Foundations of Book of Mormon Archaeology

I’ve been enjoying Terryl Givens book, By the Hand of Mormon.  He has a positive view of Mormon scholarship, and goes into detail of both literary and archaeological scholarship. Wikipedia has some interesting information on Givens:

His second book, By the Hand of Mormon, is seen as his most important contribution to Mormon studies to date because it is the first academic survey of the significance of the Book of Mormon to believer and skeptic alike to be published by a major academic press (Oxford University Press). In it, Givens argues that the Book of Mormon has been important primarily for its existence and extra-textual historical claims rather than for its contents. Givens also makes a case for what he calls “dialogic revelation” as a novel contribution of the Book of Mormon. In current projects, he seems to be moving in the direction of broader engagement with religious themes across time and the western religious and philosophical traditions.

Critical response

General critical response to Givens work has been favorable from fellow scholars like Jan Shipps, Richard Bushman, and Harold Bloom. The New York Times referred to his work as “provocative”[1] and Harper’s praised him for being “fair-minded and unbiased.”[2] Some critics, however, have faulted him for what they see as an apologetic bent. Givens is a practicing Mormon who served as bishop in a local congregation for some years.

Givens seems to admit that literary evidence is a bit more compelling than archaeological evidence.  As a professor of literature and religion at the University of Richmond, he may have a bias there, but I think he is right.  I’m more interested in the archaeology, so I want to talk about that first.  (I plan a few posts on Givens.)  So, let’s talk about archaeology.  From page 112,

The New World Archaeological Foundation

New winds began to blow in 1945, when the new president of Brigham Young University created a chair of archaeology and filled the post with M. Wells Jakeman, one of the first Mormons formally trained as an archaeologist.<sup>80</sup>  Three years later, the new Department of Archaeology sponsored its first field work in southeastern Mexico.  Then, in the 1950s, an amateur scholar named Thomas Ferguson (present on that first 1948 dig) tried to nudge the church further into a new era of engagement with Book of Mormon archaeology.  Until now, church leaders and intellectuals from Joseph Smith to B.H. Roberts had waited upon the external evidence for the Book of Mormon as it gradually materialized–or, in some cases, failed to materialize.  Ferguson advocated vigorous effforts to uncover dramatic proof he was sure could be found.

…[page 113]

Overconfident he may have been.  But Alfred V. Kidder, a leading American archaeologist and past head of archaeology work for the Carnegie Institution of Washington, reviewed the copy that Ferguson sent him and gave teh young enthusiast encouragement.  More importantly, he helped Ferguson draft a proposal in April of 1951 asking hte church to fund an ambitious project of archaeological investigations, aiming to solve “the paramount problem of origins of the great civilizations of Middle America.”<sup>82</sup>  Several months later, the church denied the request for the five-year, $150,000 plan.<sup>83</sup>

Undeterred, by June of 1952 Ferguson had raised private funds sufficient to organize the Middle American Archaeological Foundation–later changed to the New World Archaeological Foundation (NWAF)–and to sponsor the first year of excavations in Mexico at those sites Ferguson tentativel identified as Nephite lands.  Board members included Alfred V. Kidder, Gordon F. Ekholm (of the American Museum of Natural History), and Gordon R. Willey (of Harvard).  Esteemed biblical archaeologist W.F. Albright offered his congratulations and support, and Thor Heyerdahl wrote Ferguson that his own recent work confirmed that “there was a white people in Southern Mexico and Guatemala many centuries before Columbus.”<sup>84</sup>

I need to take a break here.  William Albright was a big export in the 1948 discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and I believe he did quite a bit of research in the excavation of the Biblical city of Jericho.  He is a world-renown archaeologist, teaching at John Hopkins University.  Thor Hyerdahl is famous for sailing a bamboo raft he named Kon Tiki without mechanical power.  He travelled 4300 miles each way, proving travel from South America to the Polynesian islands was possible.  Obviously, this proves Lehi’s journey was possible.  So, these 2 experts, in addition to the other experts were some pretty important heavyweights in the field of archaeology.  Continuing on,

The foundation was expressly commissioned, in the words of Kidder, to test three theories about the origin of teh advanced civilizations of Mesoamerica: “(1) That they were autochthonous [indigenous, native–I had to look that up];  (2) That, as set forth in the Book of Mormon, they were derived from ancient Israel; (3) That their rise was due to stimuli from some Asiatic source.”<sup>85</sup>  The fact that archaeologists from Harvard, Carnegie, and American Museum of Natural History were apparently willing to consider the Book of Mormon as constituting a serious theory of Mesoamerican peopleing to be tested alongside their competing theories could be interpreted by some as a dramatic coming of age for Book of Mormon studies.  An NWAF editor and emininent archaologist, J. Alden Mason, insisted that the organization was not in the business of confirming scriptural accounts of antiquity, that the purpose of teh foundation was “not to seek corroboration of the Book of Mormon account.”<sup>86</sup>  Still, even if the approach was scientifically objective and the whole enterprise not just archaology in the service of apologetics, teh prestige of those endorsing hte project had lent powerful support to the credibility of the Book of Mormon.  The text was clearly a viable player on teh field of Mesoamerican stuides.  Non-Mormon scholars had just indicated as much, and in print.

… [ page 114]

Excavactions shed enormous light on a range of occupations that span a period both preceeding and postdating Nephite history.  They unearthed pottery, figurines, codices, tombs, and canal works–but without discovering anything as conclusive as Nephi’s tomb.  The most impressive find, in Ferguson’s opinion, was a set of tiny cylinder seals with markings apprently daing between 400 and 700 B.C.  The biblical archaeologeist W. F. Albright identified the markings on one as “degenerate cartouches of Mediterranean inspiration.”<sup>88</sup>  In a subsequent book, Ferguson listed some 300 cultural elements that he argued parallel Middle Eastern culture.<sup>89</sup>  His enthusiasm was such that he was soon discussing a documentary film project with Twentieth Century-Fox and a Book of Mormon museum, filled with his discoveries, with hotelier Williard Marriot.<sup>90</sup>  Though his lasting influence upon Book of Mormon scholarship was negligible, Ferguson did much at the time to raise the visibility of Mormon research.

Givens discusses the Smithsonian Institution letter (that anti-Mormons love to quote) stating that they do not use the Book of Mormon as a guide for archaeology.  John Sorenson is now the foremost expert on Book of Mormon archaeology in Mesoamerica now.  Of course, I’ve talked previously about other theories, including South America, New York, and the Malay Theory, but Mesoamerica is by far the leading theory among Book of Mormon geography buffs.  So, what do you think of the state of New World archaeology as it relates to the Book of Mormon?


14 comments on “Foundations of Book of Mormon Archaeology

  1. think Givens does an excellent job in citing what’s out there, but he is dependent on the archeologists he quotes, since his expertise is literary.

    I’m working through Sorenson now. I generally find that there is a lot more positive about Meso connections to the BofM than I expected to find. However, I’m also finding errors in Sorenson when he gets out of his own field. (Some of the things in geophysics or earth history do not hold up, for example, and Chrisopher Smith hammered me on Irresistable Disgrace when I injudiciously cited a Sorenson source on horse bone findings in Yucatan.)

    Sometimes, that strengthens my belief in Book of Mormon historicity; modern answers to some of the issues are actually better than the ones Sorenson proposes. But I have to regard the Book of Mormon as still a scientific anomaly, not well explained either as a Nineteenth Century creation or as an actual document from ancient MesoAmerica. My belief in its historicity arises from personal testimonies.

  2. MH, a couple of years ago I read a most disturbing book about Ferguson titled Quest for the Gold Plates. Have you come across this? It’s about his fervor for proving the archaelogy of the Book of Mormon and his discouragement after spending most of his life dedicated to this cause that he was never able to find any evidence.

    Thomas Ferguson worked hard to get the Mormon Church interested in helping with his New World Archaeological Foundation. In a letter to Mormon President David O. McKay, dated Dec. 14, 1951, Ferguson wrote: “If the anticipated evidences confirming the Book of Mormon are found, worldwide notice will be given to the restored gospel through the Book of Mormon. The artifacts will speak eloquently from the dust.” (The Messiah in Ancient America, p. 257) At first, so the story goes, Church leaders were reluctant to provide any financial help. Joseph Anderson, secretary to the First Presidency, responded that “The Brethren feel that it may be that no discovery will be made which shall establish the historical value of the Book of Mormon. They incline to feel that the faith now required to accept the book is a very considerable factor in the faith of the Restored Gospel, belief in which is the result of faith therein.”

    I always felt that that was a wishy-washy response. I want to jump aboard Ferguson’s (and now Sorenson’s) train and believe that there MUST be some kind of evidence that exists to support the claims of the Book of Mormon. But after reading about Ferguson’s experiences and resultant loss of faith at the end of his life, I now think it’s safer to take the Givens point of view.

  3. firetag I look forward to you analysis of sorensen. biv, I haven’t read ferguson’s book, but I am generally familiar with the story of his loss of faith from anti-mormon references. as you probably know by now, book of mormon geography is a pet topic of mine. I do wonder if ferguson was digging in the wrong place.

    I just got an email from george potter concerning silk, and i have been reviewing a new theory on baja california as the book of mormon lands. if ferguson put all his eggs in one basket, I can understand his discouragement and loss of faith, but I am trying to be open to other possibilities.

  4. I was reading about Ferguson’s “loss of faith” this weekend, from both anti-Mormon sources and from Mormon sources. The weekend was too scattered with a bunch of legal paperwork to remember this morning who said what where, but I gather that the finality of the loss is disputed, as well as its significance.

    Afterall, the hallmark of science is that it is supposed to be reproducible by others and not simply dependent on the reputation of the scientist. I don’t believe E=mcc because Einstein said so, but because I’ve seen the math for myself.

    At the same time, the Book of Mormon exists. It requires an explanation. And I find the idea of it as 19th Century fiction as scientifically inadequate as the evidence for its ancient origins.

    With my typical hubris, I’m not all that impressed with the Harvard faculty in 2010; I tend to regard the Harvard faculty in 1820 as truly backward, and incapable of faking a document of this quality. 😀

    As I think I said in my very first post on my own blog, at this point it’s not that the frog sings opera well, its that the frog still sings opera at all.

  5. My memory is correct. I talked about the necessity to test 19th Century explanations with scientific rigor as well here.

  6. Some people ask, “Where can I find the Nephite Exhibit at the Louvre? Where can I see the Lamanite Exhibit at the Smithsonian?” Before people go hunting for “Nephite” or Lamanite” artifacts, DNA and cities, shouldn’t we at least define what we are looking for first?

    1)political affiliation, loyal to the Nephi dynasty,kinda like Saudi, as in ibn Saud. Jacob 1:14
    2)believer in the religion taught by Nephi and his descendants, kinda like Josephite vs Brighamite. 4 Nephi 1:37
    3) a blood descendant of Nephi. 3 Nephi 5:10
    1) Anyone who is not a Nephite. Jacob 1:14.
    2)a blood descendant of Laman. Alma 55:4

  7. Take a site like Santa Rosa, which Sorenson believes is Zarahemla, what would it take to prove or disprove such an assertion?

  8. At the moment, an awful lot of SCUBA gear. 😀 The site is under a modern reservoir.

  9. It’s been a long time since I commented on this blog. I think that archeology can be a good tool to corroborate historical records, but that archeology is limited in its ability to confirm historical accuracy. Assuming that the Book of Mormon is a historical record, I think you have to look at it the same way that you would look at other abridged histories written at the same time from around the world. Livy’s history of Rome comes to mind. We have the archeology to show that certain events did happen to the Roman Republic, but we also know that there is a dearth of archeological records to corroborate events in Livy’s history. Does that mean that they were a product of Livy’s imagination? I’m sure that he embellished some of them, but I’m also sure that some events did happen more or less as he described them even without archeological evidence to back it up.

    There seems to be a lack of solid archeological support for the Book of Mormon, but I think that one can only dismiss the Book of Mormon as complete fiction if there was *no* archeological evidence at all. And that’s just simply not the case. If anything, the continued interest in Mesoamerican history and archeology, whether it leads to additional proof of the Book of Mormon, is still pretty useful. As I understand it, there are a lot of historical sites in Mexico and Central America that haven’t even really been explored or studied.

  10. […] time to get back to Terryl Givens book, By the Hand of Mormon.  While acknowledging archaeological data isn’t as strong as other aspects of the Book of Mormon, Givens seems to feel Mormon academics […]

  11. Archeology plays a role once we have established a location for the Book of Mormon lands. If we don’t have the geography correct how can we verify archaeologic evidences? Even if we find something we believe is built by Nephites or Lamanites what would you use that is recorded in the Book of Mormon that we could correlate to what we have found? In other words, is their any specific feature recorded regarding the shape, size, surroundings, building materials, or anything that we can use as yardstick to measure what we have found through archeology? I think the frustration of the lack of any archaeologic evidence is based on the fact that those doing archeology have forgotten about the geography. If anything is expected to last 2000 it is the geography and environment recorded in the Book of Mormon.

  12. David, good to see you back here. I am probably going to do a post on your theory soon. I finally read through the PDF you posted last year. Do you have any updates, or is that the latest version?

    I think the frustration of the lack of any archaeologic evidence is based on the fact that those doing archeology have forgotten about the geography.

    I’m not sure I agree with this sentiment. All of the theories I have read are VERY focused on the geography, but it is obvious that some people (perhaps all) are digging in the wrong place.

  13. We do have a number of updates on our site http://www.achoiceland.com. There is a section there called Geography that has about four articles on different topics. We have plans to add about 8 more, each of which take some time to compile and fully research. I’d love to talk to you about our theory if you would like to discuss it offline, email me. I’ve found that you are one of the few people who can “keep up” with the discussion without being too biased.

    I agree that everyone may be “digging” in the wrong place, including us. The premise of the statement is that I don’t believe there are any “confirmed” archeological artifacts that can be traced back to the Book of Mormon record. Even after spending 10’s of millions of dollars and looking for over 180 years (to some degree). In fact your original posts speaks of Bro. Ferguson’s frustration who spent a lifetime trying to find something.

    From the Book of Mormon record it appears the geography (or scale) is not very large perhaps 100 x 600 miles. Therefore, until we can substantiate where that may be, any work on archeology will probably be futile. Once a location is believed to be found we believe that some form of archeological artifacts should be present. And if we don’t find anything that matches the text of the record I would suggest reviewing the original geographical hypothesis.

    The next question is what should we expect to find based on the text of the Book of Mormon. The text itself is fairly void of any specific features of buildings that would now be ruins so I’m not sure we would be able to scientifically identify a Nephite building unless it had an inscription on it that we could read.

  14. I checked out your video, and it seemed pretty similar to what I read in the 60 page PDF. I’ll see if I can find any other details, and send you an email.

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