Mesoamerican Archaeology & the Book of Mormon - Article 1: Being Here
by F. Richard Hauck
In 1989 or 1990, a year or so after the publication of Deciphering the Geography of the Book of Mormon hit the shelves in Deseret Book, I was in Guatemala City for some needed R&R. I had spent an exhausting week or so of exploration in the mountains to the north of that city and needed to rest. My R&R, or rest & recreation, in those days actually consisted of L&C, laundry & church—quite different from the R&R offered by the Marine Corps so many years earlier.
Don was affable enough, he is a friendly guy although somewhat guarded. He showed me some of the ceramics and I thought they were pretty nifty—that sort of thing.
The interesting experience was my encounter with Richard Hansen, who also was there at the time. Richard Hansen, like Forsyth, Matheny and myself, is a member of the LDS Church and an archaeologist. He is currently directing the excavations at El Mirador. However, in the late 1980’s Hansen was a graduate student working with the Mathenys.
Anyway, while sitting there talking about archaeology and Mesoamerica and the research that we all three are dedicated to, the topic of my book Deciphering… came up. I doubt that I raised it, but I may have in response to a question like, “Well Ric, what are you doing in Guatemala these days?” Maybe that is how it happened. Anyway, I probably said something like, “I am field testing the theories that I stated in that book. Right now I am returning from the Coban highlands where I have been documenting and exploring a series of fortification trench systems that meet all the geographical criteria in the Book of Mormon for the fortifications at Manti.” Maybe that is how it went.
I remember Don Forsyth carefully watching my reaction when Hansen launched his question. It went something like this: “Why on earth did you publish that research? You know what that can do to you in the academic world?” Hansen went on to state something to the effect: “You could have just retained all that data to yourself and gone about doing archaeology with no one the wiser and years later, after you had established an archaeological correlation with all the geographic analyses, you could have come forward then and shown what you had theorized without taking this risk of being ostracized from the archaeological community.”
I guess the answer that I gave Hansen then is the same answer that I would give anyone who should ask that very same question, today. I stated, something like, “What good is a theory if it isn’t put out there for the world to see and evaluate? Suppose I had done as you stated, hidden my research away until I had proven it to be true and then, when no longer worried about censure, I were to pronounce to the world: Voila!! Look at this—I had it figured out 30 years ago! Were I to do as you suggest, people would have no reason to examine the principles behind this geographical and archaeological research. What credibility would this work have then?”
The purpose of my going into all this detail about a long-ago meeting is not to reminisce about the past. My purpose is to focus on two words that should go hand in hand together: theory and research. True science is accomplished by thinking and testing—that is how progress occurs. This concept has as its core the precept of “line upon line” or working from one established assessment to the next. And in doing so, the researcher has to be willing to back away from a failed premise and start over again in a different direction when warranted by the evidence.
Now, as I write, the year is 2009. It is a Sunday evening and I am sitting here in my office in the Guatemalan highlands considering this article for Meridian Magazine and the work before me tomorrow. My Guatemalan archaeologists will be returning in the morning from a weekend in the city ready to commence excavations where they left off Friday afternoon. We are working at Tzalcam, a 2,000 to 3,000 year old fortified ceremonial center situated in the Salama basin. We are excavating Tzalcam because, (a) it is a wonderful archaeological challenge, and, (b) because it is a very possibly the ancient city of Nephi.
The geographical model of the Book of Mormon that has led me to Tzalcam, and the Salama basin is a second generation away from the original model that I published in Deciphering…. From 1981 until 2007 I worked under the assumption that Mixco Viejo, in the Motogua River depression, some 43 km. (27 miles) to the southwest of this office, was the viable candidate for the ancient city of Nephi. Mixco Viejo met many of the criteria stated in the Book of Mormon. However, during all those years, my occasional archaeological recons at Mixco Viejo never satisfied two fundamental criteria—the geography of the locality just would not yield on these two points: (a) the identification of ruins marking the impressive and contemporaneous Lamanite settlement of Shemlon to the east of Nephi, and (b) the location of the Nephite satellite settlement of Shilom to the north across the river from Mixco Viejo. My final reconnaissance in 2007 was deliberately planned to either establish those associations or drop the site altogether.
So, in 2007, after spending several days in the bush searching potential locations for evidence of Shemlon and Shilom, I finally gave it up. My companion and I worked our way back to the road, sheathed our machetes, dropped the bag containing our meager collection of pottery sherds in the trunk of the car, and gave it up. Mixco Viejo was crossed off the list.
I reviewed the maps, I reviewed the criteria for Nephi as established by the model published in Deciphering… and selected a second candidate to explore: the Salama valley. During 2007, after several forays into this delightful and highly productive valley, my companions and I were able to establish correlations with 33 out of the 40 criteria relative to the land of Nephi as stated or implied in the Book of Mormon. Viable ruins for Shemlon and Shilom also finally fell into place with a resounding thud.
So here I am, far from my wife and home in Bountiful, Utah. I am here trying to do “good archaeology,” archaeology that will be acceptable to all my colleagues, both Mormons and otherwise. Here I am trying to assemble a massive and very complicated puzzle that could eventually expand our understanding not only of Mesoamerican archaeology but also of the Book of Mormon peoples.
In the months ahead we will hopefully continue digging at these various locations focused on using “good science” to establish the archaeological fundamentals of each site. But as we dig, measure, map, photograph, and evaluate hour by hour, day by day, I will be watching for all the subtle evidences that will either verify or refute these sites as having been linked to the peoples and settlements of the Book of Mormon.