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.
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]