Archaeology and the Book of Mormon
Why is there no archaeological evidence for the Book of Mormon, when there is so much evidence for the Bible?
There are two separate issues here. First, let’s look at the Bible, whose historicity is hotly debated by the “minimalist” and the “maximalists.” The minimalists see little if any evidence for the Bible from archaeology and even consider that some of the inscriptional evidences may be modern forgeries, while the maximalists believe that the Bible is essentially an accurate history. However, very few of the maximalists accept some things, such as Moses and the Exodus, the conquest of Canaan under Joshua, the patriarchs, and the like. Some of them believe there was no kingdom of David and Solomon, and there is no archaeological evidence for Solomon’s temple or a city of Nazareth in the time of Christ.
We agree with the maximalist school of thought, that there is indeed evidence to support the Bible as an authentic ancient text. We also accept the Book of Mormon as an authentic ancient text and much of the evidence for that assertion has been published over the last couple of decades by the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, now the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University.
Most Latter-day Saint scholars acknowledge Mesoamerica (mostly southern Mexico and Guatemala) as the milieu for the accounts in the Book of Mormon. Mesoamericanists have indicated that less than 1% of the Preclassical sites (Book of Mormon era) in Mesoamerica have been excavated. This is mostly because when the archaeologists expose classical sites (post-Book of Mormon era), the government usually comes in and opens the area up to tourists to show off the later, rather large and impressive buildings rather than the earlier ones. While Mesoamerican archaeology did not really get under way until the 20th century, excavations have been going on in Israel since 1864, when Sir Flinders Petrie conducted the first survey of ancient Jerusalem.
Our critics often want us to show them inscriptions with the names of Nephite cities on them, not realizing that prior to the 1930s, only Jerusalem, of all the ancient Israelite cities, had been identified by an in-situ inscription. Even today, only 7 such sites have been so identified in Israel, the last one because of an inscription discovered as late as 1996. All the rest of the sites are educated guesses, with no inscriptional evidence. During the 1970s, three different sites were identified, one after the other, as the ancient city of Debir, conquered in the time of Joshua. The first of these identifications had been made by Petrie a century earlier. The last—and the most likely—is at Tel Rabud, which fits the geography better and is a metathesized form of Debir. Still, it is only an educated guess. When Yohanan Aharoni excavated the site called Arad by the Bedouin, he was disappointed to find that the city was not inhabited in the time of Moses and Joshua, as the Bible requires. Similarly, archaeologists are convinced that there are no remains of the city of Jericho from the time of Joshua, nor of the city of Ai, which Joshua also conquered.
Many Book of Mormon scholars believe that the city of Nephi can be identified with the ruins of Kamilaljuyu, in Guatemala City. The city constructed by the Jaredite king Lib following the great drought (Ether 10:19-20) is likely the site of San Lorenzo in Mexico, which is near the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, generally thought to be the “narrow neck of land” mentioned in the Book of Mormon and near which Lib built his city. Archaeological evidence suggests that the area was hit by drought prior to construction of the site, which also dates from the time of the Jaredites.[i]
Another site mentioned in the book of Mormon that has been identified is Nahom, in the southwestern Arabian peninsula, where Ishmael died and was buried (1 Nephi 16:34). The site is still known by that name by local Bedouin tribes and the name has been found on three altars from the time of Lehi excavated nearby by a term of German archaeologists.[ii]
Weapons and armor have been noted in Mesoamerica and we have the descriptions of early Spanish Conquistadors as well, which match those found in the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon describes the garb of Nephite soldiers as “thick clothing,” with head-plates and arm-plates (Alma 43:19), which is precisely the kind of armor used by the Aztecs and other peoples at the time of the Spanish conquest. The Mesoamerican head-plates and arm-plates were made of wood, as were some of the weapons, including the curved sword termed a “cimeter” in the Book of Mormon.
The most common criticism is that archaeologists have not found horse bones in the Americas that date during the time of the Book of Mormon. Actually, that is wrong. Horse bones were found in association with classical and preclassical Mayan remains at Mayapan and Loltun. Precolumbian horse bones have also been found in a few North American sites, the oldest being a sample from Florida that was radiocarbon-dated to ca. 100 B.C.
Should we expect more horse bones? Actually, it is fortuitous that any have been uncovered. Archaeology is a very serendipitous affair. One finds what one finds, not necessarily everything that was there anciently. Archaeology does not seek to uncover an entire site, but to sink test squares in various places to get a sampling of what was once there. As Israelites, the Nephites would not have consumed horse meat (forbidden in the law of Moses), so any horse that died in a Nephite village would have been dragged out to be exposed to scavengers. Since archaeologists only excavate human settlements, it is a wonder that any horses remains have been found.
We have a parallel situation in Israel. The Bible frequently mentions lions living in the Holy Land. David and Samson each killed a lion and two prophets were slain by lions. So why haven’t lions been found in Israel by archaeologists? First, we should not expect them to be found, since the law of Moses also prohibits the consumption of the flesh of predators, so a dead lion should not be found in an Israelite settlement. (Remember, archaeologists only excavate human settlements.) As it turns out, in 1988, some 124 years after the first excavations in the Holy Land, two lion skeletons were—serendipitously, of course—found in northern Israel.
We should not expect too much of archaeology, nor should we rely on archaeology for our faith in the Bible or the Book of Mormon. People believed in the Bible for two thousand years before any archaeological evidence supporting it was found. Why not give the Book of Mormon the same benefit of a doubt?
See the discussion in John A. Tvedtnes, “Historic Archaeology and the Geographic Imperative,” posted on the FAIR web site.
See, for example, 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 2/1 (Spring 1993).
[i] V. Garth Norman, “San Lorenzo as the Jaredite City of Lib” Newsletter and Proceedings of the S.E.H.A. (Society for Early Historic Archaeology) No. 153 (June 1983).
[ii] See the following: Warren P. and Michaela Knoth Aston, In the Footsteps of Lehi: New Evidence for Lehi’s Journey across Arabia to Bountiful (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1994); Warren P. Aston, “Newly Found Altars from Nahom“, Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 10/2 (2001); S. Kent Brown, S. Kent, “‘The Place That Was Called Nahom’: New Light from Ancient Yemen,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 8/2 (1999); Ross T. Christensen (August 1978), “The Place Called Nahom,” Ensign (August 1978); Alan Goff, “Mourning, Consolation, and Repentance at Nahom” in John L. Sorenson and Melvin J. Thorne (eds.), Rediscovering the Book of Mormon (Provo: FARMS, 1991); S. Kent Brown, “On Nahom/NHM,” posted on the Nephite Project web site.