Is There Archeological Support for The Book of Mormon?

 

I will start by stating that to date there is no convincing archeological evidence found anywhere in the New World that the Book of Mormon is true. In fairness, it may be difficult to come up with conclusive archeological evidence in support of the Book of Mormon.  Nevertheless, the search for such evidence is worth taking up, and there is some information to consider on both sides.  I will try to evaluate and weigh the available data.


Evidence Against The Book Of Mormon

In response to frequent questioning by LDS faithful on the historicity of the Book of Mormon, The Smithsonian Institution issued an official statement in 1996 that it considered the Book of Mormon to be "a religious document and not a scientific guide," and that it "has found no archaeological evidence to support [the book's] claims."  This link contains the text of that letter.  http://www.irr.org/mit/smithsonian.html .  The Smithsonian Institution cites several problems.

  1. 1.Archeological evidence suggests that the ancestors of the american indians came from asia across the Bearing Straits 25,000 to 30,000 years ago.

  2. 2.Archeological evidence suggests that the first people to arrive in the new world from the east were Norsmen who settled in Greenland.

  3. 3.there is no evidence for any of the old world domesticated crops or animals in the pre-columbian new world.  “American indians had no wheat, barley, oats, millet, rice, cattle, pigs, chickens, horses, donkeys, camels before 1493.”

  4. 4.There was no iron, steel, glass and silk before 1492.

  5. 5.There is no evidence that there was spread of cultural traits or contact with Egyptians, Hebrews or other peoples of Western Asia or the Near East.

  6. 6.There is no relationship between archeological remains in Mesoamerica and Egypt.

  7. 7.There are no inscriptions using old world forms of writing in the new world other than Norse examples in Greenland.

This outline serves as a good summary for the issues that plague the book of mormon. Nevertheless, a great deal of work has been done in an effort to establish the historicity of the Book of Mormon.  Much of the archeological work in this arena has been underwritten by the LDS Church and Brigham Young University through its New World Archeological Foundation (NWAF).  NWAF was started in 1955 by Dr. Thomas Ferguson in an effort to establish the truth of the book of mormon.  In 1961, he predicted that Book of Mormon cities would be found within ten years.  In 1975 he published a 29 page paper entitled, Written Symposium on Book-of-Mormon Geography: Response of Thomas S. Ferguson to the Norman & Sorenson Papers.  His conclusion reads, “I'm afraid that up to this point, I must agree with Dee Green, who has told us that to date there is no Book-of-Mormon geography...". In referring to his own paper, Ferguson wrote a 20 February 1976 letter to Mr & Mrs H.W. Lawrence in which he stated: "...The real implication of the paper is that you can't set the Book-of-Mormon geography down anywhere — because it is fictional and will never meet the requirements of the dirt-archeology. I should say — what is in the ground will never conform to what is in the book."

Michael D. Coe, a prominent Mesoamerican archaeologist and Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Yale University, writes, "As far as I know there is not one professionally trained archaeologist, who is not a Mormon, who sees any scientific justification for believing [the historicity of The Book of Mormon], and I would like to state that there are quite a few Mormon archaeologists who join this group....The bare facts of the matter are that nothing, absolutely nothing, has even shown up in any New World excavation which would suggest to a dispassionate observer that the Book of Mormon, as claimed by Joseph Smith, is a historical document relating to the history of early migrants to our hemisphere." (Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Summer 1973, pp. 41, 42 & 46)

Church academics have suggested that perhaps the populations described in the Book of Mormon are only a small subset of all the people who populated the new world and as such their archeology is lost in the bigger picture.

  1. In 1938 a church study guide for the Book of Mormon stated that "the Book of Mormon deals only with the history and expansion of three small colonies which came to America, and it does not deny or disprove the possibility of other immigrations, which probably would be unknown to its writers."

  2. In 1980 Nibley, referring to archaeological evidence, stated that the assumption of an empty New World represented a "simplistic reading" of the Book of Mormon.  By the middle of the twentieth century, most LDS authors held the belief that the Book of Mormon events took place within a limited region in Mesoamerica and that others were present on the continent at the time of Lehi's arrival.

  3. This geographical and population model was formally published in The Ensign in September 1984 and was followed by a book on the subject by LDS anthropologist John L. Sorenson in 1985.


However, Book of Mormon scholars estimate that the population described in these civilization(s) ranged between 300,000 and 1.5 million people.  The Jaredite civilization was likely much larger since the final war that destroyed the Jaredite civilization killed at least two million men.  The Book of Mormon states that the peoples were literate, had knowledge of Old World languages, and possessed Old World derived writing systems.  these civilizations would be roughly the same size as ancient Egyptian, Roman, Greek and Mayan cultures.  It is hard to imagine that Nephite culture could be ”missed” in this way.


What may be more telling, but certainly not proof in any argument, is what is not found in the archeological record.

There are no Mayan monuments that contain any of the names of individuals, groups, places, or events recorded in the Book of Mormon.  The BOM refers to a system of measurement and coinage in Alma 11 for which there is no correlate in the new world archeology.  The calendar systems used by the Mayan consisted of either a 260 day calendar or a 365 day calendar.  These calendar systems are not referred to in the Book of Mormon although there is a system of reconciling time based on significant events such as the departure of Lehi from Jerusalem, the reign of the judges, and the birth of Christ.  There is no record of these events in mesoamerican cultural tradition.  There are no other books found in the new world engraven on metal plates (although a few very small examples have been found in the old world).  There have been no swords found (there should be hundreds of thousands near one of the two proposed sites for the hill Cummorah.

There are numerous other anachronisms that are discussed elsewhere.



Evidence For The Book Of Mormon

A 2005 monograph by John E Clark in The Journal of Book of Mormon Studies spells out some of the more compelling arguments in support of Book of Mormon archeology.  Readers are referred to the original document (click above).  Dr Clark is a BYU anthropologist and director of the NWAF.  I use his examples as an outline for my own comments.

  1. 1. Metal Records in Stone Boxes.  Clark refers to the fact that stone boxes are known to exist.  He does not state, however, that metal books or plates have ever been found in such boxes.  The three stone boxes referred to were found in Tres Zapotes, Mexico.  Christopher A. Pool comments on these boxes in his book, Olmec Archeology in Early Mesoamerica.  He suggests that these boxes were probably used as sarcophagi as another similar sarcophagus had been found at another site.

  2. 2.Ancient writing.  Dr. Clark refers to numerous systems of writing documented in Mesoamerica.  There is some evidence in linguistic research by Brian Stubbs, a doctoral candidate at the University of Utah, funded by FARMS, that there are similarities between the Hebrew language and the Uto-Aztecan language of Mesoamerica.  These similarities are in the form of similar sounding words with the same meanings.  His findings suggest that Uto-Aztecan may have had Hebrew as one of its ancestor languages.  This may be consistent with the mechanism of language evolution reported in the Book of Mormon (Mormon 9:32-34).

  3. 3.Arts of War.  Clark refers to the fact that warfare was ubiquitous in both the Book of Mormon and Mesoamerica.  The implements of war referred to in the Book of Mormon are a source of some argument among those on either side of the aisle (see BOM Anachronisms).  Clark also refers to the use of “towers” as the final strongholds to which people fled in times of desperation:  (see Alma 50:4; 51:20; Moroni 9:7).  Clark states, “Compare with Fray Diego Durán, The Aztecs: The History of the Indies of New Spain, trans. Doris Heyden and Fernando Horcasitas (New York: Orion Press, 1964), 68: "The Tecpanecs, retreating toward their city, intended to use their temple as a last stronghold, but Tlacaelel [an Aztec leader] reached the temple before them and, taking possession of its entrance, ordered one of his men to set it on fire, having made prisoner all those who were within." Durán, p. 89: "When we reach Totoltzinco the king of Texcoco will set fire to the temple and the battle will come to an end."”  Of note is the observation that the Book of Mormon references describe people fleeing to “towers” and Duran refers to “temples”.  We make the assumption that they are the same thing.  The Book of Mormon and Aztec histories both refer to huge battles with hundreds of thousands of warriors on either side.  Finally, one of the strongest evidences is the description of very specific fortifications built around cities in the Book of Mormon.  Defensive earthworks were discovered in Becan, in the Yucatan Peninsula in 1970 by researchers from Tulane University.  These earthworks represent a type of fortification that have since been found around numerous ancient cities.  The are basically deep (2-3 meters) trenches that were dug around the city with the earth being heaped up to the inside creating an earthen wall 40 feet tall.  It is thought that the inner hill was topped by a pallisade or fence made of sharp timbers.  These fortified cities could only be accessed by one entrance where a causeway crossed the trench and passed through a gap in the adjacent mound.  These fortifications were described by Coe, a non-LDS researcher, in 2002.   "...Bekan in the Chenes region just north of the Peten...was completely surrounded by massive defensive earthworks some time between the second and fourth centuries B.C. These consist of a ditch and inner rampart, with a total height of 38 ft (11.6 m), and would have been formidable...if the rampart had been surmounted by a palisade."   These fortifications are described in striking detail in the BOM in about 70 BC (See Alma 49:18-20, 50:1-4, and Alma 52:3-5).  This type of fortification, it is argued, was not recognized until the late 20th century and would not have been known to BOM authors in the 1820s.  Similar fortifications, however, existing in Ohio, are described in detail in View of the Hebrews by Ethan Smith (1825, pp. 190-198), a book considered to be one of the source works for the Book of Mormon.  In fact, earthwork fortifications have been used throughout history as a means of fortifying cities.  Motes and trenches are well known and described throughout the old and new worlds.  For examples of other ancient earthworks See Silbury Hill, Offa's Dyke, Antonine Wall, and Maiden Castle.

  4. 4.Cities, temples, towers, and palaces.  Clark refers to these items as though they are evidence for the Book of Mormon just because they exist.  The same argument could be used to establish Book of Mormon geography in any part of the old world.  In fairness, there is a striking correlation with Book of Mormon internal geography and Mesoamerican geography.  A 2008 book entitled Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon by Joseph L. Allen, PhD is an exhaustive study of Book of Mormon geography.  Dr. Allen has a PhD in ancient and modern scripture from BYU and has led Book of Mormon tours in mesoamerica for many years.  Dr. Allen’s work is ambitious and very detailed and provides a convincing correlation between mesoamerican topography and Book of Mormon internal geography.  I will admit that Book of Mormon geography is very consistent and can be superimposed on the region with striking precision.  However, geographic correlation seems to be all there is.  There is no convincing evidence on the ground that the Mayan, Olmec, or any other mesoamerican culture had any knowledge of Christ or Middle Eastern languages or traditions.  Dr. Allen does draw some interesting correlations between Book of Mormon cultures and mesoamerican cultures.  These correlations are based mostly date correlations and geographic correlations.  For example, Allen and other LDS scholars believe that the Olmec civilization of the Yucatan peninsula correlates with the Jeredites of the Book of Mormon.  According to the BOM, the Jeredites arrived in the new world about 2500 BC and were completely destroyed by civil war about 590-600 BC.  The Olmecs flourished in the Preclassic period from about 1200 BC to about 400 BC.  The Olmec civilization ended for unknown reasons but their influence is seen in subsequent Mayan culture, according to Coe.  While this correlation is not outside the realm of possibility, there is no evidence on the ground to support this theory.  A similar correleation is drawn between the Mayan and Lamanite cultures.  And while dates loosely correspond in the Olmec-Jeredite comparison, they are more troublesome for the Lamanite cultures.  Conventional archeology places the Mayan culture in the Preclassic (2000 BC to 250 AD) and the Classic period (250 AD to 900 AD) and into the Post classic period until the arrival of the Spanish in the early 1500s. The Mayan culture peaked and then started to decline by about 800 AD.  The cause of this decline is not truly known.  Some scientists have found evidence of a prolonged drought that may have caused this.  The fate of the Lamenites is not entirely known because the Book of Mormon follows the plight of the Nephites and ends with their destruction in about 385 AD.  These histories are not mutually exclusive.  However, evidence to support or refute the claims of the Book of Mormon must be saught elsewhere.

  5. 5.Cement Houses and Cities.  Critics of the Book of Mormon have often cited the claimed use of cement as an anachronism.  It turns out it is not.  Teotihuacan is one of the largest pre-columbian sites in mesoamerica, and is full of ancient cement. 

  6. 6.Kings and Their Monuments.  Clark refers to the fact that kings in the Book of Mormon recorded their histories on stone and carved elaborate thrones (Omni 1:20-21, Ether 10:6).  These are also activities well documented in Mesoamerican cultures.  However, None of the recorded monuments can be convincingly correlated with Book of Mormon events, people, or places.

  7. 7.Metaphors and the Mesoamerican World.  Clark refers to recognizable metaphors in Mesoamerican art.  In particular, a drawing from the Dresden Codex, a rare example of  a pre-Columbian Maya books depicts a human sacrifice “victim with a tree growing from his heart, a literal portrayal of the metaphor preached in Alma, chapter 32.”  Other attempts have been made to draw a correlation with the “tree of life” image which is a ubiquitous finding in pre-Columbian Mayan art.  One such example is the famous “Izapa Stela 5”.  Izapa is an important archeologic site in Chiapas, Mexico near the Guatemalan border.  The site is unique due to the huge number of monumental artifacts in the site.  These include 89 stelae (large stone monuments), 61 altars, 3 thrones, and 68 other miscellaneous monuments.  Izapan art is unique in that it is religious and mythical in nature rather than ruler-oriented as in other mesoamerican sites.  In 1953, M. Wells Jakeman of the BYU Department of Archaeology suggested that a complicated scene carved on one of the larger monuments, Stela 5, was a depiction of Lehi's dream with a central image of the Tree of Life.  This stela contains the image of a tree, surrounded by numerous people, animals and running water.  This interpretation is rejected by non-LDS scholars.  Julia Guernsey Kappelman, author of a definitive work on Izapan culture, finds that Jakeman's research "belies an obvious religious agenda that ignored Izapa Stela 5's heritage.”  Dr. John E. Clark (the same author of the article upon which this discussion is based), an LDS anthropologist at BYU and director of BYU’s New World Archaeological Foundation, published a detailed interpretation in 1999 that rejects Jakeman’s hypothesis as well stating, “The Lehi connection that Jakeman espoused goes nowhere, in my opinion.”  The central image of a tree is thought to represent a mesoamerian “World Tree” or ceiba tree, a mythologial link between the terrestrial world, the underworld and sky.  This image is common in mesoamerican mythology and art.

  8. 8.Timekeeping and prophesying.  Clark also discusses the fact that the Maya were fastidious about keeping track of time.  For them the calendar is divided into 400 year blocks, each called a “baktun”.  Each baktun is divided into 20 year blocks called “katuns”.  These intervals are extremely important.  In the Book of Mormon, Samuel the Lamanite warned that the Nephites would be smitten before 20 years would pass (Helaman 13:9).  Clark goes on to say, “Nephi and Alma uttered the same baktun prophecy, and Moroni recorded its fulfillment. Moroni bids us farewell just after the first katun of this final baktun, or 420 years since the "sign was given of the coming of Christ" (Moroni 10:1).  What are the chances of Joseph Smith guessing correctly the vigesimal system of timekeeping and prophesying among the Maya and their neighbors over 50 years before scholars stumbled onto it?”

  9. 9.Old World Geography. Clark suggests that the correlation between BOM geography and Old World geography are exact including location names that have been discovered since the publication of the Book of Mormon.  S. Kent Brown conducted a series of expeditions in the Arabian peninsula and established the location of a place called “Nahom” (1 Nephi 16:34) where Ishmael was burried.  In 1999 and 2000, three altars were found at the site of an excavation of a temple near Marib in Yemen that bore the tribal name Nihm.  The site has been dated to the fifth or sixth centuries BC by archeologists.  The name is designated in Hebrew by consonants only, ie. NHM.  This leaves some uncertainty as to the exact pronunciation.  This site does correlate exactly to the expected location of Lehi’s travels in the area prior to crossing the Pacific Ocean.  Several monographs (like this one) on this topic can be found in the website for The Maxwell Institute.  This serves as a strong evidence that the tribal (and presumably location) name of Nahom existed in the Old World and in the Book of Mormon, but was not known by any early 19th century authors.

  10. 10.  New World Geography.  Clark refers to the work of John Sorensen on this topic.  His work has been to establish a map of Book of Mormon geography based on the descriptions provided in that book.  This “map” is then compared to real world geography.  The result is a striking correlation between Book of Mormon geography and Mesoamerican geography.  Of note is the fact that this model of Book of Mormon geography excludes the popular understanding that the Nephites and Lamanites occupied all of North an South America.  This model is known as the “limited geography model” of Book of Mormon geography.  It also implies that Book of Mormon populations were not alone in the new world.  Clark states, “We notice that the configuration of lands, seas, mountains, and other natural features in Mesoamerica are a tight fit with the internal requirements of the text. It is important to stress that finding any sector in the Americas that fits Book of Mormon specifications requires dealing with hundreds of mutually dependent variables. So rather than counting a credible geography as one correspondence, it actually counts for several hundred. The probability of guessing reams of details all correctly is zero”.  Clark contends that this is conclusive evidence that Joseph Smith did not write the Book of Mormon.  I agree.  However, that is still not proof that the book is of divine origin.  It only means that Joseph Smith did not write the text.  It is still quite possible that other authors contemporary with him did.  See BOM Authorship.

  11. 11.  Cycles of Civilization in Mesoamerica.  Clark suggests that the correlation between the timing of the rise and fall of the Olmecs and the Jeredites, as well as that of the Maya and the Lamanites serves as a powerful evidence for the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon.  He contends that the understanding of dates at Joseph Smith’s time was incorrect as set forth by Stephens's Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan.  This book was not published until 1841 and was referred to by Joseph Smith in Times and Seasons.  Modern study has refined our view of the timing of these two mesoamerican cultures in better correlation with that set forth by the Book of Mormon.

  12. 12.  Mesoamerican Demographic History.  Clark suggests that there is a striking correlation between ancient demography recorded in the Book of Mormon and that established by archeology.  Demography refers to site sizes, locations, dates, and frequencies.  As an example points to the Jeredites and the Olmecs and suggests that “from about 1500 BC onward their histories are remarkably parallel. The alternations between city building and population declines, described for the Jaredites, correspond quite well with lowland Olmec developments. Olmec cities were abandoned by 400 BC, and the culture disappeared—just as the Book of Mormon describes for the Jaredites (see Ether 13—15)”.  To me it seems like this is roughly the same argument in no. 11 above.


There is one other piece of evidence worth mentioning.  The Mayan had a legend of a “Great White God” named Quetsalquatl.  This legend refers to a white god that visited them and for whose return they waited.  When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the New World, they were welcomed as returning diety.  This legend is discussed in detail elsewhere.




Conclusion:

So far the only compelling arguments for the veracity of the Book of Mormon in New World archeology are based on topographical correlations drawn by superimposing BOM internal geography on Mesoamerican geography.  Oceans, rivers and other bodies of water, mountains, etc do match up in a fairly uncanny way.  Some Book of Mormon cities can also be correlated in this way with ancient Mesoamerican sites as well.  There is, as of yet, however, no evidence in any archeological site that identifies it as a Book of Mormon site.  It is conceivable that a modern author of the Book of Mormon could have gleaned topographical information from maps available in the 1820s.

The other interesting finding is that of fortification of cities in Mesoamerica.  The descriptions of earthwork fortification in the BOM are amazing.   The real world identification of these fortifications in 1970 make it very unlikely that a modern author of the Book of Mormon would have known about these.

These examples, while very interesting, represent circumstantial evidence, which in the scheme of proof is not very powerful. 

If, on the other hand, we are to assume that the Book of Mormon is a fraud, then we would expect to see what we do see....nothing.  We would expect to see that the Book of Mormon does not correlate with Mesoamerican archeology.  Admittedly, archeology is a science of deduction and will tend to give a fairly incomplete picture of a society.  So it may be that we just don’t have the facts we need to draw a conclusion.  I am willing to wait for more data, but for now.  We must assume that the Book of Mormon is fiction.


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