A clumsy hoax still promoted as evidence for Hebrews in North America

The Los Lunas inscription

The Los Lunas Inscription

At Los Lunas, 56 km (35 miles) southwest of Albuquerque, New Mexico (USA), is an inscribed rock face at what has come to be known as ‘Mystery Mountain’ but is more properly known as Hidden Mountain. It appears to have been first reported in the 1880s (interviewed in 1996, the controversial archaeologist Frank Cumming Hibben (1910-2002) said that he had been taken to the site in 1933 by a guide who claimed to have seen it some fifty years earlier). Hibben’s assessment of its age in the 1930s, based on the growth of mosses and lichens on it, was that the incised characters were at least a hundred years old.

The biblical connection

According to its supporters, it is a copy of the ‘Decalogue’ (otherwise better known as the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament of the christian Bible) written in Palaeo-Hebrew using a north Canaanite script of the early first millennium BCE (some proponents claim that it is as early as c 1000 BCE). According to the claims, the inscription is very ancient; tests conducted in the 1980s by the consultant geologist and mining engineer George E Morehouse (a geologist with the Arrowhead Uranium Company) are said to have confirmed that it is between 500 and 2000 years old. These tests consist of measuring the polish produced on the surface of rock by wind-blown sand, the so-called ‘desert varnish’. However, the technique is highly suspect and the wide range of dates suggested by it gives rise to considerable disquiet about its accuracy. Morehouse, a member of the Epigraphic Society, was also able to compare the inscription with nearby graffiti of the 1930s and was able to confirm that the inscription is older.

Problems with the inscription

If these claims about the inscription are correct, then it shows extraordinary carelessness. The Decalogue is one of the best known passages of the Bible and for anyone whose native tongue was Hebrew, it ought to have been all but impossible for the inscriber to make elementary errors. They did, though. In some places, the text is abbreviated; this is not unusual in ancient inscriptions, but in something so important as the Decalogue, it is surprising. The writer also changed the word order from the original Hebrew, something a person who believed in the inspired and unchangeable nature of the supposed words of Moses would never have done.

Equally damning is the inscriber’s use of what is known as a ‘caret’. This is the upside-down V placed under a piece of text where something has been missed out. Sometimes found in ancient Latin and Greek texts, it is not known in Hebrew until the Middle Ages. To make matters worse, it is above a dot that seems to be a full stop (or period); full stops did not exist in ancient Hebrew. Moreover, there are Greek letters of a slightly later date mixed in with Hebrew forms and some eccentric uses. For instance, Hebrew א (’aleph) is treated as a vowel – the letter shape became our letter A – but in Hebrew it was a consonant; the writer muddles כ (kaph) and ק (qoph), sounds that are distinct in Hebrew but both of which are approximately rendered by English K). The inscription uses Greek δ (delta), ζ (zeta), κ (kappa (reversed)) and τ (tau) in place of their Hebrew counterparts ד (daleth), ז (zayin), כ (kaph) and ת (taw). According to its supporters, this is evidence for a Greek influence. The greatest problem is that the inscription uses an archaic form of א ’aleph. Also, the letters י (yodh), ק (qoph) and ש (the flat-bottomed shin) are said to be Samaritan in form.

Cyrus Gordon (1909-2001) suggested that rather than being a Palaeo-Hebrew Decalogue, the inscription is instead a Samaritan mezuzah, a large stone slab placed by the gateway to a property or synagogue, bearing a shortened version of the Decalogue. He also suggested that the inscription is more likely to be Byzantine and to post-date the persecution of Samaritans by the Emperor Justinian I (527-565 CE). However, the text itself follows the Masoretic text, albeit illiterately. This text was established by Orthodox Jews in the late first millennium CE; the Samaritan text had been established centuries earlier and is quite different. The Masoretic text begins with the injunction to “remember the Sabbath day”, as does the Los Lunas inscription, whereas the Samaritan text begins “preserve the Sabbath day”. The Samaritan text also contains an addition to the tenth commandment, referring to a temple to be built on Mount Gerizim, which is not there in the Los Lunas inscription.

George E Morehouse was (or is) not a prominent geologist with a proven expertise in dating so-called ‘desert varnish’; indeed, virtually all internet searches for his publications link only to his 1985 report “The Los Lunas Inscriptions – A Geological Study” (Epigraphic Society Occasional Papers 13, 44-50). As a mining engineer, his expertise in geological matters is beyond question. However, in the very inexact art of dating inscriptions, this lack of peer-reviewed work ought to make us wary of accepting his conclusion that it was over 500 years old in the 1980s (and therefore pre-Columbian). It would be useful to know if anyone with better experience and no axe to grind (members of the Epigraphic Society can hardly be said to be dispassionate when it comes to investigations of supposedly pre-Columbian inscriptions!) has examined the stone.

Viewed dispassionately, the Los Lunas inscription is a clear, but well constructed forgery (for its day). Despite the claims of high antiquity, there are features of the text (such as the mixing of letter forms between two separate alphabets) that are much more likely to derive from the work of a modern forger than from an ancient Hebrew or Samaritan scribe. The evidence for its origin is poor, but a comparison with the Bat Creek Stone suggests that it was a Mormon forgery. The ‘Mormon Battalion’, which was part of the US Army during the Mexican War, is known to have marched from Santa Fe down the Rio Grande Valley, passing close by, and it is possible that this is the date of the inscription.