Seeker of the Lost Ark

Vendyl Jones certainly looks like an archaeologist, or at least like an aging, Hollywood back-lot version of one, as the tall Texan stomps about the desert near Jordan dressed in leather boots and hat, a tan shirt and tan slacks held up by snakeskin suspenders.

Balding and bearded, Jones puffs on a calabash pipe as he describes for documentary filmmakers his quest for the legendary lost Ark of the Covenant. In a West Texas drawl, he lingers on Hebrew words and biblical references as he speaks of the gilded wooden box that some religious scholars believe houses the stone tablets (Jones contends they were actually sapphire prisms) that Moses brought from Mount Sinai. According to some believers, finding the Ark will mean the arrival--or return--of the messiah, world peace, or the beginning of the end.

With the possible exception of Harrison Ford, Hollywood probably could not have cast a better person to play the role of an archaeologist-cum-adventurer than this 70-year-old former preacher from Grand Prairie. Jones' story is fit for an old-time movie serial. Unfortunately for him and his supporters, to some legitimate archaeologists it's also just about as plausible.

For the documentary-makers in Europe and Israel who have turned Jones into a minor celebrity, Jones' appeal is neither science nor religion; it's his claim that he was the role model for the swashbuckling hero of director Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. Jones rarely misses an opportunity to mention the connection to reporters. "Take the first and last letter of my first name," Jones says, "and you get 'Endy Jones.'"

Spielberg denies Jones' claim, but that didn't matter last year when Jones went with a Spanish television crew to Petra, Jordan. Jones has never stuck a shovel or scraped a trowel near the city, but part of the last Raiders sequel, 1989's Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, was shot nearby. Jones says he was embarrassed by the slim, unscholarly premise for his appearance but decided to be a good sport for the cameras. "I leaned back and pulled a hat over my eyes," Jones recalls. After shooting some footage, the crew wanted to introduce him to the local mayor. Jones says the mayor approached him and practically spit on the ground in disgust. "That man is not Indiana Jones," Jones recalls the dignitary's saying. "He is just acting like Indiana Jones." After much explaining, the Spanish crew finally persuaded the mayor that Jones was the authentic article and Harrison Ford, whom the mayor had met, was the actor.

But just how authentic is Jones? From Jerusalem to Grand Prairie, from baptism to his own brand of non-Jewish adherence to the Torah, Jones lives a life that is alluring to romantics and anathema to skeptics.

Jones believes he has a key to solving the Middle East crisis through archaeology, and he has persuaded contributors to provide him money and sweat to dig for it, but he has not been so lucky in enticing Israeli government officials or academics to buy into his quest. Jones believes the Israeli government fears his work because he is about to find biblical treasures supporting Jewish territorial claims, and that will upset the Middle East peace process.

Israeli authorities say professional rather than political concerns make them unhappy about Jones and reluctant to give him permits to dig.

"I don't want to talk about him," says Itzhak Magen, the director of antiquities in Judea and Samaria for the Israeli government, who has apparently grown tired of the attention given a man he considers without credibility. "It's not for political reasons that we don't give him permits. It's for science reasons."

Acclaimed archaeologists also distrust Jones' work. "It's a shame to mislead the public. What a tragic waste of money," says Robert Elliot Friedman, a professor of archaeology at the University of California in San Diego and the author of the bestseller Who Wrote the Bible? about the historical period from which Jones hopes to find his treasures. Jones, Friedman says, exaggerates his findings. For example, Jones claims he has found items from Solomon's Temple without enough evidence to corroborate him.

But for Jones' followers--and he has enough to support a mansion in Grand Prairie, a second house in Israel, and hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in digs--the man is pursuing a purpose holier than simple academia. "I think he is doing God's work," says Janet Lewis, a 64-year-old resident of Seven Points, Texas. She drives 85 miles on Sundays to attend Jones' classes on the Torah, saves money to give to him, and works in his office as a volunteer. "He will find the ashes of the red heifer and then the Ark, and the world will change," she says simply.