Have a guilty conscience? Put the rock back.

Leave these rocks EXACTLY where you found them for good reason, but not because they carry a curse.

Petrified Forest’s ‘conscience’ rocks returned to park

They are called “conscience” rocks and there are piles of them in northern Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park.

Unlike the “pet rock” craze of past years, these rocks aren’t keepers.

The Arizona Daily Sun reports that some of the rocks were mailed back by people citing curses. Some were seized during inspections.

The rocks once had been wood, part of a large forest that existed 200 million years ago. Time and sediment had slowly turned the wood to stone quartz, preserving tree rings and bark so the modern world could marvel at the beauty.

Matthew Smith, museum technician at the park, says that the museum’s collection of letters sent with conscience rocks has about 1,200 pages written between the 1930s and now. Packages dropped off at the fee collection booths at the park sometimes come with letters, but not always. He gets three to six new letters a month.


The same myth occurs for rocks in Hawaii. It is said that the goddess Pele considers rocks her children and she gets peeved if you pick one up and remove it from her. The result is a string of bad luck. And, people send the rocks back to the Park service. It appears the same mechanism are at work here in Arizona.

The National Park Service estimates that about a ton of petrified wood a month is stolen, some of which is discarded along the road side or returned.

It is illegal to remove earth or plant material from National Parks in the U.S. But this curse myth seems to be even a BETTER deterrent than being charged with a misdemeanor and fined. It is suspected that, in the case of Hawaii national parks, the park rangers gladly promote the myth.

Is it true? No, certainly not. It would be better if people decided NOT to take the rocks because it is detrimental to the park and the large pieces lose a lot of their scientific value when removed from their place, particularly unique specimens, like fossils. A possible interpretation of the curse idea is that people feel guilty for taking the piece, and then attribute any bad occurrence to the fact that they took the rock and are jinxed. Just don’t do it.

  6 comments for “Have a guilty conscience? Put the rock back.

  1. Scott
    November 5, 2012 at 11:44 AM

    Funny you should mention the volcano goddess Pele. My family owned a tourist related business in Hawaii. We constantly received lava rocks in the mail from former tourists with notes asking us to return the lava rocks to the volcano. Each note would indicate that something tragic happened to the family after taking the rocks back to the mainland (i.e., serious traffic accident, house burned down, etc.). We never returned the rocks to the volcano, we just threw the rocks in our backyard. That might explain why our septic tank was always backing up and flooding our house.

    • November 5, 2012 at 11:51 AM

      I got REAL mad at my friend for not bringing me a lava rock back from HI. She was too superstitious.

      • Chris
        November 5, 2012 at 5:19 PM

        You know there are lots of lava around the states on the American west coast. There is even a park in Oregon called Lava Lands. And some of those volcanoes are still active, we got dusted by Mt. St. Helens a couple of times. :-)

        Also, I see basalt columns for sale at garden/stone/fountains places. They also started out as lava.

    • Am_Sci
      November 5, 2012 at 9:26 PM

      Wow, I’ve been an aficionado of superstitious beliefs for years and this entire “removing sacred objects” class is new to me. I found this web site:
      http://www.volcanogallery.com/lavarock.htm

      It’s a volunteer service that lets you send your rocks back to Hawaii. They have been kind enough to post a sampling of some of the letters they get. What a great lesson in critical thinking for anyone new to the subject!

      I’ll bet if you surveyed most of the people, they’d say that Pele probably doesn’t exist and the curse is just made up. But, they could not escape that nagging feeling that our primitive minds inflict on our attempts at rational thought. “What if it is true, and what do I really have to lose by sending back the rocks?” It’s a tempting mode of thought, but highly flawed. However small the costs of foregoing a souvenir and shipping it away, they are infinitely higher than the non-existent benefits of lifting a “curse.” I feel a rambling post coming on, so ill just cut it off here.

  2. One Eyed Jack
    November 5, 2012 at 12:18 PM

    Have you ever had a family of 8 mail back a Tiki they found while on vacation?

    • Scott
      November 5, 2012 at 1:06 PM

      Yes, we did. The note informed us about the family housekeeper suffering a serious hula related back injury, one of the kids experiencing a deadly encounter with a spider, and the oldest son, Greg, almost drowning in a surf contest.

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