Hermiston resident John Estes was working on the relocation of the city of Arlington in May 1963 when a piece of heavy equipment he was using started giving him trouble. Angry, Estes picked up what he thought was a rock to throw at the machine in frustration. Just before it left his hand, Estes took another look at it and, fortunately, had second thoughts. The “rock” turned out to be a tiny depiction of an ancient Aztec god of wind, sky and water. The original statue, Estes found after doing some research, was six feet tall and made of solid gold.
The unusual thing about Estes’ find was its location — 75 feet down in the top of a mountain. Also found in the same area were camel bones, part of an elephant and a huge tusk thought to have come from a prehistoric mammoth. The finds were carbon-dated at Oregon State University in Corvallis to around 12,000 years old.
But the little Aztec god wasn’t Estes’ first find. In 1954 he was digging near The Dalles on another relocation project and unearthed what the Smithsonian Institute thought was an Indian chief’s grave, containing a 250-year-old ceremonial hatchet made from pipe stone. One side of the hatchet showed an “Indian calendar” and a Spanish gaucho, while the other side depicted a symbolic map of the rivers. Estes learned about the hatchet from a book “as big as the front end of my car.”
Estes said in an interview that one collector offered to finance a college education, including a doctoral degree, for one of his children in exchange for the hatchet. Estes turned him down.