Archaeology and the Book of Mormon

A Mormon discussing evidence for the Book of Mormon posted the following on the Reachout Trust Forum. A closer look illustrates something I have long believed, i.e. language is an amazing tool that can open our minds or shut them down. It can direct us to fresh knowledge and understanding or misdirect us to conclusions that are misleading and wrong. It can invite us to think further and make new discoveries or it can cleverly present us with ill-considered conclusions that cause us to put our trust where it doesn’t belong.

The Compelling Argument

Archaeology is the study and interpretation of past human cultures based on known material remains. Biblical and Mesoamerican archaeological research is of special interest to Latter-day Saints. Archaeological data from the ancient Near East and the Americas have been used both to support and to discredit the Book of Mormon. Many scholars see no support for the Book of Mormon in the archaeological records, since no one has found any inscriptional evidence for, or material remains that can be tied directly to, any of the persons, places, or things mentioned in the book (Smithsonian Institution).

Several types of indirect archaeological evidence, however, have been used in support of the Book of Mormon. For example, John L. Sorenson and M. Wells Jakeman tentatively identified the Olmec (2000-600 B.C.) and Late Pre-Classic Maya (300 B.C.-A.D. 250) cultures in Central America with the jaredite and nephite cultures, based on correspondences between periods of cultural development in these areas and the pattern of cultural change in the Book of Mormon.

Likewise, parallels between cultural traits of the ancient Near East and Mesoamerica perhaps indicate transoceanic contacts between the two regions. Among these are such minor secondary traits as horned incense burners, models of house types, wheel-made pottery, cement, the true arch, and the use of stone boxes. All of these may, however, represent independent inventions. Stronger evidence for contacts may be found in the tree of life motif, a common religious theme, on Stela 5 from Izapa in Chiapas, Mexico. Jakeman, in 1959, studied Stela 5 in detail and concluded that it represented the sons of a legendary ancestral couple absorbing and perhaps recording their knowledge of a munificent Tree of Life. This can be compared favourably to the account of Lehi’s vision in the Book of Mormon (1 Ne. 8).

The presence of a bearded white deity, Quetzalcoatl or Kukulcan, in the pantheon of the Aztec, Toltec, and Maya has also been advanced as indirect evidence of Christ’s visit to the New World. The deity is represented as a feathered serpent, and elements of his worship may have similarities to those associated with Christ’s Atonement.

Recent work by LDS professional archaeologists such as Ray Matheny at El Mirador and by the New World Archaeological Foundation in Chiapas has been directed toward an understanding of the factors that led to the development of complex societies in Mesoamerica in general. Under C. Wilfred Griggs, a team of Brigham Young University scholars has sponsored excavations in Egypt, and other LDS archaeologists have been involved in projects in Israel and Jordan.

Another area of archaeological investigation is in LDS history. Dale Berge’s excavations at Nauvoo; the Whitmer farm in New York; the early Mormon settlement of Goshen (Utah); the Utah mining town of Mercur; and, most recently, Camp Floyd, the headquarters of Johnston’s army in Utah, have provided information about the economic and social interactions between early Mormon and non-Mormon communities.

The Closer Look

The subject of Book of Mormon archaeology is fraught with difficulties for the Mormon apologist. This article illustrates very well some of those problems. If I lift out a few key points you will see what I mean.

The second paragraph of the article reads as follows:

Archaeological data from the ancient Near East and the Americas have been used both to support and to discredit the Book of Mormon. Many scholars see no support for the Book of Mormon in the archaeological records, since no one has found any inscriptional evidence for, or material remains that can be tied directly to, any of the persons, places, or things mentioned in the book (Smithsonian Institution).

It would be closer to the truth to say:

[Non-Mormon] scholars [without exception] see no support for the Book of Mormon in the archaeological records, [this is because] no one has found any inscriptional evidence for, or material remains that can be tied directly to, any of the persons, places, or things mentioned in the book.

The article goes on to state:

Several types of indirect archaeological evidence, however, have been used in support of the Book of Mormon. For example, John L. Sorenson and M. Wells Jakeman tentatively identified the Olmec (2000-600 BC) and Late Pre-Classic Maya (300 B.C.-A.D. 250) cultures in Central America with the jaredite and nephite cultures, based on correspondences between periods of cultural development in these areas and the pattern of cultural change in the Book of Mormon.

Two points arise from this paragraph. The first follows from my point above, for it would be closer to the truth to state:

Several types of indirect archaeological evidence, however, have been used [although speculatively and only by Mormon scholars] in support of the Book of Mormon. For example, John L. Sorenson and M. Wells Jakeman [both Mormon scholars] tentatively identified the Olmec (2000-600 BC) and Late Pre-Classic Maya (300 B.C.-A.D. 250) cultures in Central America with the jaredite and nephite cultures, based on correspondences between periods of cultural development in these areas and the pattern of cultural change in the Book of Mormon.

My second point is obvious when you think about it, which is that correspondences are not evidence of a relationship. A classic example is the much-vaunted account of pyramids in Central and South America. Many who have spoken to Mormons will have been told of the curious correspondence between pyramids in the Old World and pyramids in the New World.

It is not difficult to understand the connection Mormon scholars have always been anxious to make between the Old World and the new by means of the pyramid illustration. The implication has always been that it is evidence of culture and technology travelling via means accounted for in the Book of Mormon.

The truth is that pyramid structures are found in many parts of the world along a parallel just north and south of the equator. This is accounted for by the fact that people here embraced sun worship (for obvious reasons) and built structures to get closer to the object of their worship.

Why pyramids? Without mortar the most efficient structure for reaching the greatest height was the pyramid. Wherever in the world these people were they worked this out for themselves and built accordingly. If they can do it with the pyramid then they can do it with all kinds of inventions, and the following paragraph admits as much when it speaks of “independent inventions”.

Likewise, parallels between cultural traits of the ancient Near East and Mesoamerica perhaps indicate transoceanic contacts between the two regions. Among these are such minor secondary traits as horned incense burners, models of house types, wheel-made pottery, cement, the true arch, and the use of stone boxes. All of these may, however, represent independent inventions.

The next paragraph answers its own point:

Stronger evidence for contacts may be found in the tree of life motif, a common religious theme, on Stela 5 from Izapa in Chiapas, Mexico. Jakeman, in 1959, studied Stela 5 in detail and concluded that it represented the sons of a legendary ancestral couple absorbing and perhaps recording their knowledge of a munificent Tree of Life. This can be compared favorably to the account of Lehi’s vision in the Book of Mormon (1 NE 8).

Of course, the Tree of Life is a popular motif in Mormon theology. But note the key phrase in the opening words:

“A common religious motif”

Like the pyramids, the tree of life can be found in many cultures and a connection could be seen by those who want to see it with any representation of this motif anywhere in the world that a book like the Book of Mormon might appear. The only thing this discovery proves is that the tree of life is a common motif.

Note the careful wording in the following paragraph:

The presence of a bearded white deity, Quetzalcoatl or Kukulcan, in the pantheon of the Aztec, Toltec, and Maya has also been advanced as indirect evidence of Christ’s visit to the New World. The deity is represented as a feathered serpent, and elements of his worship may have similarities to those associated with Christ’s Atonement.

Note the tentative “advanced as indirect evidence” and “elements of his worship may have similarities”. This is typical of this kind of reasoning. Evidence is always “indirect”, “tentative”, “suggested”, maybe, could be, etc.

The Caution

Finally, I would draw your attention to the attempt to give the impression of scholarly substance and gravitas to this whole subject in the following paragraphs:

Recent work by LDS professional archaeologists such as Ray Matheny at El Mirador and by the New World Archaeological Foundation in Chiapas has been directed toward an understanding of the factors that led to the development of complex societies in Mesoamerica in general. Under C. Wilfred Griggs, a team of Brigham Young University scholars has sponsored excavations in Egypt, and other LDS archaeologists have been involved in projects in Israel and Jordan.

Another area of archaeological investigation is in LDS history. Dale Berge’s excavations at Nauvoo; the Whitmer farm in New York; the early Mormon settlement of Goshen (Utah); the Utah mining town of Mercur; and, most recently, Camp Floyd, the headquarters of Johnston’s army in Utah, have provided information about the economic and social interactions between early Mormon and non-Mormon communities.

Two things need highlighting here.

The first is to reiterate that all the scholarship alluded to is Mormon. The names named are Mormon, the grand sounding New World Archaeological Foundation is Mormon, the prestigious seat of learning, BYU, is Mormon, the excavations are exclusively Mormon in motivation, in execution, and in the final assessment of the evidence uncovered. One might be forgiven for suspecting that Mormons are finding what they are looking for, and not simply discovering what is there.

Now no one wants to deprive Mormons of their scholars. However, for this type of scholarship to have weight and due influence it must be recognised outside the circle of those with a vested interest in furthering a faith position. This scholarship is not so recognised.

The second point is that the introduction of the subject of more recent Mormon history might be seen as prejudicing the evidence by introducing unrelated but more credible research. The article is introduced as a piece on Biblical and Mesoamerican archaeological research, and gives the impression of ancient discovery, but ends with an account of how knowledge of early Mormon pioneer history is being confirmed and expanded by archaeology.

I appreciate that the author wrote in good faith, and adding an exciting piece of news about early Mormon history is a service. However, the effect is to make people look at what is historically more solid ground, i.e. pioneer archaeology, and draw a direct comparison, concluding that the same degree of reliability can be expected of early Mormon/Mesoamerican archaeological research. This is certainly not the case, and we must be careful how we read these things.

Finally, I saw recently a seminar advertised as follows:

The Ancient American Foundation
Presents
King Noah’s Throne in the City of Nephi

A carved throne from the ancient ruined city of Kaminaljuyu, a preserved National Park located in the area of modern Guatemala City, could very well be from King Noah,s era when he ruled at the City of Nephi.
It dates to 147 BC, the very date when the Book of Mormon relates the reign of the wicked King Noah and his son King Limhi. Dr. Bruce Warren, one of the foremost scholars of Mesoamerican archaeology and its relationship to the Book of Mormon, will discuss the elements shown on the stone identified as Stela 10. They include two royal figures, one of which has a crown turned upside down signifying his death. A fire glyph may indicate his death by fire. Other elements show calendar dates and glyphs which relates to the other figure as a successor to the throne which could well be King Limhi.
Kaminaljuhu is the foremost candidate for the Book of Mormon City of Nephi and provides additional evidence for the Mesoamerican setting for the lands of the Book of Mormon.
March 12, 2003 at 7:00pm at the Provo City Library: Bullock room 309
Admission: $5.00 donation request.

Note that my remarks above apply equally to this recent discovery and its interpretation by Mormon scholars. The connection is speculative at best, “could very well be from King Noah’s era when he ruled at the City of Nephi.” Pick a date for an imagined event at any time in history and it will coincide with other, real events, places and people of the same time. This is not clever scholarship but the product of faith and a vivid imagination.

The paragraph at the end might better read:

Kaminaljuhu is the foremost candidate [according to Mormon scholars] for the Book of Mormon City of Nephi and provides additional evidence [recognised only by Mormon scholars] for the Mesoamerican setting for the lands of the Book of Mormon.

There is also the point that the scholar, Dr. Bruce Warren, one of the foremost scholars of Mesoamerican archaeology and its relationship to the Book of Mormon, may be more honestly represented as one of the foremost Mormon scholars on Mesoamerican archaeology and its relationship to the Book of Mormon. Without the qualification the impression might be given that scholarship in this connection is found outside Mormon circles. This is not so, and this is significant.

And lastly, like the tree of life motif, the figures on the stone seem common enough, and vague enough, that they might be connected with any number of figures from American history of that period. But they conveniently fit a picture these scholars have and so they travel hopefully in their pursuit of authenticating these things, although I suspect never to arrive.

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