Archaeology and Cumorah Questions



by John E. Clark


Excerpts from this article in the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies. A Publication of the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormons Studies at Brigham Young University.  Volume 13. Number. 1-2, .2004.


If known truth were accepted, Joseph Smith’s recovery of the golden plates from the Hill Cumorah would rank as one of the greatest archaeological finds of all time; coupled with the subsequent translation of this golden record into the Book of Mormon, there is nothing comparable in the annals of history. The story of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon reveals a constant tension between the miraculous and the mundane— angels and inscribed golden plates on the one hand, and on the other the work of lifting and carrying heavy objects, periodically hiding the plates, and translating a portion of them character by character. Surely there must have been easier ways. If divine intervention were necessary, why not have an angel just hand young Joseph an English copy of the sacred text and be done with it?  Why the drudgeries of exhumation, translation, and transcription, line for line? Was it necessary that Joseph deal with ancient artifacts and spend months with palpable relics dictating paragraphs to scribes? Apparently so. 


We await answers for most questions evoked by this miracle of divinely supervised archaeological toil. What we do know is that Joseph Smith Jr. found the golden plates and other relics in a stone box in a hill near his home, a prominence now known as Cumorah. And as many believe, Cumorah was also the place of the final battles described in the Book of Mormon that destroyed the Nephites and, centuriesearlier, the Jaredites. If any place merits archaeological attention, it is Cumorah. The very word elicits a series of empirical questions that can only be addressed through archaeology. For years, some scholars have suggested that the common usage of the word Cumorah confuses two different places and that the hill where Joseph Smith recovered the plates is not the eminence of the genocidal battles. Further, the Cumorah battlefield is seen by many scholars as the key for identifying the location of the ancient lands described in the book. Hence, much rests on its correct placement. All these observations lead to a paradox explored here: before archaeology can reveal Cumorah's secrets, it must first be employed to identify its location. The hill the plates came from is not at issue; the question is whether this final resting place is the same hill where the ending battles occurred. Many serious scholars have attempted to prove that the Palmyra hill was the battle hill, but to little avail, largely because they do not understand archaeology as an inexact science. They argue that the Palmyra hill and its surrounding area once had tons of convincing evidence that has long since been destroyed or carted away.  Most proposals for the location of Mormon's final stand fall into one of two possibilities: either the Palmyra hill or one in Middle America 2,000 miles o the south. Here I consider reasons for questioning the case for a New York location. I am unaware of any archaeological investigation of the hill itself, but sufficient information is available for the surrounding regions to make a critical assessment. Mormon's hill and Moroni's hill are not one and the same.  

What does archaeology reveal about the immediate environs of the New York hill? Is there evidence of habitation by the millions involved in the final battles? Did ancient fortifications ever stand on the Palmyra hill?  For the nearby Genesee Valley in New York, Neal L.. Tubowitz gives detailed information from  an intensive survey carried out in conjunction with the construction of a recent highway. For the wide strip of land involved, there is 100 percent coverage so the information for relative changes in occupation is unusually good, as such things go in archaeology. Trubowitz' information is more recent than Ritchie's summary.  


Hunting and gathering as a way of life continued into the Early Woodland Period [1000-300 BC], with land use still centered on the valley slope above the Genesee-Canaseraga junction as in the previous period. Very few data have been found on flood plain or lake plain sites during this time period. There are a number of camps recorded for the upland, though the site density there is still the lowest. The population probably remained stable. . . . The basic stability in lifestyle continued despitethe adoption of new technology (including ceramic pots and smoking pipes) and ideology (as seen in the elaboration of mortuary ceremonialism of the Middlesex and Meadowood phases in line with influences reaching the Genesee Valley from the Adena Tradition heartland in Ohio).  This pattern continued and intensified during the following Middle Woodland Period (500 BC-AD 1000).  Subsistence of the Point Peninsula Tradition was still based on hunting and gathering, and mortuary ceremonialism reached its fullest expression in exotic grave goods left in burial mounds of the Squawkie Hill phase, patterned after those found in Ohio (Hopewell Tradition). Verified mound sites are all on the valley slope overlooking the flood plain, as is often the case for contemporary mounds found in the Illinois and Ohio Valleys. Although only one site was found on the lake plain in the Highway sample, others did exist in the lower Genesee River basin. . . . Point Peninsula site density was greatest on the flood plain as opposed to the valley slope. This could show a shift in subsistence focus, but small sample size may be a controlling factor here. However, the number of known sites and total site density drops from the Early Woodland Meadowood and Middlesex phases to the Point Peninsula Tradition and Squawkie Hill phase. This implies that a population decline took place during the Middle Woodland Period.  These findings support Ritchie's earlier reports for New York. The population of the Genesee Valley was always small and dispersed in small bands. The food quest involved hunting and gathering of wild  plants, fruits, nuts, and berries. During the key time period (ca. AD 100- 400), the Genesee Valley suffered a decline in an already sparse population. No large sites are found here for any time period. Corn agriculture did not become a significant factor here or elsewhere in the mid-continent or the south-  eastern United States until after AD 1000}. With the commitment to corn agriculture, population and village sizes increased, and so did tensions. All the known fortified sites and villages in New York date to the latest time period, the Late Woodland sites and villages in New York date to the latest time period, the Late Woodland (AD 1000-1550). Clearly there were many settlements, and reports of them go back to the beginning of colonization, with the best report being Squier's 1851 study, complete with maps. It bears emphasizing that these fortified knolls and spurs were all quite small and would have accommodated only about 100 to 400 people each. They really do not fit large populations, even if they were of the right period. Fortifications are found associated with mass graves and large storage pits, some of which still haveevidence of stored maize. These are all known features of late occupation. The archaeology ofwestern New York forms a long record of small bands of hunters and gatherers (berry eaters) who lived there for millennia. The record is clear, and I accept it as it stands.  


In summary, the archaeology of New York is persuasive evidence that Book of Mormon peoples did not live in that region. By implication, the Cumorah of the golden plates is not the Cumorah of the final battles. These conclusions follow from a few basic points and assumptions. First, I presume that the archaeology of New York State, as currently published (2004), is a fair representation and adequate sample of what is there, and particularly that the evidence for some periods has not been systematically destroyed. Second, I presume that the evidence published for the various regions and time periods is accurate-that is, that the majority of archaeologists working in this region are competent and academically honest in terms of their archaeology. Third, I assume that additional research and discoveries will not significantly alter current understandings of the times or places of prehistoric occupation nor of the cultural practices involved; rather, such data will lead to minor adjustments to some of the details of prehistory. Fourth, the archaeological record lacks evidence for cities, sedentism, corn agriculture, fortifications, and dense populations during Archaic, Early Woodland, and MiddleWoodland times. In accord with these general observations about New York and Pennsylvania, we come to our principal object-the Hill Cumorah. Archaeologically speaking, it is a clean hill. No artifacts, no walls, no trenches, no arrow heads. The area immediately surrounding the hill is similarly clean. Pre-Columbian people did not settle or build here. This is not the place of Mormon's last stand. We must look elsewhere for that hill! The Palmyra hill is still a sacred place and was the repository of the golden plates and other relics placed there by Moroni. How Moroni made his way to this place and constructed his time capsule of artifacts is a historic adventure for another time.  

Copyright by ISPRT/FARMS, used by permission 




Clark, John E.