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Cross section of petrified rock.

The Fascinating Story of “The Guilty-Conscience Rocks”


Those who have stolen rocks as souvenirs from Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park are apparently the victims of a curse.

The fossilized trees of the Petrified Forest of Arizona, with their spellbinding sparkles of opal and amethyst, have tempted many visitors. And it’s not surprising: the site looks like the mirage of a rainbow smashed into pieces and scattered across the ground. Pieces that, furthermore, can easily be placed in a bag.

Tons of rocks have been taken from the park each year – 12 tons per year, to be precise – some of them the size of a briefcase, others the size of an insect. Curiously, however, some of them have been returning to the national park little by little, and are piled up in a box with a sign that reads: ‘conscience rocks’. They are the rocks that were stolen and subsequently returned by visitors who are superstitiously repentant of their crime.

Taking petrified wood from the park has been strictly prohibited for many years and is subject to a fine, with enormous signs at the park exit threatening vehicle inspections. But as that has not had the desired effect, a sign at the visitors’ center includes letters from repentant thieves that refer to a curse that befalls anyone who moves a rock from its place. The legend of the curse dates back to 1930 and is now part of the Petrified Forest’s history. The result is a kind of self-fulfilling mineralogical prophecy: people blame any accident or misfortune in their lives to the rocks they stole and mail them back with a letter of apology.

The letters comprise around 1,200 written pages ––And are a treasure in themselves. Some of them include exact maps of where the rocks were taken from, and are written on lined paper torn from a notebook and even paper with a company letterhead. One of them, for example, reads:

Take these miserable rocks and put them back into the rainbow forest, for they have caused pure havoc in my love life, and Cheryl’s too.

Many of the letters are from wives who tried to prevent their husbands from stealing the rocks, or wish they had, and feel that the rocks are responsible for the death of their pet, illness or problems with the law. One, from “SORRY IN TEXAS”, explains:


In a page torn from a notebook, Andy writes: “Dear Mr. Manager, I am only 5 years old and made a bad mistake.” All the letters, together with photographs of the corresponding rocks, are published in a brilliant book called Bad Luck, Hot Rocks by the artists Ryan Thompson and Phil Orr. In the introduction, Thompson explains that, due to their unknown origin, the rocks cannot be scattered back in the park, as doing so would ruin the area for research purposes.

And that is why the “conscience box” exists, where the park employees dump the returned rocks and, as Nicola Twilley writes in her article, in the process build an inadvertent monument to humanity’s complicated relationship with geology. As a letter signed by one such ‘Jenny’ says:

I was so excited that I could be a part of something that took place millions of years ago … I don’t know if that’s the reason for my bad luck or not but I know it doesn’t belong to me … Please forgive me.

Many of us have a soft spot for the comfort of minerals, which we perceive for their antiquity, their time-hewn beauty, or even for the solid wisdom they project upon us. We all live accompanied by a coefficient of a mistrust of fate. May the prophecies not be true; best to avoid walking under a ladder or, in the case of the myth of the cursed rocks, best return the spell to where it came from.

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