Steel Older Than Previously Thought

Steel Older Than Previously Thought

John A. Tvedtnes

The Book of Mormon says that Nephi (ca. 600 BC) had a bow of “fine steel” (1 Nephi 16:28). Critics have long taken this to be anachronistic, claiming that steel is a modern invention. However, the term “bow of steel” is found three times in the King James version (KJV, published 1611) of the Bible (1 Samuel 22:35; Job 20:24; Psalm 18:34) and the term “steel” is found in Jeremiah 15:12. The Hebrew word behind these passages is actually the term used for copper and its alloys, notably bronze.

The word “steel,” today used to refer to a specific range of iron alloys, did not always have that meaning. When the King James Bible was translated, the term “steel” referred to anything hard, which could apply to bronze or various other metals as readily as iron. Even in Joseph Smith’s day, one of the meanings given in Webster’s 1828 dictionary for “steel” was “extreme hardness,” while the verbal form means “to make hard.” The second entry under the noun “steel” says the word is used figuratively for “weapons; particularly of defensive weapons, swords, spears and the like.”

In 2 Nephi 5:14, we read “And I, Nephi, did take the sword of Laban, and after the manner of it did make many swords, lest by any means the people who were now called Lamanites should come upon us and destroy us; for I knew their hatred towards me and my children and those who were called my people.” From 1 Nephi 4:9, we know that Laban’s sword had a blade made “of the most precious steel.” Such metal swords were known in the Old World, but the ones found in the New World are comprised mostly of wood, often with sharp pieces of bitumen imbedded as blades.[i]

Nephi’s use of Laban’s sword for a pattern does not mean he used the same materials. Even if he did make metal swords, due to the small size of his group and the fact that a single man produced these weapons, they were probably not very numerous.[ii] Moreover, from Nephi’s description of the sword, with its “precious steel” blade and its hilt “of pure gold” (1 Nephi 4:9),[iii] one gathers that this was a not the kind of weapon carried by a foot soldier, but an expensive piece of “exceedingly fine” workmanship that would belong to a high-ranking military leader.[iv] Consequently, we should expect that the Nephite swords were inferior to the original. It is interesting that 2 Nephi 5:14 is the only passage that suggests that Laban’s sword was used as a pattern for other weapons. In subsequent passages, only the king wields the sword of Laban in battle, and it was passed down as a prized relic, indicating its uniqueness (Jacob 1:10; Words of Mormon 1:13; Mosiah 1:16; D&C 17:1).[v]

Iron was introduced into the Syro-Palestinian area from Asia Minor (western Turkey) by the Philistines ca. 1200 BC, but it already had a history in the Philistine homeland other parts of Turkey controlled by the Hittites. But we now know that the first steel in the ancient Near East predates this time period. It was long considered to have been invented ca. 1400 BC.[vi]

 It now appears that steel production in the ancient Near East can be traced to an earlier period than previously thought. In 1994, a team of Japanese archaeologists excavating the ancient site at Kaman-Kelehoyu, a hundred kilometers south of the Turkish capital of Ankara, unearthed two pieces of metal unearthed at colonial ruins in Turkey that are now the world’s oldest known examples of a crude type of steel, dating ca. 1800 BC. The metal pieces measure between one and two centimeters long and about one centimeter wide. The texture is similar to steel and fluoroscopic analysis has determined that carbon (which is mixed with iron to form steel) accounts 0.1 to 0.3 percent of the objects. Prior to this find, crude steel fragments found in the same area dated between the 14th and 12th centuries BC and were believed to be the oldest steel in the world. A clay tablet found in Bogazkoy, Turkey, the capital of the Hittite Empire of that time, had an inscription that mentions, “High-quality iron,” which may refer to steel.[vii]

In March 1999, the Japanese team announced that the same site had disclosed a 5-cm. piece of steel from an earlier stratum dated to 2100-1950 BC that was part of a knife. [viii] Nearby were found 2-cm-diameter slag and two iron-containing stones representing the ore used in the smelting process. These new discoveries make it possible, though not certain, that Laban’s sword blade really was made of steel, rather than of a copper alloy.[ix]


[i] It is known that pieces of iron were sometimes substituted for the obsidian, though obsidian was far sharper. For discussions of swords used in ancient Mesoamerica, see the following articles by Matthew Roper: “Eyewitness Descriptions of Mesoamerican Swords,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 5/1 (1996); “Swords and ‘Cimeters’ in the Book of Mormon,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 8/1 (1999); “On Cynics and Swords,” FARMS Review 9/1 (1997); “Book of Mormon Swords in American Antiquity,” Insights: An Ancient Window 28/2 (2008). See also William J. Hamblin and A. Brent Merrill, “Swords in the Book of Mormon,”  in Stephen D. Ricks and William J. Hamblin (eds.), Warfare in the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret and FARMS, 1990).

[ii] Similarly, Nephi “did construct [a temple] after the manner of the temple of Solomon save it were not built of so many precious things; for they were not to be found upon the land, wherefore, it could not be built like unto Solomon’s temple. But the manner of the construction was like unto the temple of Solomon; and the workmanship thereof was exceedingly fine” (2 Nephi 5:16). See John L. Sorenson, “Viva Zapato! Hurray for the Shoe!” Review of Books on the Book of Mormon 6/1 (1994), 324-25, where he discusses the Book of Mormon use of “pattern” as not referring to material.

[iii] Nephi’s appreciation of the fine quality of Laban’s sword, along with other evidences in his account, suggest that Lehi’s family may have been smiths, skilled in the production of metal implements. See the discussion in John A. Tvedtnes, “Was Lehi a Caravaneer?” (Provo: FARMS preliminary report TVE-84, 1984), reprinted as chapter 10 in John A. Tvedtnes, The Most Correct Book: Insights From a Book of Mormon Scholar (Salt Lake City: Cornerstone, 1999, later reissued by Horizon).

[iv] That Laban was a high-ranking military leader is suggested in 1 Nephi 3:31–4:1, where we read that he commanded a group of fifty men plus tens of thousands. Hugh Nibley has elicited evidence that there were, in the time of Lehi, military units comprising fifty men that were called “fifty” in Babylonian records and concludes that Laban was a military commander with a local garrison of fifty and a larger force in the field. See Hugh W. Nibley, Lehi in the Desert, The World of the Jaredites, There Were Jaredites (Salt Lake City: Deseret and FARMS, 1988), 97–98; Hugh W. Nibley An Approach to the Book of Mormon, 3rd ed. (Salt Lake City: Deseret and FARMS, 1988), 126–27.

[v] For discussions of the sword as a symbol of leadership/kingship, see the following articles: Todd R. Kerr, “Ancient Aspects of Nephite Kingship in the Book of Mormon,” which appeared in Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 1/1 (1992); Gordon C. Thomasson, “Mosiah: the Complex Symbolism and Symbolic Complex of Kingship in the Book of Mormon,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 2/1 (Spring 1993): 26-28; Brent L. Holbrook, “Sword of Laban as a Symbol of Divine Authority,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 2/1 (Spring 1993; an earlier, shorter version was published in John W. Welch and Melvin J. Thorne, eds., Pressing Forward With the Book of Mormon (Provo: FARMS, 1999); Daniel N. Rolph, “Prophets, Kings, and Swords: The Sword of Laban and Its Possible Pre-Laban Origin,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 2/1 (Spring 1993); Stephen D. Ricks, “Kingship, Coronation, and Covenant in Mosiah 1-6,” in John W. Welch and Stephen D. Ricks, eds., King Benjamin’s Speech (Provo: FARMS, 1998). In Hugh Nibley’s writings, there are scattered references to the sword of Laban as one of the Nephite “national treasures” passed down from one leader to another.

[vi] See the discussion in John L. Sorenson, “Steel in Early Metallurgy,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 15/2 (2006).

[ix] One passage in the Book of Mormon suggests that the Jaredites may have used steel. During the civil war between Shule and Corihor, the former “did molten out of the hill, and made swords out of steel” (Ether 7:9). Because we have no clear idea of Jaredite chronology, we cannot know in which year this took place, though archaeologist John L. Sorenson has estimated the time period as ca. 2300 BC (Sorenson, “The Years of the Jaredites”) . Moreover, we cannot be sure that Moroni correctly understood the Jaredite term he rendered by a word that Joseph Smith later translated “steel.” On returning from their expedition into the lands of the Jaredites (ca. 121 BC), a band of Nephite explorers “brought breastplates, which are large, and they are of brass and of copper, and are perfectly sound. And . . . they have brought swords, the hilts thereof have perished, and the blades thereof were cankered with rust” (Mosiah 8:10­-11). The “rust” may be merely a guess on the part of the Nephite explorers or it may reflect patina that is copper or silver oxide instead of iron oxide, which is what we call “rust.”