Metals and the Book of Mormon

Metals and the Book of Mormon
Mesoamerica vs Peru


In October 2010, Daniel Johnson, principal author of An LDS Guide to Mesoamerica, gave this presentation at the Book of Mormon Archaeological Forum's annual conference. One of his purposes was to show the current strong evidence for the history of metallurgy and metal artifacts in Ancient America, including late Classic Mayan gold plates with hieroglyphic writing. Another was to examine closely the text of the Book of Mormon itself to see what it says about the use of metals, tools, and weapons, rather than what we have imagined for years. Finally, he showed that all of the metals and metal items mentioned are accurate for the time period and setting in the Old World, suggesting that all Nephite metalworking, however long it lasted, can probably be traced back to Nephi, rather than to any known American cultures.

Click here to watch the presentation. Sound is required. 

Author George Potter from the Nephi Project website (which advocates Peru as the lands of the Book of Mormon) wrote an article claiming that the presentation is misleading.  Potter's article and a response from Johnson follow:

George Potter, February 2011


During the ten years I have written monthly newsletters for the Nephi Project, I have refrained from criticizing other Book of Mormon researchers. Unfortunately, I find it necessary to make an exception. While I believe the author's intentions are good, I find disturbing two recent newsletters by Daniel Johnson from the Book of Mormon Archaeology Forum (BMAF). Both articles are an obvious attempt by Brother Johnson to explain why he believes the Book of Mormon took place in Mesoamerica. However, the evidence he presents does just the opposite. Even more disappointing, when one is careless in their defense of the historicity of the Book of Mormon, non-LDS scholars can point to these works as examples of incompetent Book of Mormon scholarship.

In the first newsletter BMAF: 64 Metals and Gold Plates in Mesoamerica, we read:

"Learn exactly what the Book of Mormon says about the use of metals. See how the necessary ore deposits correspond with proposed Book of Mormon locations. Study the fascinating artifacts of gold, copper, bronze, and iron from known excavations, including Mayan examples of hieroglyphic writing on gold plates!" 

 The newsletter then directs the reader to Daniel Johnson's presentation slides that he delivered at the foundation's conference last year.

At first the metal artifacts shown in Johnson's slides from Mesoamerica might seem impressive; however, the slides fail to explain that these artifacts are, without exception, from civilizations that existed long after the plates of the Book of Mormon were buried by Moroni. The only hint that the artifacts are not associated with Book of Mormon people is Slide #31 which notes: "Stela H at Copán, site of the earliest gold artifacts in Mesoamerica, dating to 730 AD."


 Suggesting that the metal articles that have been discovered in Mesoamerica-all of which date to post-Book-of-Mormon times-are evidence for the Book of Mormon is nonsense. The Book of Mormon clearly states that the Jaredite and Nephite civilizations had advanced metallurgical technologies (Ether 10:23; Hel. 6:9). As is posted online at BYU's Neal Maxwell Institute (F.A.R.M.S.), "Complex and sophisticated metallurgical technologies in the pre-Columbian New World, however, are presently recognized only in the Andes Mountains of Peru and Chile, where copper was smelted from rare copper arsenides, sulfates, and chlorides."("Copper, Bronze, and Brass," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 9 (2001), 1.) Further, archaeologists now believe that Central Americans did not discover how to work metals but that the technology was introduced to them from Peru long after the Book of Mormon period. (see John Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, 279-280.)  

 Apparently I was not the only reader who understood the fallacy of Johnson's presentation. The Book of Mormon Archaeology Foundation's follow-up newsletter BMAF: 66 (Metals and Gold Plates in Mesoamerica controversy) notes that: 


 "We have received feedback that some have used Brother Johnson's material to bolster their Book of Mormon proposals in Panama and Peru."


In response, the foundation published an "open letter" from Johnson in which he wishes "to clarify the points I [he] was trying to make with my [his] presentation at the BMAF conference last year."


So misleading were Johnson's clarifications that I found myself compelled to respond to his open letter. Daniel's open-letter clarifications are in black font. My responses are in blue.  


"1- Mesoamerica (specifically the Guatemalan highlands) contains all the necessary ores for the metals mentioned in the Book of Mormon."   


Yes, however currently there is no evidence that anyone in Mesoamerica was smelting gold before the 8th century A.D. To imply that 8th-century smelting had something to do with the Book of Mormon Jaredites and Nephites-who both wrote on gold plates-is a historical misrepresentation akin to saying that the Romans invented the airplane or silicon chip. 


"2- Metals were apparently mainly used by the Nephites (as opposed to the Lamanites) and may not have been used as much or as late as we have supposed. The main component of Nephite armor appears to have been thick clothing. This agrees with the archaeological record and Spanish accounts of the Mesoamerican conquest." 


The notion that the later Nephites did not work metals is a personal supposition that is not supported by the text of the Book of Mormon. The latter part of his clarification is simply inconsistent with the description of Nephite armor and weapons. Only on one occasion does the Book of Mormon describe the Nephite armor being made of cloth, which is a better description of Inca armor than the linen armor of the Aztecs. The Incas' thick cloth armor was adopted by the Spanish. 

"3- The last mention of Nephite steel is in 400 B.C., and the last mention of iron is in 150 B.C. These metals are never mentioned among or used by the Lamanites. Incidentally, biblical Hebrew does not distinguish between iron and steel. All the Hebrew words in the Bible refer to pure metals, not to their alloys. 


There have been hundreds of Book of Mormon period Mayan excavations, yet none of them have provided evidence of iron, copper, silver or gold usage in Central America! On the other hand, the only known mining of iron in the Americas during Book of Mormon times has been discovered in Nazca, Peru. 

"4- Book of Mormon weapons for most of the record can all be deadly effective without being made of metal, including weapons the Spanish called 'swords.' There are numerous eyewitness accounts of this." 

Johnson seems to suggest that the metal weapons described in the Book of Mormon were not actually metal! More than support for the Book of Mormon, this seems to be more of an excuse for why no evidence of Book of Mormon period metal weapons has been excavated north of Panama. 


"5- My main suggestion is that any Nephite metal item can be traced directly back to Nephi and was not shared with other groups. The use of metal tools and items may have been discarded as Nephites moved away from their sources of ore and adapted to more indigenous ways. The only metal items we absolutely know of at the end of Nephite history are the plates and other unique items in Moroni's possession." 

Alma wrote in circa 90 B.C. "And now, because of the steadiness of the church they began to be exceedingly rich, having abundance of all things whatsoever they stood in need-an abundance of flocks and herds, and fatlings of every kind, and also abundance of every kind, and also abundance of grain, and of gold, and of silver, and precious things, and abundance of silk and fine-twined linen, and all manner of good homely cloth" (Alma 1:29). The Nephites were mining silver and gold for at least 500 years and had these metals in abundance. Furthermore, no evidence has been discovered of the Mesoamericans having had "flocks," "herds," "silk," and "cloth" (other than linen). Indeed the only animals domesticated in ancient Mesoamerica were dogs and turkeys. On the other hand, all these items described by Alma existed in the Peruvian Andes during the Book of Mormon period. It should also be noted, that since the Book of Mormon defined the Nephite weapons as being made of metal, it would seem practical that in later periods the authors would not have had to use the precious space on the gold plates to repeatedly tell the reader that they were "still made of iron." It would be more logical that if the Nephites had changed to "wooden" weapons, a later author would note this fact. 


 p.s. Mormon (3 Ne. 5:10-11) and Moroni (Mormon 2:18; 8:1) wrote on plates. If the Nephites moved away from their source of metal, where did the last Nephite prophets obtain the metal for their plates.


"6- The practice of writing on metal plates appears to be mainly an Old World practice, one that Nephi brought with him and passed on to specific record keepers. That said, the main feature of my presentation was Mayan gold plates from the cenote at Chichen Itzathat had hieroglyphic writing on them. As far as I know, there is no other artifact of this kind from the Americas that is not extremely controversial (at the very least)." 


The Mayan gold plate is interesting; however, it is of no relevance to the Book of Mormon since it is from a later era and is in a language not related to Hebrew or Egyptian. 


"7- While there are no serious claims linking Olmec, Epi-Olmec, or Mayan glyphs to Hebrew or Reformed Egyptian, Mesoamerica is the only ancient American setting that has extensive written languages. I am not aware of any written language (other than the quipu, which is not really writing) from the Andean region." 


When the Spanish arrived in Peru, they were told by the Incas that their ancestors had once had a written language like the Spanish, but that it was lost. This is consistent with Jacob's prophecy (Jacob 4:1-4).


Daniel concludes:

"If you wish to look for Book of Mormon traces in the Andean region that is fine. The Moche is a fascinating culture with much left to be done archaeologically. The Chachapoya are also another mysterious people that need more research. I currently support a Mesoamerican setting, but I am open to any serious research.

Good idea. Peru makes a much stronger candidate for the lands of the Book of Mormon. Metallurgy was widely used in the various ancient civilization of Peru dating back to at least 1900 B.C. Well documented evidence supporting Peru is found in my book, Nephi in the Promised Land. The book contains over 800 footnotes from the foremost archaeologists and historians studying the ancient Americas.


Daniel Johnson's response to an article by George Potter,
from the
Nephi Project website.


The point of my presentation to the Book of Mormon Archaeological Forum was not to use these artifacts as evidence for a Mesoamerican setting. Rather, it was to show their historical plausibility and compare them favorably to known ancient American artifacts. The BMAF supports a Mesoamerican geographical model, so my presentation was designed with that area in mind. We, the authors of An LDS Guide to Mesoamerica, support it as well, but leave open the possibility of other American locations as supported by solid scholarship and research.  I specifically gave all the evidence for metallurgy and the correct time periods of its practice. The purpose of my mineralogical map was to show that the necessary ores do exist in the lands that LDS scholars and archaeologists have picked as the location of Book of Mormon events. Where the date for metal items is known, I made that clear. With such items as the iron needles from Mexico and the iron tools from Costa Rica, I had no such information, so I simply referred to them as pre-Columbian, which I think is pretty safe. I am sure I never made a connection as ridiculous as ancient Romans building an airplane or a microchip.

The idea of discontinuing metal use is a supposition, but a valid one. It has been suggested by others before me and I disagree that it is inconsistent with the text of the Book of Mormon. The currently accepted location of Mesoamerica might have an explanation. Although differing in details, Mesoamerica-based maps all place the land and city of Nephi somewhere in the Guatemalan Highlands. When righteous Nephites 'went down' and found Zarahemla, they would have ended up in the jungle lowlands, likely in the Peten, according to these models. The geography and mineralogy of Guatemala offer a good explanation as to why they might have stopped working in iron. It also explains why a later group of Nephites was so anxious to return to the land of Nephi to possess it. Not only was it their only source of iron ore, but it has a milder climate than the lowland jungles. As far as the thick clothing that was described as used by Nephite armies, it is simply a matter of opinion that it is more similar to Incan than Aztec or any other ancient American armor. I did not even refer to Aztecs because they are so late historically, but George neglected to mention Mayan armor, which is what I did talk about.

George's mention of metal weapons begs the question. My point was that if we disregard Arnold Friberg's illustrations and just look at the text, we discover that iron and steel are not described after 150 B.C. at the latest. It is interesting and perhaps supremely important that iron and steel production are only mentioned in the areas that correspond to the Guatemalan Highlands, given a Mesoamerican setting. My mineralogical map showed that this is the only location where the necessary ores are known and that most of Book of Mormon history took place in areas that did not contain iron. We may be unnecessarily superimposing our cultural connotations when we read about swords, cimeters, spears, head plates, and so on. The whole point was that according to the Spanish and archaeology, 'swords' do not have to be metal to be deadly effective weapons and there is no question about that. Whether Nephite swords were metal for all of their history or not, I do not know. When George writes 'metal weapons,' he is adding something to the text that is not really there. Again, this is not solely my idea; it is merely a suggestion and not a provable fact, but one that other scholars and authors have made before me. Notice that at the time of the quote in Alma (about 90 B.C.), the only metals mentioned are gold and silver, not utilitarian metals for tools and weapons. If we look closely, the Book of Mormon never specifically says that Nephite weapons were made of metal. In fact, other than the plates given to Mormon and delivered to Moroni, no metal of any kind is mentioned during the last few centuries of their account. Of course, this is all theoretical and open to further interpretation and adjustment. Remnants of Jaredite metal weapons are described in the record, but I did say that I was only dealing with Nephite items in this presentation.

As to why Nephite record keepers did not make specific mention of this change in technology from metal to wood and stone or obsidian, that is just one of many trivial questions I have for them when I meet them in the next life. It just might be that this was not a detail important enough to merit the time and space it would take to put on the plates. Space on the plates was at a premium, perhaps because Mormon and Moroni did not have a never-ending supply of gold. George raised the question of how later Nephite record keepers got metal for the plates, and that is a good point. I believe I addressed that somewhat in my presentation. Gold and silver were still obtainable in southern Mexico, according to the mineralogical map and present-day mining sites. My suggestion is that the longer Nephites lived in the Americas, the more they adopted local customs, like language, names, tool making, and beliefs. However, Nephite record keepers obviously kept some aspects of their original Semitic culture, such as a knowledge of Hebrew and Egyptian, the use of metal plates, and even possibly their personal names. As Nephite society became more wicked toward the end of their history, the differences between the majority and the few righteous ones that remained would have been compounded (kind of like today).

We are all aware that the gold plates from the cenote at Chichen Itza are not directly connected to the Book of Mormon; I made that abundantly clear in my presentation. But they are interesting and show that the idea of writing on gold plates did exist in the Americas, something that was not known in 1830. Anyway, the late Classic Maya may have gotten their inspiration from somewhere else. But I do believe and strongly suggested that this was an Old World practice, again something not known in Joseph Smith's time. Even if we expand our attention to areas outside of Mesoamerica, like Panama and Peru, writing on gold or metal plates does not appear to be widely practiced anywhere in ancient America. The examples I showed from Chichen Itza are the only unquestionably authentic artifacts I have found. No known culture in this hemisphere, whether Mesoamerican, Panamanian, Peruvian, or other has a metallurgy that corresponds completely to all the accounts in the Book of Mormon. Its description of metals, especially metal plates, compares quite favorably with the Middle East, hence my suggestion that all Book of Mormon metallurgy has its roots in the Old World and may not have been widely practiced among cultures indigenous to the Americas. My intent was not to support any particular geographic model, but rather to show uncontroversial evidence that supports the plausibility of the Book of Mormon, more so now than when it was first published.


Daniel Johnson






BMAF Staff