I have a confession. I’m not really interested in Book of Mormon archaeology. For most people, that isn’t a big deal, but when you studied archaeology at a church-owned university, it surprises some. Honestly, I feel like looking for archaeological evidence of the Book of Mormon is like looking for a needle in a field full of haystacks, half of which are inaccessible.
As I mentioned in my previous post, I’ve been listening to several accounts by disaffected members talking to church historians and other authorities. One topic that inevitably pops up is Book of Mormon archaeology. I’ve been a little surprised at how painful it is for me to sit and listen to two people regurgitate archaeology talking points from the CES Letter and FairMormon. I may not care much about Book of Mormon archaeology, but I do care about archaeology.
It’s got me thinking. What would I say? If I could talk to people on both sides of the aisle, what would I want them to understand about archaeology? And as I thought, I came up with some lessons I’ve learned over the years.
Lesson #1 – Quests proving historicity aren’t just a Mormon thing.
Whether it’s Atlantis, El Dorado, or La Ciudad Blanca, the search to discover legendary civilizations inspires our inner Indiana Joneses. And every so often, someone finds what they’re looking for.
In elementary school I read a historical fiction novel from the perspective of a Greek girl named Sophia. At the age of 17, Sophia married 47-year-old Heinrich Schliemann, a wealthy, eccentric businessman obsessed with proving the historicity of Homer’s epics, starting with locating the ancient city of Troy. He found it, to the surprise of many. And… destroyed a good chunk of the city while he was at it.
Alternate lessons: (1) Never underestimate what an eccentric rich guy can accomplish. (2) Making your wife wear ancient jewelry is creepy. (3) Dynamite isn’t a good excavation tool.
Lesson #2 – Scriptures and secular history often don’t correlate easily.
As a teenager I started getting a better grasp on the Old Testament story line (thanks in large part to Cleon Skousen’s riff on the Ussher chronology). Unfortunately, I also had a decent amount of reference materials relating to Egyptian history. Try as I might, I just couldn’t figure out how to reconcile Skousen’s literal reading of the Bible and Pearl of Great Price with the secular information I had available. Eventually I just threw up my hands in frustration. I liked the scriptures, and I liked the history, but I wasn’t going to be able to combine the two.
Alternate lessons: (1) The 4,000-year Old Testament chronology is a fabulous teaching tool for the Old Testament, no matter how unscientific it is. (2) Pretty much everything in the book of Genesis (and then some) is archaeologically unverified. We don’t have much of anything before about 800 BCE. (3) Seminary teachers get a little too excited when teenagers express familiarity with scriptures.
Lesson #3 – LDS professional archaeologists don’t all agree about where the Book of Mormon might’ve taken place, and that doesn’t keep them up at night.
When you study archaeology at BYU, the subject of Book of Mormon archaeology inevitably rears it’s head. In a Mesoamerican class, I was a little taken aback at the professor’s reaction to someone mentioning Izapa’s Stela 5 (what I knew as the “Tree of Life” stela). He laughed out loud and said the only way to take that as a depiction of the Lehi’s Tree of Life vision was to completely ignore the context. Upon further discussion, the professor freely admitted he’d never seen any convincing evidence for the Book of Mormon in the New World, but if he had to give a guess as to where the location might be, he’d say South America. He explained it was from the metallurgy component and a personal conviction that many cultures still lie undiscovered there.
South America? I’d heard about theories in Florida and Mesoamerica, but not that. So I decided to ask some of my other professors where they thought the Book of Mormon might have happened. A couple guys predictably said Mesoamerica, due to the high civilizations and writing systems. Another archaeologist said he was really interested in the Mound Builder cultures over in the Eastern United States. But, most importantly, I learned from those archaeologists and others in the department that it was unwise to base any testimony of the Book of Mormon on archaeological evidence. There’s just isn’t anything really solid out there that any of them felt held up to outside scrutiny.
Alternate lessons: (1) It’s okay to think that a Book of Mormon geography theory (even if touted by professionals in the field) is nuts. (2) Not everyone who believes in the Book of Mormon is ignorant of the lack of archaeological evidence, which means (3) arguing that the lack of archaeological evidence proves the Book of Mormon is a fraud isn’t going to be as convincing as some people think.
Lesson #4 – Kooky theories are prevalent in archaeology, and it takes a LONG time to change the consensus.
Philip Jenkins, a scholar at Baylor, once used the example of the Clovis and pre-Clovis theories to explain how scientific consensus changes. Based on discoveries at Clovis, New Mexico, in the 1930s, archaeologists believed that the first people in the Americas came about 13,000 years ago. Jenkins explained that the Monte Verde archaeological site in Chile (discovered in the 1970s) upended the scientific community with a carbon date of over 14,000 years ago. At first it was considered a fluke, but after continued discoveries confirming pre-Clovis occupation of the New World, most people became converted to the idea that the Clovis theory was defunct. Turning specifically to the Mormon apologetic community defending Book of Mormon historicity, he recommended:
You know the best way to challenge an orthodoxy? Produce one, just one, really convincing and verifiable example that forces mainstream scholars to change their minds, and all else follows from that. If you can’t produce a single exception to challenge the rule, your cause is not worth much. Call it the Monte Verde Principle.
Okay, so here’s my problem with this. When I was at BYU (1998-2002), the Clovis theory was still, by far, mainstream. The early dates at Monte Verde and other pre-Clovis sites had been published and confirmed for DECADES, but they were still considered fringe. It’s only been in the last few years with newer discoveries that the Clovis theory is finally getting shoved off the pedestal. You don’t need just one critical discovery, you need a dozen, and it’ll still take you half a century to maybe change the consensus.
After college I moved to a major metropolitan area in another state, and I volunteered at the local natural history museum to keep me from going insane while looking for employment. The curator of archaeology not only maintained that he’d found plenty of evidence of pre-Clovis occupation, he believed occupation of the Americas went back even further, more like 40,000 years before the present. Not remotely mainstream. (And, funny enough, a couple days ago he was involved with the announcement of 130,000-year-old mastadon bones in California that appeared to be smashed by humans. Talk about a controversial finding.)
While I was volunteering at the museum, the same curator came up to me one time and said, “You’re Mormon, right?” I hesitantly said yes, and then he mentioned a visiting professor coming to talk about the Solutrean Hypothesis – another fringe theory about early pre-Clovis limited migration from Europe to the Eastern United States. He knew Mormons believed in ancient peoples traveling across the ocean to the New World, so he figured I’d be interested. I laughed and explained it was a bit early for our religious beliefs, but I went to the presentation anyway.
The scientific consensus in archaeology is not always as strong as people think it is – most archaeologists carry at least a few private fringe theories around. But, even if a magical discovery were made that obviously supported the Book of Mormon, it’d take decades and many discoveries confirming those findings before ever becoming mainstream.
A big frustration I have with defenders AND opponents of Book of Mormon archaeology is that they fail to accept when the other side has good arguments (or seem unwilling to understand those arguments in the first place).
Let’s go back to Philip Jenkins. For the most part, I enjoyed what he had to say in his post series about problems with Mormon apologetics, but one part struck me as off. In “Mormons and New World History,” Jenkins wrote:
Or, to reframe the question. Does the Book of Mormon contain a statement or idea about the New World that Joseph Smith could not have known at the time, but which has subsequently been validated by archaeological or historical research?
It’s a really good question, and he wasn’t the first to come up with it. Several Mormon archaeologists created an entire presentation answering just that question in 2005, ten years before Jenkins wrote this post.
One convenient defense of at least some apologists is that the doings in the Book of Mormon need only have taken place in a small area, some odd corner of Central America (say), rather than being spread over the continent. That contradicts the claims of other defenders of the Book, who see Middle Eastern influences all over the place, including for instance among the Olmecs. It also demands some explanation as to how those “localized” immigrant tribes found their way to upstate New York to fight in the Battle of Cumorah. Upper New York state is a very well investigated region that assuredly has not produced any evidence of ancient civilizations of the kind Smith imagined.
If he’d really investigated the Mesoamerican geography theory put forth by Mormon apologists, Jenkins wouldn’t have made the subsequent flippant statements. For example, the fact that people look for Middle Eastern influences in the Olmec civilization doesn’t contradict the Mesoamerican theory – it’s a vital part of it. The idea is that the Olmecs were the Jaredites, and the Nephites and Lamanites were part of the subsequent Maya civilization. And, people who subscribe to the Mesoamerican hypothesis usually support the Two-Cumorah theory, where the final destruction of the Nephites occured in Mesoamerica, NOT New York. Jenkins’ statements indicate he didn’t understand the arguments he was attacking.
Now, turning to the Mormon apologetic community. If I could make a request: PLEASE STOP OVERSELLING EVIDENCE FOR THE BOOK OF MORMON. In a 1969 Dialogue article, Dee F. Green spoke of the pseudo-science (“half-truths and falsehoods”) too often appearing in this field. “The ink we have spilled on Book of Mormon archaeology,” he said, “has probably done more harm than good.”
I’m not saying looking for Book of Mormon evidence is inherently wrong (and that’s not what Green was saying, either), but too often in our zeal to defend the faith members get the wrong impression. With all the publications, seminars, and tours over the years touting this or that Book of Mormon theory as veritable certainties, it’s easy for members to believe that we have more than we do. Here’s what a disaffected member said recently:
My entire life I assumed, I assumed that we had enough archaeological evidence on our side and logic. I had seen these giant books, you know, like John Sorenson’s that’s like, you know, Book of Mormon Archaeology Explained! or something… You just assumed we had enough on our side. It actually blew my mind when at 35 years old,… and I know I’m not the only one, I mean, there’s people older than me that are just coming to this realization. Like, “Wait a minute. There is zero archaeological evidence to support the Book of Mormon?” Like, “What?!”… This was the domino that just kinda started everything for me… 
As a final thought, I’m inclined to agree with Dee F. Green:
We are not about to uncover the a sign tomorrow or the next day or a year or ten years from now pointing the way to Zarahemla…
I strongly suspect that the Lord, at least for some time to come, will still require faith, not “proof,” – and Moroni 10:4 (“he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost”), not archaeology, will continue to be the key for those who really care to understand the contents of the Book of Mormon and desire to know of its truth.
 Technically the degree was “Anthropology with Archaeology Emphasis,” but that’s a bit of a mouthful.
 Obviously I’d missed the 1999 article by John Clark carefully debunking Jakeman’s interpretation of Stela 5, though I hadn’t realized the interpretation had been disputed by other Mormon archaeologists from the beginning.
 Mormon Stories Podcast Episode 713: Trevor Haugen meets with Elder Don R. Clarke and LDS church historian Matthew J. Grow [26:47]
 Green’s quote begins on page 79 of the Dialogue article (at the end of this PDF) and continues on page 80 (at the beginning of this PDF).
There is always a part of me, probably the historian, reader, adult convert part, who thinks, “Seriously? you left the Church because you can’t find archaeological evidence of the Book of Mormon?” But we all have our own last straw, I suppose.
Sister Iconoclast has a nice wooden plaque of the Izapa Stela that I think she got on her mission in Bolivia (I forget the exact story) along with a couple of other repro Mesoamerican carvings. She seems to recall that President Kimball asserted at some point that this was a representation of Lehi’s Tree of Life. Without having read Jakeman, I don’t know if he touches on that or not, but it seems plausible, and about as historically accurate as Joseph’s interpretation of the BoA Facsimiles. I read Sorenson’s book when it first came out, about the time I was baptized, but it’s probable that archaeological knowledge has made it irrelevant. Any “small area” hypothesis is, I think, more consistent not only with history and archaeology, but with the internal evidence of the BoM itself unless those guys could walk really fast. I personally have no problem with, or preference for, either a two-Cumorah or a Moroni-wanderjahr hypothesis. The idea that the big battle took place in upstate NY is, however,
ludicrouscompletely unsupportable by any currently available evidence.
I honestly don’t know how to deal with people who accept counterfactual beliefs like young-Earth, literal seven-day Creationism. It’s like trying to reason with Kennedy assassination conspiracy theorists. I guess as long as they don’t try to make governmental or Church policy based on such nonsense, they’re welcome to believe what they wish, but they can’t expect to teach that sort of thing in a Sunday School class without being challenged by people who actually know how to read.
These are all good lessons, Mary Ann, and a healthy dose of tentativeness – “this is what we think now until the evidence changes” – is a good asset to hang on to in so very many walks of life!
Bible and Book of Mormon archaeology are 2 of my favorite topics, and now I have a series of questions for you! I thought I knew most of the Book of Mormon geography theories, but I have not heard of the Florida one before. I’d like to read it. Do you know of any references?
George Potter and the Ashtons seem to follow a Frankincense trail and think they’ve found Nephi’s Harbor in Yemen. What do you think of that evidence? Also curious what you think of Nahom? (Link here)
Did you see my post where an atheists thinks he knows where the Garden of Eden is? (link here) Thoughts?
Exodus theories are another favorite of mine. What do you think of the lack of evidence for the Exodus? (my link here)
New Iconoclast, I agree we have our own last straw. I guess I get frustrated because I completely understand *why* someone would grow up with the misconception that we have a pile of evidence on our side. That misconception is built out of decades of apologetics. Yet that misconception of a mountain of evidence is what trips a lot of people up down the road when they learn it’s a house of cards.
Jakeman was the original archaeologist who suggested the Tree of Life interpretation in the 1950s, and it became incredibly popular for decades (and probably still is in most places, I think). There are many scholars who’ve just taken that interpretation as a given. Here’s a 1985 Ensign article about it:
But the archaeological context really doesn’t support the Tree of Life vision interpretation. Dee F. Green goes into it in his 1969 Dialogue article. My professor (who helped originally excavate Izapa) tried to help us understand that. And that 1999 John Clark article in Footnote 2 goes into explicit detail as to what the current archaeological understanding of Stela 5 is.
I’ve never thought of it in terms of a comparison to the Book of Abraham papyri, but I guess that could work for some people. Not as much for me. It’s easier for me to believe that Jakeman saw what he wanted on that stela, and everyone was so hungry for tangible evidence that it just snowballed from there.
MH, Florida was one I occasionally heard from people growing up – probably just because of the narrow neck of land aspect. In quick research, most big theories that incorporate Florida are all variations on the Heartland theory. In the last decade Steven Danderson has done speculation on Book of Mormon geography in Florida, but it’s not well developed.
Nahom is a big Book of Mormon evidence that I respect – location is right and the archaeological evidence is sound. As far as the location of Old World Bountiful, it’s up in the air. The current suggestions are all logically placed along the Dhofar coast in Oman based on geography, but they don’t have hard archaeological evidence (like we have in Nahom). So it’s hard for me to get excited about them.
I’ll look more into the Garden of Eden and Exodus stuff.
What a great post! But it occurs to me that some of the disaffection is really self-inflicted due to the intense discussion of when, where, how and other assorted answers about BOM archaeology that Church members have been subjected to by General Authorities, BYU professors and other “experts” in the field over the years. None of which has panned out to be true.
I was recently watching a PBS documentary entitled “The West,” where they discussed native American tribes that just disappeared and not having any evidence of what happened to them.My thoughts immediately turned to this very subject.
I’ve always thought that if we had to solely rely on physical evidence to prop up our faith, we’d be in big trouble in many areas of the Bible alone. While many places described in the Bible have been shown to exist, many events written about have not. So, we are left with our faith alone.
I’ve told my family multiple times that the message of the scriptures is much more important than proving that everything in them actually happened or that people actually lived. In most cases, we have no way of proving it, either way, so accepting by faith is the only recourse. So, in my mind, the lessons contained in them rise above the reality.
I know some are not that comfortable with that notion, but only because we are told time and again, “the scriptures are true.”
To which I respond, True, what?
Jeff Spector, I agree that disaffection from this subject is heavily self-inflicted. The high expectations for evidence don’t develop as much from church leaders, more all the apologists and lay members who just really, really love talking about this stuff.
As far as American Indian cultures disappearing, I don’t think people realize how much we *don’t* know, even with all that we’ve uncovered so far. There have been some exciting findings about DNA research on the peopling of the Americas, but scientists recognize some severe limits. “Other researchers say that there is a major problem with relying on population genetics to answer questions about the peopling of the Americas. At least 80% of the New World’s population was wiped out by disease, conflict or starvation after Europeans first arrived some five centuries ago.” http://www.nature.com/news/ancient-migration-coming-to-america-1.10562
April 28, 2017 at 11:44 am
Jeff Spector, I agree that disaffection from this subject is heavily self-inflicted. The high expectations for evidence don’t develop as much from church leaders, more all the apologists and lay members who just really, really love talking about this stuff.”
I agree but it trouble’s me that the answer seems to be not to think about it.
Btw, Utah is home to one of those cultures that just disappeared without a trace. Fremont culture farming communities can be found throughout the state, but the Fremont culture (and evidence of farming) disappear from the archaeological record around 1300 AD. We dug up their pithouses and artifacts at field school and I studied their rock art. But they are definitely still a mystery.
But, of course, we can still find evidence of them in the archaeological record even if we don’t know what happened to them – we can’t say the same for Book of Mormon peoples right now.
MaryAnn, an excellent post. I have passed this on to a number of friends with the suggestion that they print it out and take it to church and pass it around. I wish this could be a required lesson in every Gospel Doctrine class in the church, so long as the ensuing discussion is guided by you or someone like you. I see this as a great example of how seemingly off handed or innocuous statements by Church authorities , that are false, cause such damage even years after the fact. Maybe we need to come up with a variation of the statement from Thumper’s mother in the movie Bambie. “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say any thing at all.” the new one should be “If you can’t say something that is true, don’t say anything at all.” I don’t believe that Church leaders statements were deliberately false or were made with bad intent, they just didn’t know what they were talking about. However the damage is done. I work with disaffected members and it is tough to get over the “I’ve been lied to”.thing. Some inoculation like this post can go a long way if it is done early enough.
GBSmith, I don’t think the answer is to not think about it. I think the answer is to be more realistic about it. One lament I heard from a couple disaffected people is that the essays and apologetics are only *theories.* and they are 100% correct. They won’t convince anyone who doesn’t already have faith. It’s the expectation that those apologetic theories were derived from substantive, convincing scientific evidence that causes problems. *That’s* the expectation that is hurting people. Apologetic theories are created with an assumption that the Book of Mormon is true, so they often are pointing out ways in which the scientific consensus *might* be wrong to allow for a plausibility that the Book of Mormon could be a record of ancient people. But that still requires people to believe the Book of Mormon is true in *spite* of the current scientific consensus. That’s hard for people who thought they had science on their side.
We (humans, not just Mormon humans) have a tendency to run with the ball until tackled. It’s the penalty yardage that we hate, when people take themselves out of the game, etc..
(I hate sports analogies. Don’t know why I used one.)
Anyway, we assume that the Jaredites and Lehi’s party showed up in the Western Hemisphere, and it was a short jump from there to “All these indigenous peoples must be their descendants!!” There’s no real internal evidence in the BoM, nor a lot of external historical evidence, to support that; it was a(n understandable) conclusion to which early Saints jumped in their enthusiasm, led by an enthusiastic prophet.
In the same way, many people today believe that the Bible is literal, complete, sufficient, etc. despite the lack of any internal or historical evidence to support that view. Still running, not yet tackled.
And, Mary Ann, by the comparison to the BoA papyri, I meant specifically the Facsimiles, which (I think) probably don’t show what Joseph said they show. OTOH, what you seem to be angling at (please clarify; I’d like your thoughts) is the validity of an alternate spiritual interpretation. I do love the BoA, even if I’m not entirely convinced of the strict translation of the papyri.
1. Somebody is buying books by Graham Hancock.
2,3, 4 and on
It’s not so much as not finding Zarahemla, it’s not finding anything, anywhere in the America’s. If the Book of Mormon is a record of a major civilization, there should be some material remains. It’s like having a Roman empire with no evidence of it anywhere. Or the Han dynasty and nada.
So, it seems to me, while some misrepresent archaeological remains, others contort the Book of Mormon. It’s like a Billy Joel lyric- “You gotta make it fit
So they cut it down to 3:05” I suspect if the Book of Mormon recorded Nephi flying around in a Dirigible, there would be people explaining what that really meant and finding “proof”(and nobody thinks the steampunk movement is history. Not easily correlated)
The map just keeps getting smaller and smaller and Lehi becomes an insignificant nobody living among strangers in a small city. It not finding a needle in a haystack, it’s not finding any hay.
And if the hay started to be found, I’d suddenly be interested.
One of my favorite posts this year! Thank you! Bad book of Mormon theories for me suffer from the same problem as the alleged “white washing before our eyes” post by Happy Hubby. Namely, I think both are inevitable in human behavior. For example, when I’ve read Brant Gardner or John Sorensen they both seem to be trying to tease out what the history and geography and location of the book of Mormon could look like. I actually think that reading Gardner’s Second Witness was very helpful for me because there is no way I could walk away from those books thinking, “well there it is! The evidence for the Book of Mormon is obvious and mountainous” rather Gardner and Sorensen sketched out what the Book of Mormon might have looked like if it did happen. Both also sketched places of conflict between the text of the Book of Mormon and what the general consensus among experts. They then proceed to propose solutions to those conflicts. Of course some the proposed solutions will later be proven wrong.
I have started reading “Science the Key to Theology” by Steven Peck and it is speaking to my soul! Especially were Peck points out that theology can’t just keep ignoring advances in science and the implications those advances have for theology. I think it is the same with Book of Mormon geography. Bad evidence flourishes in a vacuum. But we create that vacuum because we don’t like the creative destructive nature of rigorous intellectual work. Jakeman’s hypothesis gets shot down and we react like the problem was Jakeman trying to use the best scholarship he had available to make sense of the Book of Mormon. To me the problem is that we as a community don’t know how to think critically and intellectually. In that framework I think we would recognize that Jakeman, Sorensen and Garder are gifts to our community even and especially when they are wrong, because you are never going to find out what is right without being wrong lots of times.
Hi Mary Ann,
I appreciate much of what you have said here. I especially liked this point: “The scientific consensus in archaeology is not always as strong as people think it is – most archaeologists carry at least a few private fringe theories around.” In my own personal conversations with a couple of trained Mesoamericanists who work at BYU (who I’ll leave unnamed, since I didn’t get permission to share), I’ve learned much the same thing. They have told me dozens of stories about various, well respected archaeologists who have all kinds of quirky views–some of which strike me as much crazier than believing in the Book of Mormon.
Unlike you, I have not had university classes on archaeology, but I am a history major who mainly takes interest in ancient history. So I’ve done a fair bit of reading. I’ve read both LDS and non-LDS works on Mesoamerica and the ancient Near East. I’ve yet to find a single scholar in either biblical or Mesoamerican studies whose *published* views did not diverge to some extent (sometimes significantly) from the “consensus.” So I really think the point you make here is important.
Also unlike you, I do take interest in archaeology on the Book of Mormon. But I largely agree with what you have said here. I would just clarify that in my opinion, it is not the John Sorenson’s and John Clark’s (not to mention newer guys like Brant Gardner, Mark Wright, and Kerry Hull) who are to blame for the problems and overstatements you talk about (well, maybe Sorenson a little bit). I think on the whole they have done a more responsible job in discussing the issue , and noting the limitations of archaeology. I thought the comment you quoted from a disaffected member was quite revealing, but not for the same reasons you did. I notice that he just “assumed” and had “seen” books, but says nothing about having actually read them. It seems to me he did not actually *read* any of these books. Perhaps had he read something from Sorenson or Clark, etc., it might have made a difference.
(To be fair, though, I do get your point. A lot of people *assume* there is a bunch of evidence and we have a culture that reinforces that assumption. And there *are* books on the shelves of LDS bookstores that do more harm than good. I agree we need to do better at helping people better understand what we do and don’t–and what we can and can’t–know from archaeology.)
Gospel hobbies are fine if we recognize them as such. I also find putting the stories from the Book of Mormon into some type of physical space helps me remember the story so I can understand why some might get carried away with what ever theory that works for them.
A friend of mine has a theory that I particularly like. Here is a link to his web site. http://www.achoiceland.com/home
I would be interested in your comments on what he has to say.
All the best,
New Iconoclast, I guess my mind was jumping towards the reinterpretations you commonly find in scripture. Like New Testament prophets quoting Old Testament statements and suggesting they were about Jesus Christ, when the original context would suggest otherwise (like the Hosea quote about coming out of Egypt). Or Nephi reinterpreting Isaiah as referencing Book of Mormon peoples, when the original passage can be explained by a Near East context. I was reading somewhere an apologetic argument for the Book of Abraham where Jews in Egypt would sometimes apply Jewish stories to Egyptian iconography. I think their point was that the original facsimiles could’ve really been about Abraham, just using traditional Egyptian iconography. But it reminded me of that biblical tradition where it was perfectly valid to take something out of context and apply it to the current situation. I guess your statement of President Kimball accepting the stela as a Tree of Life representation brought that to mind. It’d be a hard sell today (because we care so much about historical context), but we actually have a lot of scriptural precedent for it. What would that be – part of a catalyst theory, maybe?
Thanks so much for this great post, Mary Ann. My biggest concern with this focus on archaeology has always been that it’s OK as a hobby, but very little with archaeology is proven.
When we were in Belize a few years ago, the Lamoni site had a “Mormon version” of the site that they told LDS visitors. I would call it a “wishful thinking” tour because they make claims about this being a Lamanite site. Yet given how little is known about the people who lived there (no written records whatsoever, and very limited digging – maybe 1% of the total site is even uncovered), it’s pretty weak sauce. And yet Mormon visitors go there and eat this up with a spoon. Our guide wasn’t Mormon, but when I asked about Mormons having toured there (several FB friends were familiar with the site), he switched into the Mormon spiel. It was basically a regurgitation of Nephi 1’s migration story. I was rolling my eyes hard.
And yet, as with black swan theory, absence of evidence doesn’t mean there’s no evidence out there or that it didn’t happen. We simply don’t know, but it’s unproven just like most of the Bible. The lack of evidence for Exodus is a great counter-point to those who expect to find BOM evidence hiding in plain sight.
Besides which, let’s say it was proven that the BOM is historical. That doesn’t mean everything the church ever does is correct and I can suspend my thinking henceforth and forever. I’m still obligated to make my own moral decisions.
Excellent article. A couple things that came to mind as I read. Likely these will be a bit distorted.
I received one of my undergrad degrees in Anthropology (archaeology\latin America) emphasis from NKU. I did some of my grad work at BYU. I have a little experience with some of what has been discussed and have spent some time in the Peten working and playing. I currently work in the IT industry and have not kept up with current finds as much as I would have liked.
One of the BoM myths that I always found interesting is that so many people think that when the Nephites arrived in the new world that there was no one else here. I am not talking about the Jaredites. My experience seems to indicate that there were groups of people here and some of those groups could have been large. Take this for what it is worth.
I had a professor at BYU that said about archaeological theories, “pay your quarter and state your case”. He said this all the time. There is so much that we just don’t understand and can’t interpret from the archaeological record. I seem to recall a story of the original attempts to recreate folsom points that everyone was failing at. The problem was that all the samples that people had were used points that had been thrown away. They were significantly smaller then when they had been created because of sharpening and reuse. I guess my point is that it is difficult to posit an opinion on someone’s trash while keeping personal bias out of it.
FARM rarely gives money to LDS archaeologists because, if they did find solid evidence for the historicity of BoM it would be difficult at best to convince anyone that they weren’t influenced by their faith bias. The amount of questions it would raise would out weigh the proof. (I won’t mention names but, this information came straight from the guy that was handing out research grants)
I remember several discussions on whether you could find some type of evidence to support a government that was run by judges. We never really could think of a way to find any physical proof unless it was a written record.
I always thought that it would be cool to discover the original temple that Nephi built upon arriving in the new world. We have the plans for it because it was built after the manner of the temple of Solomon. However, the biggest problem is that Mesoamericans had a really bad habit of building their temples over the top of their predecessors temple. And trench excavation is now frowned upon.
Sorry this is long. I could go on and on, I love this topic. However, I support what Mary Ann said, we were sent here to try our faith. I think that God is allowing that faith to be tried in this case.
Hi Mary Ann,
This is another great post. Thanks as always for being both fair and thought-provoking. Since I believe the Book of Mormon to be inspired fiction, the archeological issue for me is entirely moot. I would echo your call, though for each side to listen to the other. I think part of this whole issue stems from the fact that for many folks on both sides of the debate, there’s a lot at stake and I think that’s where we see the almost unreasoning zeal pop up even when so-called “evidence” really isn’t convincing. As I tell my students, don’t worry about disproving someone else’s point of view, worry about proving your own; sift through the evidence, come to a conclusion and defend it with reason and logic, not emotion. I agree with the Green quote about doing more harm than good, in part because of what you note about people becoming disaffected with the church: It’s not the archaeological issue per se that drives people away, it’s the feeling that they’ve been lied to.
A further note on the claims of both sides: In the case of inherent and obvious bias, as with both apologists and with strong anti folks, they’re doing themselves absolutely no good. If anyone in the anti camp says, “I want to stick it to the Man, and here’s my evidence that the B of M is a fraud” or if someone in the apologist camp says, “I’m an apologist, here’s some pro-B of M archeological evidence,” they’ve both already tainted their arguments by admitting their bias. This is not the way to proceed. I’ve never understood why any credible Mormon scholar would call her/himself a Mormon apologist since that’s basically admitting your bias up front and therefore de-valuing any argument you might make. And the same goes for folks who seek to “take down” the church. I do think, though, that we need to be willing to embrace any kind of truth that is discovered either pro or con, about the Book of Mormon. If we’re too afraid of the truth (no matter what it might indicate), then we’re too far gone down the path of faith. It’s okay for our faith to change/grow/alter when we encounter new information. I don’t know why our leaders encourage such black and white thinking about things (“either it’s all true or none of it is” kind of thing) because it’s precisely that kind of thinking that makes having reasoned conversations impossible.
I just wanted to comment on one thing you mentioned. You said, “I remember several discussions on whether you could find some type of evidence to support a government that was run by judges. We never really could think of a way to find any physical proof unless it was a written record.”
You might be interested in the article, “It Wasn’t Just Greece: Archaeologists find early democratic societies in the Americas,” by Lizzie Wade, published online in Science Mag: http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/03/it-wasnt-just-greece-archaeologists-find-early-democratic-societies-americas?utm_source=sciencemagazine&utm_medium=facebook-text&utm_campaign=mesodemocracy-11762
It is more of a rule-by-council sort of thing, and its true the basis for our understanding of it comes from early Spanish accounts from colonial times, but some archaeologists think they found evidence for it going back to Book of Mormon times. Should that be touted as proof or evidence for the Book of Mormon? Maybe not. But it at least provides some push back against those who might suggest that the semi-democratic reign of the judges was anachronistic. And if you think Mesoamerica is the right setting, it may be relevant to understanding what the “reign of judges” actually was.
Anyway, just thought I would share that.
I am afraid I must disagree with your comment about admitting bias de-valuing an opinion up-front. In my classes in history at a secular university, from non-LDS professors, I was repeatedly told to be weary of those who claimed to be objective or tried to obfuscate their biases. You don’t need to go down the post-modern rabbit hole to nonetheless realize that bias is an inherent part of any and historical work, and it is better to aware of important biases shaping someone’s work than to be unaware. It is also better to be aware of your own biases shaping your work, and how you react to the work of others. So when you, or others, own up to and admit to important biases, that is a good thing, not a bad thing.
At least, that is what I think–but it is a bias of my own, ultimately, shaped by the biases of my professors and other literature I’ve read, which I have come to agree with and embrace. You may not prefer to know the biases of those who comment on something, but that would of course be your bias, no? 😉
Great Post Mary Ann.
For me the proof or non-proof of the Book of Mormon has never been much weight on my shelf. The topic for some reason really doesn’t excite me. It does “feel” to me that I would have expected a bit more evidence to show up, but it just isn’t a big issue to me.
There were 2 things that I really liked though.
I really liked your next to last statement about, “Stop over-promoting thinly supported theories as when they crumble years later it hurts more than it helps.” As Jason pointed out , to me those do feel like the whitewashing I mentioned in my post – even if they are done with the best of intentions. AMEN.
And the other point is related. I think that most members that are not scholarly (vast majority of members) think that there is overwhelming evidence and feel very attacked when others claim they don’t see much evidence.
But like any good article – this made me think! (and on a FRIDAY AFTERNOON).
At issue is what actually counts as “evidence” for the Book of Mormon, and whether or not it’s an all-or-nothing situation. The point of the 2005 presentation you mentioned given by John Clark et al. is that in Joseph Smith’s day there was no known evidence for most of the elements of material culture described in the Book of Mormon, but that such evidence has since come forth for a majority of those elements. The authors discuss things like palaces and thrones and highways and military gear (to name but a few), all of which has been discovered and identified as such by mainstream archaeologists, and all date to the “right” time period. Unlike Jakeman’s fanciful (and ultimately harmful) reading of Stela 5, Clark et al. don’t have to re-interpret these objects as something they are not to try to make them fit. To the contrary, they not only agree with, but rely on the archaeologists’ interpretations of the data to make their case.
So the question is, why are such artifacts not considered “evidence” for the Book of Mormon? The reasoning I typically encounter is circular: “________ is not evidence for the Book of Mormon because the Book of Mormon isn’t true, and we know it isn’t true because there is no evidence for it.” (as an ancient scripture professor at BYU with a PhD in Mesoamerican archaeology, I can assure you I encounter this often).
Frustratingly, the evidence we *do* have is usually deemed inadmissible by the critics simply because there are other elements for which we still lack what they consider to be satisfactory evidence. What proponents of Book of Mormon historicity recognize as a thousand-piece puzzle slowly coming together is dismissed by critics as nothing but a Kanizsa triangle or a Rorschach test.
Few ancient American cultures would clear the evidentiary bar that critics demand from the peoples and cultures of the Book of Mormon. In the Classic period Maya texts, for example, there are scores of battles recorded for which there is no physical evidence whatsoever. We can tell you the date a battle took place, which city was victorious, and often even the names of the kings and chief war captains who lost the conflict and were taken as captives, yet no physical evidence exists for the vast majority of them, except in rare cases when a city itself was destroyed by fire (which, as it happens, is a method of war described in the Book of Mormon as well, but of course that doesn’t count as evidence for the Book of Mormon because everyone knows there is no evidence for the Book of Mormon).
Or take Teotihuacan. It is a *massive* site that was flourishing at the time of the Book of Mormon; by some estimates there were some 200,000 inhabitants at its peak. But we can’t tell you any of their names, or even what they called their city. We don’t know the name of a single ruler that reigned at any point during its 600 year history. We don’t know the names of any of their gods. Or why their city was abandoned. Same thing for all of the Olmec sites. As for the Maya, who left a wealth of texts, we can approximate the phonetic readings of several dozen names of elite individuals, which may sound like a lot, until you consider the tens of thousands of elites who *aren’t* named that would have populated the royal courts of the 6,000 or so Maya cities that waxed and waned across the landscape for over a thousand years, all of whom are lost to history. And of those 6,000 sites, we don’t have a clue know how to pronounce the names of roughly 5,980 of them. Later Mayan texts, like the Popol Vuh or the Books of Chilam Balam, have all kinds of unverifiable claims in them, but that doesn’t mean we should dismiss everything else that is in those texts.
Whether we are trying to reconstruct the history of Mesoamerica or of the Book of Mormon, evidence is something that needs to be carefully gathered and evaluated, piece by piece, and there will always be more of it that is missing than that which has been found. Careful scholarship demands that we don’t ignore the evidence that we do have simply because of that which we don’t.
Nquinten5, I also believe we’re getting better with people like John Clark, but there are a host of people involved in apologetics right now that aren’t even close to scientific in their methods. (That partly has to do with the volunteer nature of it, I think. For every solid one who is meticulous about valid sources, you have several others who just aren’t as careful.) FairMormon is probably the chief apologetic repository right now, and I’ve definitely found *some* of their arguments misleading.
Brother Sky, I think I’d agree with Nquinten5 that it’s okay to state biases upfront, it feels more honest to me (like listing potential conflicts of interest in peer-reviewed journal articles). But I think that is where it becomes important to get across that you (really do) understand the merits of the opposing argument, even as you put forward your own evidence that you feel supports your position. I think accurately presenting the limits of your evidence also helps build your credibility as well. I tend to think of apologists in a wider sense as anyone who attempts to use logic and reason to defend a particular position of the church. As long as the logic and reason are sound, I don’t think outing yourself as having a bias should immediately disqualify your argument. But, I’ve definitely gotten the impression on the bloggernacle that many people believe “apologist” is a bad word. Kevin Barney wrote a piece on this years ago at BCC: https://bycommonconsent.com/2012/10/17/notes-on-apologetics/
‘Course, there was that time they dug up an altar that said “Nahom” (more or less) at the right place and time in history. So never say never.
I think it was in the debate between BH Roberts and Joseph Fielding Smith that JFS said “I look to the skies for truth not in the ground”. This is the problem that members face. How can I accept that people first came to this continent 14,000 years ago from Asia? There was no death before 6,000 years ago (the whole purpose of the debate between BH and JFS), and the principal ancestors of the American Indians came to America 2,600 years ago. I can completely understand why people throw there hands in the air and don’t want to sing with this choir anymore. I am in the middle of trying to stay in, not tick off everyone around me at church every week, and figure out exactly what is truth and what isn’t. It sucks to lose faith in leaders you once trusted. Now trying to figure out what should be taken literally and what to dismiss as opinion is an impossible task.
Sorry Brother Sky, the inspired fiction is too much for me. I am happy that it works for you, but I don’t want to worship a God that sends down a fake messenger posing as an ancient prophet to a young boy to deliver golden plates he personally chisled in. Why? Either the resurrected Christ appeared in the Americas, or he did not. Things as they have been, things as they are, and things as they will be. If he did not, the books purpose as a second witness is useless to me.
Sorry to rant, I am new to this and I sense a lot of you you have been at this grind for two and three decades. I am still trying to figure out what in the hell I believe.
Zach, no worries. It sucks. Rant away. 🙂
Hi Mary Ann,
Thanks for your well thought out post. A couple of thoughts I have on this is to question the methodology of people searching for Book of Mormon lands.
I have been searching for this very thing because of some movie projects I’ve been working on. That perspective requires looking for the culture and man made attributes as the Book of Mormon describes. Geography although it figures in broad terms is of little importance. A narrow neck for example can easily be portrayed in Cinema, but cultural and man made things really need to be exacting, if you want authenticity which I must have.
There are definitive things the Book of Mormon peoples built, it’s my belief we are better off looking for those things first, they cannot move, they will be where they are. Looking for matching geographical features may seem an easy thing, but even when a narrow neck is found, what things identify it from other narrow necks that occur ? Although the narrow neck is described in the Book of Mormon identifying it becomes much more speculative than simply finding man made structures. Cast up, elevated highway networks by comparison do not require any speculation, they are impossible to move, hid or destroy, reasonably they must still exist, and so can be located. There is a level of population Mormon describes, it’s the same with buildings and cities and unique dry moat fortifications. Again where they are requires no speculation, they are simply where they are.
I believe the less speculation involved in this search the more accurate the results become.
Next thing to determine is the date these things were constructed, do they fit the Book of Mormon era?
If so, and the science of the dating process seems accurate, are not things becoming clearer, without the need for a theory or for speculation of any kind.
Then we could look for a writing system, is there evidence of it? Again no speculation required.
I can tell you with doing just that, one area and one area only is identified. The basic directions of the Book of Mormon are then in play, with cultures matching Jaradites, Nephites and Lamanites well defined. From these basic points it’s not difficult to predict a specific location, at least a very limited area for an important hill.
Zarahemla is not really the archaeological prize, the real prize is Cumorah, it’s identifiable because it’s a battle field, and artifacts identifying that will remain. It’s also the repository of the great Nephite library. People may think that God may want to keep that location hidden so people accept or reject the Book of Mormon on faith. But because he’s done that up to now doesn’t mean he doesn’t intend to reveal it in the future.
As the world nears the time of judgement, and Christ’s return, God may give a clear sign as he did with the signs preceding his judgement on the Nephites, at that time it was the day and night and day where there was no darkness. This was so his judgement could be just, no one could say they didn’t see or understand the sign. Revealing Cumorah with it’s records would not convert the world, but it would leave those who search for God’s truth in no confusion on where it can be found, and those that reject God would have a just judgement that they could not dispute.
Mark Wright, thanks for lending your expertise to the discussion (and apologies for the delay – your comment got stuck in the spam filter). I think you make an important point, “Frustratingly, the evidence we *do* have is usually deemed inadmissible by the critics simply because there are other elements for which we still lack what they consider to be satisfactory evidence.” Do you think there will *ever* be enough evidence for the critics, though? So with the Clovis/pre-Clovis example I used, there had to be a dozen sites found with very strong evidence before the consensus could be changed. One point that Clark made in the presentation right off was that none of what they’d accumulated would be convincing to people outside the faith. I feel like even if we had a dozen sites in the New World with the convincing artifacts equivalent to Nahom, we’d *still* have people pointing to the gaps and saying it was impossible.
On the *other* side, I was listening to a guy make this exact same complaint about apologists. No matter how many points on the list you could argue were deficient, people would then just move on to the next piece and (frustratingly to him) still believe. This seems to be more a conflict of worldviews than the actual pieces of evidence themselves.
Which leads to your other good point, “Careful scholarship demands that we don’t ignore the evidence that we do have simply because of that which we don’t.” Ultimately it will always be a judgment call for the individual as to how much of a leap of faith they are willing to take to make up for the evidence we don’t have. For someone who has already incorporated into their worldview that we don’t have a lot right now, then they can more easily be inspired by the stuff we do have. For those who’ve gotten the mistaken impression that we have *tons* of evidence, it’s incredibly difficult to overlook the deficit that’s now staring them in the face once someone points out what is missing. My request in the original post is to not *over*sell what we have. Being more realistic (in most cases) will require people to tone down expectations (*especially* given the limits you pointed out for Mesoamerican civilizations).
Mark Parker, “the real prize is Cumorah, it’s identifiable because it’s a battle field, and artifacts identifying that will remain.” You might want to take a closer look at Mark Wright’s comment where he talked about the difficulties in finding physical evidence of warfare (at least in Mesoamerica).
When I first started reading in Biblical archeology I ran across conclusive statements such as “Jericho never existed” and similar things. Think of how long it was before any evidence of any kind of a king David.
That really colored my expectations of what could be found.
As for the statement above of there not being “any hay” — I’m reminded of the way horse bones are treated every time they are encountered. Accepted theory often lead to discarding anything to the contrary.
There are two sources of evidence for warfare, one is written on stela, as have been spoken of by David Stewart and Michael Coe, they are exactly on the dates of the final conflict between the Nephites and the Lamanites. And there is physical evidence like on top of el Tigre at el Mirador. If the translation of glyphs is accurate then we can see a war of conquest during the late 4th century, in a particular region and again it’s not dependent on speculation. Then there is the following:
I found a tourist couples blog telling about finding the remains of weapons. And I saved the section:
“On the way back down, exhilarated by the revelation of this huge, buried, and forgotten city (they don’t even know what the actual Mayan name was yet) a grim discovery. Artifacts generally missing from most Mayan sites-‐ flint blades-‐are here on the path leading up to the city. Not just a few of them-‐once you know what to look for, spear points, arrowheads and sharp cutting flakes which were originally embedded in clubs are found with ease. It seems likely, in other words, that a battle was fought here at the entrance to the city, because the remains of weapons are scattered everywhere.”
I’m not sure exactly where this ancient city is other than it’s about 20km from Hopelchen. Depending which direction could put it within 20-80 km of the place.
Therefore assuming the tourists were not making the above story up, this isn’t speculation either, just evidence of a battle in a particular region at a date I do not know. But would be worth investigating. I think it would be near impossible to not find similar artifacts at Cumorah, if it’s where I think it is.
The Book of Mormon is not fiction. And some time in the near future I think it will become evident to all the world.
Mark Parker, I also believe the Book of Mormon is not fiction, but I disagree that in the near future something will happen to suddenly make it evident to the world. That’s the point of this post. I think people still need to allot the personal resources to take the vast majority of the book’s claims on faith, regardless of what the archaeological record does (or does not) say now, or in the future.
There are two main issues I’m addressing.
1. Have a realistic view of archaeology so people on both sides of the historicity debate can better understand the limits of their arguments.
2. Figuring out the balance between members talking and discussing archaeological discoveries and theories WITHOUT building up unrealistic expectations in those unfamiliar with the science aspect.
Let’s say each of us has a secular bank account and faith bank account. You tell people, “Okay, $100 is the necessary threshold to believe in the Book of Mormon as based on an ancient record. I recommend you make sure you have enough money to cover it in your faith account, but you are also allowed to draw from your secular account.”
Over the years you hear about different archaeological findings or theories. Guy #1 starts thinking, “Wow, people keep telling me about how much they are accumulating in their secular accounts on this. I don’t need to keep holding all $100 in my faith account for that. Heaven knows there are plenty of other things I can use those faith funds for.” Guy #2 says, “Huh, that sounds cool and all, but I’ve heard that the secular stuff might not turn out to be all that much. I’m still gonna make sure I have that $100 allocated in my faith account for this, just in case.”
Inevitably, the question of historicity comes up. Guy #2, who kept $100 reserved in his faith account, closely examines his secular account and finds $30 there (the positive evidence that Mark Wright talked about). “Cool!” He says, “That’s more than I thought. Wow, how faith-affirming!” He has $130, plenty to keep going on the historicity thing.
But then there’s Guy #1. He’s been taking a beating with his testimony, lately, and the reserves in his faith account are running really low. He only has $40 available to put forward to Book of Mormon historicity. He opens his secular account, *knowing* that there should be at least enough to cover the difference. As he searches, he can only find $30 in there. “Wait, but that’s not enough! Where is the pile of money my friends kept saying they had?!”
Others look shocked, “You should be happy with $30! Why are you being so greedy and focusing on what you *don’t* have?” But they don’t realize Guy #1 has been shelling out more than he ever thought he’d need from his faith account lately because he’s just found out about polyandry, polygamy, kinderhook, Book of Abraham, whatever. The disappointment in that unmet expectation suddenly becomes a much, much bigger deal.
So that’s where the haystacks went, the horses ate them.
Mammoths on Wrangel Island lasted until 4000 tears ago. Stellar’s sea cows made it to 1768. How long past the Pleistocene did horses last?
Horses certainly had an impact when Europeans brought them over.
It seems, to this amateur, that it’s like , oh there’s really a Kansas, tornado’s, little dogs and rainbows, so The wizard of Oz is true. I don’t need a Welcome to the Emerald City sign, but a flying monkey or two would be impressive.
What would be unique and standout here in the Americas? According to the Book of Mormon there was widespread and massive destruction prior to Christ visiting. Afterwords there was a peaceful golden age where Christ centered people rebuilt and spread across the land. A profound experience that should have major impacts on material culture. We are not talking needles. But all I see are tornado’s and little dogs.
There are so many theories regarding Book of Mormon geography it reminds me of Joseph Smith’s search for which church was right. The answer was none of them. We can easily become jaded by all the theories available which number well over 100. Being jaded we become dismissive and lapse into doubts about the Book of Mormon story or at least excusing the lack of evidence with pious faith. That is all okay to an extent. Your article and the responses focus on Book of Mormon archaeology, not geography as though archaeology will locate the geography. It won’t. But, if you ignore the archaeology and ignore authoritative quotes from supposed prophetic sources and just try to match the geographic statements in Alma 22 and 50 with the real world you can find an excellent fit. I took a geographic approach, ignoring the pundits, came up with a new information and ideas that soundly place the Book of Mormon lands. Before you continue venting more philosophical and religious skepticism I suggest you read my book called “Forget Everything You Know about Book Of Mormon Geography.” It’s available as an e-book on Amazon.com.
Suzanne, FairMormon has plenty of apologetic stuff on horses. Some of those arguments made me irritated enough to write this post, as a matter of fact…
Peter, the article focuses on archaeology because (1) that is my background, and (2) I see people bringing up archaeology in historicity debates way more often than geography. Typically geography is a debate topic among groups of people who all accept the historicity of the Book of Mormon.
re your last comment to me: ‘faith’ isn’t made redundant by a clear sign, neither in Egypt during Moses day, nor in Palestine during the Savior’s, nor after the sign fulfilling Samuel the Lamanite’s prophesy, in all these cases the opposition intensified. But it pretty much removed the neutral ground. The Lord had a purpose for the signs.
Nephi and Lehi went to teach the Lamanites who received a pretty big sign, the effect there was undoing misinformation. There seems to have been greater acceptance and less opposition in this case. The bottom line was though, that the Lord had a purpose in the sign that he deemed it a necessary and good thing.
It came about by faith.
14 Behold, it was the faith of Nephi and Lehi that wrought the change upon the Lamanites, that they were baptized with fire and with the Holy Ghost.
Did the Nephites at the time think this was about to happen? I doubt it, they would have thought it impossible. So possibly only Nephi and Lehi would have even thought to ask the Lord about it .
Joseph Smith discussed archaeology as it relates to America. He has stated that the Book of Mormon is about the ancestors of Native American tribes on the American continent. While traveling through Illinois Joseph Smith would talk about the mounds built by natives saying that they were built by Book of Mormon peoples.
And, there are the many statements in the past few decades to Native Americans, Central & South Americans and Polynesians in temple dedications and regional conferences that they were “Lamanites” by Church Presidents, Members of the First Presidency and others.
I have resisted saying anything on this topic because I don’t really know what to think and because it is so central. But here goes.
Archaeology is a science and science is not just something out there for curious individuals to discover. Science is what a community of people with knowledge demonstrated in ways that lead to credentials think collectively. But it is never set in concrete, rather it is self-correcting as more research and thinking and discussing transpires. That is not to say some explanations are not accepted as pretty solid.
It seems to me the greater community of archaeologists sees little if any evidence for the Book of Mormon being about real people in antiquity. It seems that there is a smaller subset of archaeologists with faith in LDS claims that is swimming against the mainstream current and is struggling mightily to find evidence or even plausibility for Book of Mormon events. They have a case that is not convincing to the greater community of archaeologists but finds an audience within the LDS community to some degree. Most LDS members I know are decades behind, when church writers managed to convince most of us that there was a strong case for the Book of Mormon in the archaeology record. It seems these two communities are talking past each other.
Questions for Mary Ann: Does the wiki article on Archaeology and the Book of Mormon get it pretty close to right? Or is it far off base? I am not searching for perfection but “close enough.” It is impossible to sift through the mountains of confusing digital “ink” spilled on the subject. ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archaeology_and_the_Book_of_Mormon )
Over a decade ago my then 11 year old son, new in a large, well-organized and well-funded non-LDS boy scout troop became fascinated with the geology and the archaeology merit badges. A friend of a relative and a geology professor took the time to spend several days while we were visiting relatives in Utah taking him out in the mountains and teaching him geology and looking at rocks. My son has good eyes and is patient and they found considerable interesting material .
Next was meeting an archaeologist (merit badge counselor and professor) here and intense involvement reading articles and visiting a lab and then digging with several graduate students on a site of an Indian village thought to be dated to 900 AD. We spent several Saturdays doing what resembled twisted yard work, shaking screens with buckets of dirt and finding pieces of pottery or small animal bones or pieces of charcoal. Some of the young female students were immodestly dressed (by LDS standards) and got soaked with sweat in the hot sun adding to the interest for a young boy.
We attended a special meeting at a local university one evening that lasted for hours. The topic was the Topper site near the Savannah river. ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Topper_Site )The speaker presented his findings that the site might have evidence of human settlement 50,000 years ago. He showed pictures of a mundane flat rock that had microscopic parallel ridges indicating it was a primitive scraping tool, and a few other things. The debate was lively with many thinking it was enough evidence and others thinking not. Most surprising to me were a few old grey-haired archaeologists who claimed a little bit of this kind of evidence has been turning up for years but everyone ignored it because it does not fit with their preconceived ideas, or confirmation bias. Who isn’t prone to this logical fallacy?
While doing this field work in the hot sun, it seems there were endless long hours to talk and I brought up several of the ideas claimed by the Book of Mormon. The professors and the graduate students knew about it and they dismissed it with a chuckle. Completely. Far less believable than the Topper site. I found the Book of Mormon to be an entirely useless tool in sharing the LDS gospel with archaeologists far from Utah.
Either we do not have much of a case. Or we are doing a really poor job explaining our case. Not just me, but our best and brightest utterly fail to make a case for the Book of Mormon convincing to other archaeologists outside the church and some within it. Where does that leave us LDS non-archaeologists? Where does that leave us teaching our youth? These questions are no longer directly relevant to me at my stage in life but seem important. If the archaeological evidence is strongly against the Book of Mormon, then how do we swim in a ward mostly populated by those decades behind who see this “knowledge” as lack of faith and grounds for exclusion? For the record the 11 year old son is now working on a PhD in theoretical physics and goes to church but did not serve a mission. He seems to know more than I do about just about everything (except my occupational field) and does not often want to discuss controversial religious topics.
Mike, the Wiki article is nowhere near up to date.
I hesitate to comment because my working theory as of now is that the Book of Mormon is inspiring, but there was no Nephi.
Richard Bushman talks about Joseph Smith’s visions and the Book of Mormon as the foundation of his faith, the cellar:
“…I do not live in the cellar. I live in the rooms built on these events – the way of life, the attitudes, the institutions, the relationships, the experiences they support.”
People like me want to do our part in the upper rooms, but the basement is necessarily there. Going forward, I honestly don’t know how the church can satisfy the whole spectrum of members.
Belaboring the analogy some more, “people like me” are often tempted to move next door to the other house built on the Bible foundation. Because there the basement is every bit as mysterious, but in this day and age shining the light on it doesn’t mark you as unfaithful. People there can and do go up and downstairs all the time, reaching different conclusions, and – this is the key/what I want! – ENJOYING the discussion.
If I were to preface a comment in Gospel Doctrine with, “I don’t see this as an actual event, so what I take from it is….”, my life would change in an instant. I would be talked about, relieved of my callings, and possibly my temple recommend. There are holes and weak boards in the upper rooms of my church house; it’s hard to feel safe up here.
Ruth, your comment resonates with me. I’ve got the same feelings and being ostracized (or potentially ostracized) in the one place where you’d really like to find an accepting and supportive community is demoralizing to say the least. Best of luck in your journey.
Steve, as the church has backed away from that hemispheric model, it will need to deal with those statements made during the first 150 years. As of right now, they seem to have adopted the limited geography model, as indicated in the recent gospel topics essay on DNA and the Book of Mormon (“What seems clear is that the DNA of Book of Mormon peoples likely represented only a fraction of all DNA in ancient America.”)
Mike, I don’t profess to have expertise on Book of Mormon archaeology. From what I know right now, the Wiki doesn’t seem far off-base if you’re looking for very general outlines on the issue. Other people much more interested in this stuff (like many commenters here) would be able to more easily spot the problems. If I’m looking for information on a particular aspect (like a specific anachronism), I like to look at both apologetic and critical sites to see what scholarly sources they are citing. Then I look the scholarly info up myself, and do further research based on what I find in those resources. So, for me, the wiki article serves the same purpose as an apologetic or anti site – it’s a jumping off point. Given how controversial all this is, I guess I just don’t have high expectations that someone could go through and provide an up-to-date overview of the current understanding (pros and cons) that everyone would find satisfactory.
“Not just me, but our best and brightest utterly fail to make a case for the Book of Mormon convincing to other archaeologists outside the church and some within it. Where does that leave us LDS non-archaeologists? Where does that leave us teaching our youth? ” No-one has a problem with someone teaching the youth that they should seek a spiritual testimony of the Book of Mormon. With the evidence people put foward as “proof,” I think we just need to look for ways to qualify them as theories and opinions (maybe one way could be briefly listing opposing theories? I don’t know.). When kids ask about anachronisms (like horses or elephants), I think it’s okay to go into the apologetic theories as long as they understand up front that they are not mainstream. Like, “You know, scientific thought currently believes X, and the BofM says Y. They don’t match up and I don’t know why. Here are some theories people have come up with to explain the discrepancy. Let’s explore them and see what you think. Who knows? You might be able to come up with something even better.” A good point Mark Wright made in his comment is that we tend to focus on what the Book of Mormon got wrong and ignore what it got right. That might be a better approach, to show them stuff like John Clark’s 2005 presentation showing there are some scientific pieces in favor of the Book of Mormon. But recognize that for anyone outside the church, it’s not enough to outweigh all the current problems. And, of course, it would be unwise to base a testimony off what limited information we do have.
Ruth, I’m also living in the same neighborhood. I did shine the light in the basement and got shuffled off because of it. And for me, a hermit (aka extreme introvert), living in the basement is where I want to be.
I’ve enjoyed this discussion. I find it hopeful. It’s what we need to be talking about at church, but never will.
Mary Ann, the problem is these are not statements from a century ago. They continue even today.
Just last year, in the Church News, the following was included: “Some early missionary efforts were conducted among the Otavalo Indians near Quito, among whom the first all-Lamanite stake in South America was organized in 1981.” That is a section about President Monson’s announcement of 4 temples .
Steve, yikes. I see that formation of the “all-Lamanite” stake among the Otavalo Indians in a lot of histories of the church in Ecuador. The designation might still be a point of pride among those members. I know Gina Colvin has talked about how walking back the label of Lamanites then becomes a crisis of identity among many indigenous Mormons (the first “Lamanite” stake was down in New Zealand).
What would be really useful is for someone like you to provide an update for the generally curious member of the church. It would have to not be any longer, perhaps half as long as the wiki article. It should be balanced.Not mired in specifics too much. It should focus on information that is not going to be refuted easily and not set people up for another journey out of faith. It wouldn’t have to satisfy everyone, but be satisfactory to most people on both sides of the issue. Is this possible? Or have we framed our truths to the point people can’t agree on much of anything.
My favorite youth anachronism was years ago looking at dinosaur bones in a museum and one young relative asked, ” Do we even believe in these things?” Seeing was not enough.
The problem with focusing on what the Book of Mormon got right. Scientifically, the case of the Book of Mormon as in any other case, is only as strong as the weakest link in the chain, not the strongest links. Much of the theology and teachings are solid with a few areas of disagreement, oversight or weakness. But the Book of Mormon does not claimed to be a collection of Joseph Smith’s thoughts. It claims to be an authentic ancient relic miraculously brought forth. This is supposed to give it rock solid credibility, even exceeding the Biblical infallibility of the staunchest monk. Here is a scripture to end sectarian wrangling and bring most of Christianity under one roof. If the Book of Mormon is not what it claims, the archaeology refutes it being of ancient origin, then this aspect of its usefulness fails. And with it disappears Mormon exclusivity. Good theological thoughts of the caliber in the Book of Mormon fill libraries across the land and across the last 5 centuries.
Mike, the dinosaur story is awesome.
“Scientifically, the case of the Book of Mormon as in any other case, is only as strong as the weakest link in the chain, not the strongest links.” I don’t agree with this. The Bible has a lot of “weak links” archaeologically, but it has a lot of strong links. In the case of the Book of Mormon, you only have to prove plausibility, which can be done through positive evidence. Negative evidence has an inherent weakness – “absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence.” If you can collect enough positive evidence (strong links), they can override the weak links. Read the 2005 John Clark presentation to see what I mean: https://www.fairmormon.org/conference/august-2005/debating-the-foundations-of-mormonism-the-book-of-mormon-and-archaeology
Sometimes the weak link isn’t the absence of hoped for evidence, but the presence of contradicting evidence. The story of the brother of Jared, for example, reinforces a literal confounding of the Adamic language at the Tower of Babel even though the fossil record would suggest that people gradually dispersed from Africa over tens of thousands of years. Their languages would have gradually diverges without any divine intervention and the people would have dispersed across the world long before the Tower of Babel story in the Bible is said to have happened.
A garden of eden located in Missouri and an absence of evidence of a global flood to transport Noah from America to the Middle East create similar problems by leaving the Israelites stranded on the wrong continent. While it is possible for small, local events to leave no trace in the fossil record, a global flood would definitely leave evidence. All the Clovis people In the americas would have drowned in the flood, but the genetic evidence suggests that didn’t happen because the modern American Indians are their descendants. It past times, the old hominid fossils were explained as pre-Adamites that all died off before Adam and Eve left the garden, but I don’t think that explanation works now that genetic testing is available.
A through and exhaustive search of the America’s so far has not produced evidence of a Nephite or Jaradite civilization. (Got a lot of it’s here, No it’s there. No it’s here) Which by my reckoning is evidence of absence. Some may think this proves plausabilty, i think it a null result.
While I agree that it is likely that no quantity or quality of archaeological evidence will ever suffice to prove beyond reasonable doubt various theological positions. The preponderance of evidence can show whether it is likely an entire civilization existed or not.
The painting may look like a Rembrandt.. The brushstrokes, studied in detail. reveals a masters hand.(not one but thousands of lunar landings) But if it’s painted on a modern canvas, it’s not a Rembrandt.
The problem I see with Book of Mormon archaeology is that church members like to treat it like a scientific study that will prove their religion true. Unfortunately, Book of Mormon archaeology can’t address to the question of if jaradites, nephites, and Lamanites existed because the people doing the work have already decided that they did exist and are not open to changing their mind based on evidence collected from an excavation. The archaeologists are investigating the more limited hypothesis of if the Book of Mormon people existed in a particular place under the assumption that they did exist. The result of their study can’t really address the larger question of if the Book of Mormon people existed unless they happen to find an artifact that couldn’t have been produced by anyone else, such as a Hebrew or Egyptian inscription.
The confusion over what the archaeologists are investigating causes different audiences to interpret the results very differently. Most Mormons will see result from an dig that shows mild evidence that the Mayans could have been nephites and interpret it as evidence that the Book of Mormon is true. Non-Mormons and doubting Mormons will look at the same results see that they don’t provide significant evidence that the Book of Mormon is true. Neither group can understand why the other doesn’t interpret the results the same way.
It seems that Book of Mormon archaeology has shifted away from looking for the big discovery and towards building a non-falsifiable explanation for the Book of Mormon people’s existence. Other people can use the explanation to justify that their religion hasn’t been 100% disproved by evidence even if the explanation is somewhat weak in places. This approach is very much targeted at insiders who already believe. There isn’t anything wrong with believing in something with little evidence, but it isn’t the way another archaeologist would evaluate the evidence. An archaeologist would more likely assume that the Book of Mormon people probably didn’t exist based on current evidence while remaining open to reevaluating the conclusion later if new evidence was produced later.
Maybe I am misunderstanding you or you are misunderstanding me. From your article and the responses I had the idea that most were believers in the historicity of the Book of Mormon. I am a believer myself. But as I was trying to point out archaeology, won’t get us there. Your degree is in archaeology, fine. I am not trying to impose on your expertise. I am saying one approach to the Book of Mormon is to shift your focus to the geography, not the archaeology. I agree with John Clark who said geography comes first, then archaeology While we do not have archaeological evidence that is validating, I am saying we do have geographic evidence that is validating. Evidence is not proof, but it can be supportive. Mormon spoke of geography in Alma, not archaeology. I made discoveries of my own that are original and have nothing to do with archaeology and everything to do with geography as described in the text of the Book of Mormon. I came up with a cookie cutter fit far superior to anything else I have seen in print. Here is your own statement about Nahom:
”Nahom is a big Book of Mormon evidence that I respect – location is right and the archaeological evidence is sound. As far as the location of Old World Bountiful, it’s up in the air. The current suggestions are all logically placed along the Dhofar coast in Oman based on geography, but they don’t have hard archaeological evidence (like we have in Nahom). So it’s hard for me to get excited about them.”
The archaeology supports Nahom, the geography supports Bountiful. Now for another quote of yours:
“You don’t need just one critical discovery, you need a dozen, and it’ll still take you half a century to maybe change the consensus. But, even if a magical discovery were made that obviously supported the Book of Mormon, it’d take decades and many discoveries confirming those findings before ever becoming mainstream.”
1 Nephi 17:41 “…and the labor which they had to perform was to look; and because of the simpleness of the way, or the easiness of it, there were many who perished.”
I am suggesting you look. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I think I have some. We won’t know the locations for sure until we find the sign that says ”Welcome to Zarahemla Visitor’s Center” or a sword stamped “Made by Helaman Iron Works”. We may never find the answers but God doesn’t leave us without hope. Mormon’s descriptions tell me that he, at least, intended for us to know where he was.
Mike this is some stuff .
To keep to the Indiana Jones theme, lets look at what we can find.
Peter is looking geography, my focus is man made stuff. I’ll limit it to a few defining things not known in Joseph’s day.
Sophisticated early writing system record keeping etc. This may change with new discoveries but now the oldest is Olmec 900 Bc
Lowland Maya 300 BC
Ditch and inner wall fortification of a city, as employed at the city Noah during the Amalickiah/Lamanite wars.
Becan Yucatan discovered 1934, since then more cities 4 or 5 fortified like this have been found built only by the lowland Maya, their huge polity concentrated in the Peten region, Mirador basin, across to Belize and extending to satellites in the Yucatan. Other regions have fortification but none that I can research having ditch and inner wall.
Hebrew style temple.
Unique to the Lowland Maya and their satellites in Yucatan referred to as triadic. From about 300BC Eg el Tigre temple at el Mirador. There was a study done in 2014, all triads are believed to be associated with the sacrifice, resurrection and ascension into heaven of the pre-classic Maize god. The triads are very close in plan to the great temple shown to Ezekiel in vision. Hebrews 9 suggests how they functioned. All the cities with ditch and inner wall fortification also have Triadic temples.
Elevated highway network connecting cities:
Again unique to the lowland Maya in the Peten from 300BC and also in Yucatan, though a large proportion in Yucatan date to after BofM times.
So this is showing a pattern, things the world thought were utter nonsense in Joseph’s day all existing exactly as described in one region, one great polity.
Early in the 4th century Mormon described Nephite lands and people:
‘The whole face of the land had become covered with buildings, and the people were as numerous almost, as it were the sand of the sea.’
He spoke of its temples and synagogues and sanctuaries.
Nephi described the nation’s elevated highway network:
‘… there were many highways cast up, and many roads made, which led from city to city, and from land to land, and from place to place.’
During 2016 expensive radar imaging was done in the Mirador basin, articles appeared, ‘The world’s first super highways discovered’ Engineered and built by the pre-classic Maya two thousand years ago. Over 240KM of elevated highways leading between cities. The radar imaging is like a photo but it eliminates the foliage and shows what exists beneath. The extent of the cities the buildings the population matching Mormon’s description exactly.
Geographically directly to the south of this great civilization is another similar massive polity, though similar, triadic temples, the most important and monumental buildings in the Lowlands are absent, indicating the southern highland Maya of the pre-classic, BofM period differed in religious belief to their northern neighbors in the lowlands .
These are tangible man made things, the biggest Triadic temple the equivalent of 22 stories high and by volume arguably the largest pyramid in the world.
And there in lies the quandary. There is so much stuff, it’s so big it’s so strange and weird, it looks pagan, their descendants practiced human sacrifice(even though the BofM states this) not what many expect and envision the Nephite nation to be, But there it is, what is physically there is what we are stuck with in all its strangeness and exotic nature.
But fulfilled in it are those defining man made things that Mormon and Moroni and Nephi describe. All built and existing in the exact time frame.
Wish I could add one of the radar images of el Mirador with its ten square mile central city area.
I can play the geography game too. If a Mediterranean people are bringing their crops and flocks, you need to find the right climate. Find an exact match in South America. What also do we find–warfare ,highways, domestic animals used as transportation, really big buildings and temples, and a writing system with quipu. How could Joseph Smith have known.
And if you want hidden cities in the jungle, head on over to Xingu National Park and visit Kuhikugu. Large scale settlement with connecting roads and bridges to other settlements. And get this, a large defensive ditch surrounding the community. Something so singularity unique clearly ties it to the Book of Mormon.
And as an added bonus, genetics.. Some Amazon tribes show a genetic connection to people on pacific islands. Hagoth for the win. This is not just a mere lunar landing. This a a Cassini spacecraft navigating through the rings of Saturn.
What I think is this, I agree with the statement, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” What I find dubious is cherry picking a cherry off a cherry tree and thinking you found something unique. “Oh look, a cherry”
You also can’t ignore the 99.9%, which includes the strange and exotic, to focus on a few generic similarities and meaningfully say it proves anything.
That is interesting Suzanne, I’d not heard of that culture. As yet it’s being dated outside Book of Mormon times from 500AD, and with an estimated population of 50,000 rather than over one million in the Peten.
Mark and Suzzanne: You can find man made stuff everywhere and you can always find what you are looking for. The problem is this: All the details of research you refer to are wonderful and certainly suggest a link with the Book of Mormon. But, if you are in the wrong spot, it is meaningless for Book of Mormon purposes As a simplified example there are lots of ‘temples’ in Mesoamerica and they are pyramid shaped. Who knows, maybe those are Nephite temples, but if you like pyramids there are plenty in Egypt. Why not point to those pyramids? Because they are in the wrong geographic place. First , you pick the place by geography then you look at the artifacts and other details. You like headplates? Try China. You like roads, try Europe. You can go anywhere and find the evidence. The problem with Mesoamerica is that the geography doesn’t fit! Mesoamerica has wonderful artifacts and supporting archaeological evidence, but where is the geography? Efforts to find the small neck, the east and west mountains, the Sidon river, the plains of Bountiful, the ‘line’ or pass, the Sidon river are all very very forced and ambiguous. Yes, you have the shoe and you have the foot but Mesoamerica is the ugly stepsister that just can’t put the two together.
Peter, the man made stuff needs to be of the correct era, and not in isolation, if we are to have any hope of putting a puzzle together. It’s just another method of trying to solve the same mystery.
Mesoamerica is geographically good in many respects. Looking at the civilization during the Book of Mormon era, specifically the Zarahemla period, the geographical placement of the two main and dominant regional powers has El Mirador located in the North in lowlands. A geographical requirement for Zarahemla is that it has lands to its north, from where Mormon journeyed as a youth, which has a shared culture. This is fulfilled by cities in the Yucatan, their temples are the same indicating the same belief system. This is during the Book of Mormon era, and stuff that dates later out of era is not directly relevant.
It’s well accepted that the land of Zarahemla is lowlands and the land of Nephi highlands, as the books references are always down to Zarahemla and up to the land of Nephi. The southern regional power, in those precise years, centers at Kaminaljuyu in the highlands. In those years the Book references no other regional superpower. So for Mesoamerica to work that would be the placement of Lamanite and Nephite polities, Lamanites in the south, Nephites in the North. If these main polities, around Kaminaljuyu in the south and El Mirador in the North are not the Nephites and Lamanites, than realistically it rules our Mesoamerica as these lands. My view is it’s either them or it’s not there.
Add to that the requirement of the ancient Jaradite lands to the north and it is fulfilled by the Olmec civilization which was also literate as the record requires.
When you look at the detail of triadic temples the structures, which we can look at because so many are still there, need to be able to function as pre-Christian era Hebrew temples. These triadics are not just isolated pyramids, but an arrangement of integrated structures.
The fact that the triadic temples share the same plan as Ezekiel’s temple has enormous relevance. Plus the whole structure suits the symbolism and ordinances described in Hebrews 9. They do not occur south in the highlands. Only in the northern areas.
So although I’ve looked first for the man made, basic geography is not ignored nor badly fitting.
Mary Anne have you seen this? What sort of archaeological remains should we be looking for if it’s not this?
Mary Ann, there has been considerable DNA research carried out on the Maya and it is relevant to your post and apologetic claims centred on Mesoamerica.. I believe it explains why archaeological links between the Book of Mormon and the Olmec and Mayan civilizations remain in the realm of speculation.
There have been about six DNA research studies focussed on ancestral origins that have included Mayan individuals.. In total about 415 Mayans have been tested to identify the mitochondrial DNA lineage they carry. Over 99% of the individuals carried a mitochondrial DNA lineage that originated in Asia, and entered the Americas in excess of 15,000 years ago. The remaining 1% (4 individuals) carried either a European or African lineage. When scientists have looked to see where the European lineages came from they have found them to be similar or identical to lineages present in countries like Spain or Portugal.
Another study recently examined the whole genome of 21 unrelated Mayans (About 22,000 ancestors going back 10 generations) in order to determine their relationship to global populations. http://admixturemap.paintmychromosomes.com/ This technology is the same as that used by Ancestry.DNA to tell a person where their DNA came from. This study revealed that the Mayans shared overwhelming DNA similarity with other Native American populations in the New World and with some Central and East Asian populations. About 12% of their DNA was most closely related to DNA found in Western European countries (Spain, England etc) and Africa (<1%). They were able to determine that the DNA admixture from Europe and Africa arrived in the Mayan population between 1642 and 1726.
Both the mitochondrial and whole genome DNA research have revealed that the Maya are essentially all descended from Asian ancestors. Any Middle Eastern incursion into Mayan populations has so far escaped detection or didn’t occur in the first place.