Archaeological Evidence and the Book of Mormon
by Michael R. Ash1
“Why is there no archaeological evidence for the Book of Mormon?” This common query often expresses the questioner’s incorrect assumptions about archaeological methodology–assumptions usually based the questioner’s lack of knowledge about a very specialized academic area. The purpose of this article is to shed some light on not only the subject of archaeology, but also on the reality of both biblical and Book of Mormon archaeology.
Evidence, Proof, and Belief
Before delving into archaeological matters, it is helpful to take a step back and consider what archaeological evidence means in relation to the Book of Mormon. A reasonable question for those suggesting that there is no archaeological evidence for the Book of Mormon would be “What archaeological evidence might be considered the minimal irrefutable proof needed to convince a non-believing world of the authenticity of the Nephite scripture?”
Some people might suggest that finding the existence of horses or chariots would constitute proof for the Book of Mormon. This is doubtful. Finding such items would merely demonstrate that such things existed in the ancient New World, and while such discoveries may be consistent with the Book of Mormon, they hardly amount to “proof.”
As an example, the Book of Mormon mentions barley which, until recently, was thought not to exist in the ancient Americas. Critics considered barley to be one of the things that “Joseph Smith got wrong.” However, pre-Columbian New World barley has now been verified, without people flocking to join the Church because of this discovery. For critics, finding such items are too often seen as “lucky guesses” on the part of Joseph Smith. The Book of Mormon mentions cities, trade, warfare, towers, and the use of armor–all of which did exist in the ancient Americas–yet their existence has not convinced critics that the Book of Mormon is an authentic ancient text.
Thus, it can be seen that archaeological evidence for the Book of Mormon–which does exist, as will be discussed shortly–does not constitute proof, nor does it translate into belief.
Archaeologists, when examining ancient evidence, are working with a very fragmentary record. In general, they find physical evidence, but such evidence in and of itself doesn’t provide much information unless it is placed within a context–a framework by which it can be understood. For instance, if an archaeologist finds a pot (or, more likely, a fragment of a pot), that provides little evidence concerning the civilization that created or used the pot. Contextual clues–such as other artifacts uncovered near the pot–may provide some help concerning the timeframe in which the pot was last used, but it certainly doesn’t provide conclusive evidence as to what the civilization, or the individuals in that civilization, were like.
Critics, for example, sometimes deride the idea that Nephites were, for most of their written history, “Christians.” In their view there should be archaeological remains indicating a Christian presence in the ancient New World. How, exactly, would an archaeologist distinguish a Christian-owned pot from that of a non-Christian? What would a Christian pot look like? Also keep in mind that according to the Book of Mormon the New World “Christians” were a persecuted minority who were wiped out over fifteen hundred years ago. How much archaeological evidence would we really expect to have survived the intervening centuries?
For the archaeologist, the strongest contextual clues are in the form of writings or markings that are sometimes found on the physical evidence. These are of two general types: epigraphic and iconographic. Epigraphic evidence consists of a written record, such as the text you are reading, while iconographic evidence consists of pictures, or icons. For instance, the word “cross” is epigraphic, but a picture of a cross is iconographic. Epigraphic evidence, providing it can be translated, provides a record of what people thought or did. Iconographic evidence is much more symbolic and its interpretation depends on the context in which the image is used.
Some of the problems faced by an archaeologist when considering epigraphic and iconographic evidence is described very ably by Dr. William Hamblin:
The only way archaeologists can determine the names of political kingdoms, people, ethnography, and religion of an ancient people is through written records…
Iconography can be helpful, but must be understood in a particular cultural context which can only be fully understood through written records. (Thus, the existence of swastikas on late medieval mosques in Central Asia or on Tibetan Buddhist temples in Tibet does not demonstrate that Muslims and Buddhists are Nazis, nor, for that matter, that Nazis are Buddhists. Rather it demonstrates that the swastika has different symbolic meanings in early twentieth century Germany, Muslim Central Asia, and in Tibet.)
However, we have a nasty problem known as the “epigraphic habit.” Many ancient peoples wrote, but wrote on perishable materials which are destroyed over the course of centuries, or survive only under very specific environmental conditions. Hence, we have almost no written records for some ancient peoples, even though we know they wrote. Others had the “epigraphic habit” of writing on non-perishable materials–clay tablets, stone, metal plates–which can survive as archaeological data. Thus, the problem of what records survive in a state that can be discovered by archaeologists is dependent on the cultural habits of the civilization being studied. (Note, there is a different means of preservation of traditional texts which are copied and recopied by subsequent cultures.)
This creates for archaeology a natural and unavoidable imbalance in understanding more about civilizations with the epigraphic habit, and much less about civilizations without the epigraphic habit. Egypt, for example, had the epigraphic habit – though actually not in all of its dynastic periods, only in some of them. Judah did not. Hence, from archaeological data alone we would know almost nothing about the religion and kingdom of ancient Judah. Indeed, based on archaeological data alone we would assume the Jews were polytheists exactly like their neighbors. Judaism, as a unique religion, would simply disappear without the survival of the Bible and other Jewish written texts.
This raises the next issue. Methodologically speaking, does the absence of archaeologically discovered written records demonstrate that a certain kingdom does not exist? Or to put it another way, does the existence of an ancient kingdom depend on whether or not twenty-first century archaeologists have discovered written records of that kingdom? Or does the kingdom exist irrespective of whether or not it is part of the knowledge horizon of early twenty-first century archaeologists? Or, to state the principle more broadly, does absence of evidence equal evidence of absence?2
Records from Book of Mormon Times
Understanding what archaeologists look for in historical evidence, and that a written record (epigraphic or iconographic) is necessary for building context, what do we find when we turn to the records of the ancient Americas? (Remember that the time period covered by the Book of Mormon ended in about 400 A.D., so we need to look at evidence from before that time.)
Of the approximately half dozen known written language systems in the New World (all of which are located in Mesoamerica), only the Mayan language can be fully read with confidence. Scholars can understand some basic structure of some of the other languages, but they cannot fully understand what the ancients were saying. In other words, there is a problem with deciphering the epigraphic record. According to the experts, “the pronunciation of the actual names of the earliest Maya kings and other name-glyphs from other writing systems is not known with certainty.”3
For the time period in which the Nephites lived, scholars are aware of only a very limited number of inscriptions from the entire ancient New World that can be read with some degree of certainty. Even with these fragments, however, scholars are still uncertain from these inscriptions just how the ancients pronounced the proper names and place names (toponyms). Four of these readable inscriptions merely give dates or a king’s name–a very limited cultural context. Another five inscriptions contain historical information and proper names–the mention of the cities Tikal and Uaxactun (for which the ancient pronunciation remain uncertain) and five kings from these two cities (whom we know by iconographic symbols and whose ancient pronunciation remains uncertain).4
With such sparse epigraphic information, how could we possibly recognize, under current conditions, the location of cities we know as Bountiful and Zarahemla, or if the religious rulers were actually named Nephi or Moroni? The critics like to claim that there is no archaeological evidence for the Book of Mormon, but the truth is that there is scant archaeological data to tell us anything about the names of ancient New World inhabitants or locations–and names are the only means by which we could archaeologically identify whether there were Nephites in ancient America.
Archaeology and the Bible
Critics frequently like to compare the lack of archaeological support for the Book of Mormon with what they are certain is voluminous archaeological support for the Bible. There is a drastic difference, however, between the two worlds (Old and New) when it comes to epigraphic data, iconographic data, the continuity of culture, and toponyms.
We have already noted the dearth of readable New World inscriptions from Nephite times. From biblical lands, however, we know of thousands of contemporary inscriptions that have survived to modern times. We have pointed out that very few toponyms (place-names) can be read in the surviving few epigraphic fragments from the Nephite-era New World. In contrast, we find for the Bible not only scores of epigraphic records identifying ancient Mediterranean cities, but we also sometimes find a “continuity of culture” that preserves city names. In other words, many modern Near Eastern cities are known by the same name as they were known anciently. Many biblical toponyms continued to be used in not only the Hebrew language, but also in Aramaic, Arabic, Egyptian, and Mesopotamian inscriptions and papyri. The writings of Eusebius (260-340 A.D.) supply biblical archaeologists with toponyms from the Holy Land as well as detailed lists (in some instances) of distances between cities. Knowing the exact location of one city helps biblical archaeologists locate other cities, simply by calculating the distances.5
Many people would be tempted to think that toponyms generally continue from one generation to the next, but that is not always true. Generally, a toponym changes during periods of major changes to that city–because of political transformations or major cultural or language changes. Many Old World cities have changed toponyms through the years. As one of many examples, the classical Greek city Byzantium became Constantinople in the fourth century A.D. and then Istanbul in the fifteenth century A.D. We even see the same phenomenon in the Book of Mormon where the Jaredite hill Ramah is later called the hill Cumorah by the Nephites.6
Even acknowledging the archaeological advantages for determining the location and historical actuality of biblical lands, we find that only slightly more than half of all place names mentioned in the Bible have been located and positively identified.7 Most of these identifications are based on the preservation of the toponym. For biblical locations with no toponym preserved, only about 7% to 8% of them have been identified to a degree of certainty and about another 7% to 8% of them have been identified with some degree of conjectural certainty.8 The identification of these locations without place names could not have been made were it not for the identification of locations with preserved toponyms. If few or no Biblical toponyms survived, the identification of biblical locations would be largely speculative.
Despite the identification of some biblical sites, many important Bible locations have not been identified. The location of Mt. Sinai, for example, is unknown, and there are over twenty possible candidates. Some scholars reject the claim that the city of Jericho existed at the time of Joshua. The exact route taken by the Israelites on their Exodus is unknown, and some scholars dispute the biblical claim that there ever was an Israelite conquest of Canaan.9
William Dever is a non-LDS biblical archaeologist, a professor of Near Eastern archaeology and anthropology at the University of Arizona, and head of the university’s Near Eastern Studies Department. He claims that archaeology should never be supposed to prove the Bible in any sense.10 “After a century of modern research,” writes Dever, “neither Biblical scholars nor archaeologists have been able to document as historical any of the events, much less the personalities, of the patriarchal or Mosaic era.”11 After more than a century of modern research, archaeology has never substantiated a variety of biblical narratives, including the existence of Abraham, Joseph of Egypt, Moses, or an Israelite presence in Egypt.
New World Archaeology
What do we find in Mesoamerican archaeology in regards to toponyms? First, unlike the biblical lands where many toponyms survived due to a continuity of culture, there is no reason to assume that Maya languages and Nephite languages were related. Secondly, we find that toponyms often disappeared from one era to the next. Many of the Mesoamerican cities today have Spanish names such as San Lorenzo, La Venta, and El Mirador. The “collapse of the indigenous civilizations before the conquistadors created a sharp historical discontinuity. We have the names of almost none of the Classic Mayan and Olmec cities of two millennia ago, which is why they are known today under Spanish titles.”12 Archaeologists simply don’t know what many of the original names for these Mayan cities were. If archaeologists don’t know the names of some cities they have discovered, how could we ever hope to provide English names for those cities, such as names provided in the Book of Mormon?13
Additionally, scholars are uncertain as to the pronunciation of Mesoamerican cities for which they do have names because city-inscriptions are often iconographic, and not all scholars are in agreement that such icons represent city names. These icons are not only rare (as previously noted) but they are symbolic rather than phonetic. In other words, when archaeologists find an iconographic inscription designating a place as the Hill of the Jaguar, the pronunciation of this inscription would be dependent on the language of the speaker–be it a Zapotec, a Mixtec, or a Nephite.14 The only way to identify an ancient site is by way of an inscription giving a phonetically intelligible name. Barring further discoveries, we may never know how the names of Mesoamerican cities were pronounced in Book of Mormon times.
If the epigraphic data from the Old World were as slim as the epigraphic data from the New World, scholars would be severely limited in their understanding of the Israelites or early Christianity. It would likely be impossible, using strictly non-epigraphic archaeological evidences, to distinguish between Canaanites and Israelites when they co-existed in the pre-Babylonian (pre-587 B.C.) Holy Land. 15 We find that the same problems would be apparent in the study of early Christianity if scholars were faced with the absence of epigraphic data. For instance, if Diocletian’s persecutions of Christianity had been successful, if Constantine had never converted, and if Christianity had disappeared around 300 A.D., it would be very difficult if not impossible to reconstruct the history of Christianity using nothing but archaeological artifacts and imperial Roman inscriptions.16
“It is quite possible,” notes Hamblin, “for a religion, especially an aniconic religion [a religion without images], to simply disappear from the archaeological record. Despite the fact that there were several million Christians in the Roman [E]mpire in the late third century, it is very difficult to [discover] almost anything of substance about them from archaeology alone.”17
Archaeology and the Book of Mormon
Given the inherent advantages (cultural continuity, toponyms, etc.) of Old World studies compared to New World studies, it’s interesting to note some recently discovered correlations between the early chapters of the Book of Mormon and the archaeological record of the Old World in ways that would have been unknown at the time the book was translated. In other words, it is impossible that Joseph Smith could have known any of the Old World archaeological finds that have come to light since his death–finds that do not contradict the Book of Mormon and, in many instances, are consistent with its stories.
Consider, for instance, a recently discovered altar in Yemen that is consistent with a story related in the Book of Mormon. This altar, discovered by non-LDS archaeologists, has the tribal name of NHM carved into it. The altar is located in the same vicinity in which the Book of Mormon describes the Lehites stopping in Nahom to bury Ishmael, and dates from the same time period.18 Remember that the Hebrew language doesn’t use vowels, and thus NHM could very likely be “Nahom.”19 The name NHM does not just appear out of thin air either, but rather the location of an ancient NHM exists not only within the specific time of the Lehite journey, but also within a plausible location through which LDS scholars believe the Lehites traveled in Arabia before embarking on their voyage to the New World.
It is also worth noting that there is a growing body of evidence from New World archaeology that supports the Book of Mormon. Dr. John Clark of the New World Archaeological Foundation has compiled a list of sixty items mentioned in the Book of Mormon. The list includes items such as “steel swords,” “barley,” “cement,” “thrones,” and literacy. In 1842, only eight (or 13.3%) of those sixty items were confirmed by archaeological evidence. Thus, in the mid-nineteenth century, archaeology did not support the claims made by the Book of Mormon.
As the efforts of archaeology have shed light on the ancient New World, we find in 2005 that forty-five of those sixty items (75%) have been confirmed. Thirty-five of the items (58%) have been definitively confirmed by archaeological evidence and ten items (17%) have received possible–tentative, yet not fully verified–confirmation. Therefore, as things stand at the moment, current New World archaeological evidence tends to verify the claims made by the Book of Mormon.20
Those who make claims that there is no archaeological evidence supporting the Book of Mormon are right in one respect–we don’t know where the cities mentioned in the Book of Mormon are located. Such information may yet be discovered, but not discovering it is just as likely given the lack of cultural continuity and toponyms, as well as the epigraphic and iconographic uncertainties. To dismiss the Book of Mormon on archaeological grounds is short-sighted, as continuing discoveries provide ever more evidence that is consistent with the book. Archaeology is not a dead science, and it continues to make new inroads that are applicable to Book of Mormon studies.
Warren P. Aston, “New Found Altars from Nahom,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 10, no. 2 (2001): 56-61; also available online at http://farms.byu.edu/display.php?table=jbms&id=255
S. Kent Brown, “New Light: ‘The Place That Was Called Nahom’: New Light From Ancient Yemen,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 8, no. 1 (1999): 66-67; also available online at http://farms.byu.edu/display.php?table=jbms&id=187
John E. Clark, “Archaeology, Relics, and Book of Mormon Belief,” (MP3) BYU Speeches (5 May 2004), at http://speeches.byu.edu/freefiles/provider2/type2/Clark_John_052004.mp3
John E. Clark, “Debating the Foundations of Mormonism: The Book of Mormon and Archaeology,” FAIR Conference presentation (4 August 2005); audio and video recordings, as well as a transcript of Dr. Clark’s FAIR presentation will be available from www.fairlds.org by December 2005.
Brant Gardner, “A Social History of the Early Nephites,” FAIR Conference presentation (August 2001); available at http://www.fairlds.org/FAIR_Conferences/2001_Social_History_of_the_Early_Nephites.html
William J. Hamblin, “Basic Methodological Problems with the Anti-Mormon Approach to the Geography and Archaeology of the Book of Mormon,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 2, no. 1 (Spring 1993): 161-197; also available online at http://farms.byu.edu/display.php?table=transcripts&id=39
John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Provo and Salt Lake City: FARMS and Deseret Book, 1985).
John L. Sorenson, Images of Ancient America: Visualizing Book of Mormon Life (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1998).
John A. Tvedtnes, “Historic Archaeology and the Geographic Imperative,” FAIR (2005) at http://www.fairlds.org/Book_of_Mormon/Historic_Archaeology_and_the_Geographic_Imperative.html
1 Thanks to Dr. William J. Hamblin for his comments and corrections to this paper. Some of Dr. Hamblin’s Internet posts-as quoted in this paper-have received minor edits to more accurately reflect his position. Also, thanks to Allen Wyatt for his comments and suggestions.
2 William J. Hamblin (posting under the screen-name, “MorgbotX”), posted 29 January 2004 in thread, “What Would Be Proof of the Book of Mormon,” on Zion’s Lighthouse Bulletin Board (ZLMB) at http://p080.ezboard.com/fpacumenispagesfrm67.showMessage?topicID=213.topic (accessed 10 April 2005).
3 Hamblin citing Joyce Marcus, Mesoamerican Writing Systems (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992), 212-220 and Linda Schele and David Freidel, A Forest of Kings (New York: William Marrow & Company, 1990), 440, n28.
4 See Hamblin, posted 29 January 2004 in thread, “What Would Be Proof of the Book of Mormon,” on Zion’s Lighthouse Bulletin Board (ZLMB) at http://p080.ezboard.com/fpacumenispagesfrm67.showMessage?topicID=213.topic (accessed 10 April 2005).
5 William J. Hamblin, “Basic Methodological Problems with the Anti-Mormon Approach to the Geography and Archaeology of the Book of Mormon,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 2, no. 1 (1993): 164-165.
6 See Ether 15:11 and Mormon 6:6.
7 Hamblin, “Basic Methodological Problems with the Anti-Mormon Approach to the Geography and Archaeology of the Book of Mormon,” 162.
8 Ibid., 164.
9 William G. Dever, “Archaeology and the Bible: Understanding Their Special Relationship,” Biblical Archaeology Review (May/June 1990) 16:3.
10 William G. Dever, Recent Archaeological Discoveries and Biblical Research (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1990), 26; italics added.
11 Ibid., 5.
12 Daniel C. Peterson, “Chattanooga Cheapshot, or The Gall of Bitterness,” FARMS Review of Books (1993), 5:1, 36.
13 See Hamblin, “Basic Methodological Problems with the Anti-Mormon Approach to the Geography and Archaeology of the Book of Mormon,” 167.
14 Ibid., 169-170.
15 William J. Hamblin, message posted 20 October 2004 in thread, “Not So Easy? 2 BoM Challenge,” on FAIRboards.org at http://www.fairboards.org/index.php?showtopic=5543&hl=# (accessed 10 April 2005). See also William Hamblin, message posted 28 October 2004 in thread, “Not So Easy? 3″ on FAIRboards.org at http://www.fairboards.org/index.php?showtopic=5544&hl=# (accessed 10 April 2005).
16 William J. Hamblin, message posted 28 October 2004 in thread, “Not So Easy? BoM Challenge,” on FAIRboards.org at http://www.fairboards.org/index.php?showtopic=5540&view=findpost&p=137534 (accessed 10 April 2005).
17 William J. Hamblin, message posted 28 October 2004 in thread, “Not So Easy? 3″ on FAIRboards.org at http://www.fairboards.org/index.php?showtopic=5540&view=findpost&p=137808 (accessed 10 April 04 2005).
18 1 Nephi 16:3-4.
19 S. Kent Brown, “New Light: ‘The Place That Was Called Nahom”: New Light from Ancient Yemen,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 8, no. 1 (1999): 66-68.
20 John Clark, “Debating the Foundations of Mormonism: Archaeology and the Book of Mormon”, presentation at the 2005 FAIR Apologetics Conference (August 2005). Co-presenters, Wade Ardern and Matthew Roper.