New Mexico village of Los Lunas, and you drive into a world of dirt, and rocks, and little else.
In the middle of all that dirt, however, slumps an extinct, dust-caked volcano — a mountain in ruins, weathering away beneath the sun. And on the side of that little mountain, Hidden Mountain, on a tilted column of sickly brown andesite, shines a large inscription — 216 letters, in 9 lines, from an alphabet older than any known European settlement in North America.
“Amateur archeologists, historians, and epigraphers have given it a variety of translations and interpretations,” wrote UNM Archeologist Joseph C. Winter in an unpublished 1984 paper. “[These include]: an archaic version of the Ten Commandments; a 4000-year-old message left by the Near Eastern Ancestors of the Navajos; a 2500-year-old tale carved by a Greek explorer; a treasure map made by the ancestors of the Acoma Indians; a message left by the Romans; a college prank; a Mormon inscription; a 200-year-old carving made by a Spaniard who was a secret Jew; a message left by one of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel; or perhaps even a coded message left by a Hebrew-speaking extra-terrestrial.”
Most theories of how these strange letters came to be where there are have slipped away almost immediately after being advanced, but one of the more tenacious explanations has been that the writing is a form of ancient Greek and tells the story of Zakyneros, a wandering Greek sailor circa 500 B.C.
“I have come to this place to stay,” translated amateur epigrapher Dixie L. Perkins in The Meaning of the New Mexico Mystery Stone. “The other one met with an untimely death one year ago; dishonored, insulted, and stripped of flesh; the men thought him to be an object of care, whom I looked after, considered crazed, wandering in mind, to be tossed about as if in a wind; to perish, streamed with blood.”
This translation wasn’t produced until 1979 though, and was preceded by — among other attempts — what was almost certainly a more accurate translation, made in 1949 by Harvard scholar Robert Pfeiffer. Pfeiffer, an expert in Semitic languages, concluded that the mysterious inscription was written in a form of Paleo-Hebrew and paraphrased the Ten Commandments.
“I am Yahweh thy God who brought thee out of the land,” Pfeiffer’s translation began. “There shall not be unto them other gods before Me.”
Pfeiffer’s Paleo-Hebrew translation has been accepted as generally accurate by a wide range of people — from Todd Eaton, a self-taught petroglyph enthusiast, who said the Paleo-Hebrew inscription was carved by ancient Samaritans who had been shipwrecked off the coast of Texas and then wandered up the Rio Grande and Rio Puerco Rivers; to David Allen Deal, author of Discovery of Ancient America, who said he believes the Paleo-Hebrew inscription was carved circa 107 B.C. by Hebraic mound builders that had previously settled around Ohio; to historian Ferenc Szasz, who argued convincingly in Great Mysteries of the West and elsewhere, that the carving dates to 1776, when the legendary Dominguez-Escalante Expedition passed nearby; to university archeologists who believe that yeah, it’s written in Paleo-Hebrew, but it’s still a hoax.
“There is absolutely no firm evidence that the glyph was known before the 1930s,” John C. Winter wrote, and he suggested that two nearby inscriptions reading “Hobe Eva 3-19-30 1930,” were carved by the same UNM students who he believed carved the inscription on the Mystery Stone — citing as evidence the remembrances of various former UNM professors, the availability of Semitic language Bibles and textbooks from UNM’s Zimmerman Library, and the relatively new-looking appearance of the inscription.
For as long as the truth behind this story remains uncertain, the mystery of the New Mexico Mystery Stone will leave us free to believe in whatever we like — in pre-Columbian wayfarers, in passing Greeks or Spaniards, or in epic college pranks — free to believe in whatever makes the world feel the most mysterious to us, the most complex and interconnected, or simply the most fun.