Archaeology

by David J. Johnson

Archaeology is the study and interpretation of past human cultures based on known material remains. Biblical and Mesoamerican archaeological research is of special interest to Latter-day Saints.

Archaeological data from the ancient Near East and the Americas have been used both to support and to discredit the Book of Mormon. Many scholars see no support for the Book of Mormon in the archaeological records, since no one has found any inscriptional evidence for, or material remains that can be tied directly to, any of the persons, places, or things mentioned in the book (Smithsonian Institution).

Several types of indirect archaeological evidence, however, have been used in support of the Book of Mormon. For example, John L. Sorenson and M. Wells Jakeman tentatively identified the Olmec (2000-600 B.C.) and Late Pre-Classic Maya (300 B.C.-A.D. 250) cultures in Central America with the jaredite and nephite cultures, based on correspondences between periods of cultural development in these areas and the pattern of cultural change in the Book of Mormon.

Likewise, parallels between cultural traits of the ancient Near East and Mesoamerica perhaps indicate transoceanic contacts between the two regions. Among these are such minor secondary traits as horned incense burners, models of house types, wheel-made pottery, cement, the true arch, and the use of stone boxes. All of these may, however, represent independent inventions. Stronger evidence for contacts may be found in the tree of life motif, a common religious theme, on Stela 5 from Izapa in Chiapas, Mexico. Jakeman, in 1959, studied Stela 5 in detail and concluded that it represented the sons of a legendary ancestral couple absorbing and perhaps recording their knowledge of a munificent Tree of Life. This can be compared favorably to the account of Lehi's vision in the Book of Mormon (1 Ne. 8).

The presence of a bearded white deity, Quetzalcoatl or Kukulcan, in the pantheon of the Aztec, Toltec, and Maya has also been advanced as indirect evidence of Christ's visit to the New World. The deity is represented as a feathered serpent, and elements of his worship may have similarities to those associated with Christ's Atonement.

Recent work by LDS professional archaeologists such as Ray Matheny at El Mirador and by the New World Archaeological Foundation in Chiapas has been directed toward an understanding of the factors that led to the development of complex societies in Mesoamerica in general. Under C. Wilfred Griggs, a team of Brigham Young University scholars has sponsored excavations in Egypt, and other LDS archaeologists have been involved in projects in Israel and Jordan.

Another area of archaeological investigation is in LDS history. Dale Berge's excavations at Nauvoo; the Whitmer farm in New York; the early Mormon settlement of Goshen (Utah); the Utah mining town of Mercur; and, most recently, Camp Floyd, the headquarters of Johnston's army in Utah, have provided information about the economic and social interactions between early Mormon and non-Mormon communities.

(See Basic Beliefs home page; Scriptural Writings home page; Basic Methodological Problems with the Anti-Mormon Approach to the Geography and Archaeology of the Book of Mormon )

Bibliography

Griggs, C. Wilfred. Excavations at Seila, Egypt. Provo, Utah, 1988.

Jakeman, M. Wells. "The Main Challenge of the Book of Mormon to Archaeology; and a Summary of Archaeological Research to Date Giving a Preliminary Test of Book-of-Mormon Claims." In Progress in Archaeology, An Anthology, ed. R. Christensen, pp. 99-103. Provo, Utah, 1963.

Jakeman, M. Wells. "Stela 5, Izapa, as `The Lehi Tree-of-Life Stone."' In The Tree of Life in Ancient America, ed. R. Christensen. Provo, Utah, 1968.

Matheny, Ray T. "An Early Maya Metropolis Uncovered, Elmirador." National Geographic 172, no. 3 (1987):316-39.

Smithsonian Institution. "Statement Regarding the Book of Mormon." Department of Anthropology, National Museum of Natural History, SIL-76, 1982.

Sorenson, John L. "An Evaluation of the Smithsonian Institution's 'Statement' Regarding the Book of Mormon" F.A.R.M.S. Paper. Provo, Utah, 1982.

Sorenson, John L. An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon. Salt Lake City, 1985.