The Tucson Artifacts are the Southwest’s Greatest Hoax
Imagine stumbling across 31 lead objects in the middle of the Arizona desert. The objects are heavy, include swords, crosses and religious paraphernalia, and are complete with Hebrew and Latin inscriptions. They look ancient, bearing the date 800AD, and if they’re authentic they completely rewrite the history of North America.
That’s exactly what happened in the late summer of 1924, when Charles Manier and his family stopped to examine an abandoned lime kiln. As they waded through the desert underbrush, they discovered a dozen or so strange objects protruding from the caliche, a thin layer of soil that had been cemented over time.
Manier’s close friend Thomas Bent homesteaded the patch of land and between 1924 and 1930, the two extracted additional objects.
Specialists, historians and archaeologists from across the world vied for a chance to gawk the artifacts, only adding to the excitement that this dusty corner near what is now Picture Rock, Arizona, was a revolutionary archaeological site, proving that the Southwest had its own ancient Roman-Jewish settlement. The history books had been wrong all along — and some sincerely believed that southern Arizona would exist alongside Rome and Alexandria as pivotal sites in Western history.
While it was an alluring narrative for many, the Tucson Artifacts were ultimately proved to be a hoax. Modern experts point to a few major indications that disprove their authenticity.
- Clue #1: Tucson struggled for attention through the early 20th century.
In 1924, the town of Tucson was dusty, hot and extremely dry. The year had seen record-low rainfall, air conditioning was nonexistent and the University of Arizona had only a small enrollment of 1,600 students accompanied by 130 professors. Simply put, Tucson wasn’t known as a tourist destination. If the artifacts Manier uncovered were real, it would put the sleepy southwest town on the map in a big way. Several of the people involved in the investigation had a vested interest in the objects’ authenticity. It would mean fame and fortune — and going down in history alongside important names like Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon.
- Clue #2: Scientific discoveries — and hoaxes — were prevalent during this time.
In 1869, the Cardiff Giant was uncovered in upstate New York. The massive figure, carved from stone, was supposedly tied to a biblical story about a petrified giant — but turns, out it had been constructed by a local man, hauled by wagon and buried. He later “discovered” the giant with the pretext of needing to dig a well at the exact location. Another popular hoax involved Runic inscriptions found in Minnesota in 1898 that apparently point to Scandinavian settlers. It has been repeatedly denounced by both American and Scandinavian scholars, as the runes are copied exactly from a contemporary book on runes. Similarly, the Latin inscriptions found carved into the Tucson artifacts match Latin workbooks available in Tucson at the time.
- Clue #3: Timotio Odohui, who lived nearby, was fascinated by both Latin and buried treasure.
An aging, local cattle rancher, Leandro Ruiz, remembers a Mexican family that had lived near the lime kiln 40 years prior. According to Ruiz, they had been driven out of their native land when France invaded Mexico in 1862, as most of the United States was swept up in the Civil War. Young Timotio was educated, a skilled sculptor and, as Ruiz describes, had an interest in buried treasure. Many wonder if Timotio created the artifacts to thrill an inquisitive imagination, but had to leave the objects behind when he and his family were forced to leave.
While these peculiar objects may not have been evidence for transatlantic Roman settlers, their creator and his/her motive remain a mystery. Were they the passion project of a skilled and imaginative scholar? Planted by folks who wished to see Tucson on the map? Or do they tell another story entirely?
If anything is for certain in this story, is that we might never know who — or why — someone created 31 lead objects and abandoned them in the Arizona desert. But whatever their purpose, they’ve remained a fixed feature in Arizonan folklore.