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Metals, Weapons, and the Book of Mormon
by Jeff Lindsay
The Book of Mormon mentions a steel sword owned by a military leader named Laban in Jerusalem near 600 B.C., a time when many people believe steel had not yet been discovered. Laban's sword had a hilt of pure gold, a blade "of the most precious steel," and exhibited "exceedingly fine" workmanship (1 Nephi 4:9). An excellent discussion of Laban's sword of steel is offered by Matthew Roper in his article "On Cynics and Swords" in FARMS Review of Books, Vol. 9, No. 1, 1997, pp. 146-158. On pages 148-149, he notes that many critics point to Nephi's description of Laban's sword as evidence against the historicity of the Book of Mormon:
"Steel," it is argued, "was not known to man in those days" [Stuart Martin, The Mystery of Mormonism (London: Odhams, 1920) p. 44]. Today, however, it is increasingly apparent that the practice of "steeling" iron through deliberate carburization was well-known in the Near Eastern world from which the Lehi colony emerged. "It seems evident that by the beginning of the tenth century B.C. blacksmiths were intentionally steeling iron" [Robert Maddin, James D. Muhly, and Tamara S. Wheeler, "How the Iron Age Began," Scientific American 237/4 (October 1977): 127]. A carburized iron knife dating to the twelfth century B.C. is known from Cyprus [Ibid. The knife shows evidence of quenching. See Tamara S. Wheeler and Robert Maddin, "Metallurgy and Ancient Man," in The Coming Age of Iron (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980), 121]. In addition to this,
A site on Mt. Adir in northern Israel has yielded an iron pick in association with 12th-century pottery. One would hesitate to remove a sample from the pick for analysis, but it has been possible to test the tip of it for hardness. The readings averaged 38 on the Rockwell "C" scale of hardness. This is a reading characteristic of modern hardened steel [Maddin, Muhly, and Wheeler, "How the Iron Age Began," 127].
Quenching, another method of steeling iron, was also known to Mediterranean blacksmiths during this period. "By the beginning of the seventh century B.C. at the latest the blacksmiths of the eastern Mediterranean had mastered the processes that make iron a useful material for tools and weapons: carburizing and quenching" [Ibid. 131]. Archaeologists recently discovered a carburized iron sword near Jericho. The sword, which had a bronze haft, was one meter long and dates to the time of King Josiah, who would likely have been a contemporary of Lehi [Hershel Shanks, "Antiquities Director Confronts Problems and Controversies," Biblical Archaeology Review 12/4 (July-August 1986): 33,35]. Hershel Shanks recently described the find as "spectacular" since it is the only complete sword of its size and type from this period yet discovered in Israel [Ibid., 33]. Such discoveries lend a greater sense of historicity to Nephi's passing comments in the Book of Mormon.
The ability to carburize iron, however, does not mean that iron or steel was widely used and commonly available. The steel of Laban's sword was "most precious," clearly not a commodity item. In fact, subsequent appearances of iron in the Book of Mormon rate it with precious metals and riches rather than treating it as an ordinary material, as if metallurgical skills were largely lost in Nephite culture sometime after Nephi's era.
Incidentally, a photo of a gold-hilted sword with a blade made of meteoric iron is available in Volume 3 of the Encyclopedia of Mormonism under the article, "Sword of Laban." The sword comes from the tomb of Tutankhamun, who died in 1325 B.C., over 700 years before Nephi saw the sword of Laban. For more information on the ancient use of iron and steel prior to Nephi's time, see Oleg D. Sherby and Jeffrey Wadsworth, "Damascus Steels," Scientific American 252 (February 1985): 112-20; J. P. Lepre, The Egyptian Pyramids: A Comprehensive Illustrated Reference (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1990), 245; Immanuel Velikovsky, Ramses II and His Time (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1978), 222-37. As for ancient Mesoamerican use of iron in weapons, there seems to be little physical evidence, although some Spaniards reported encountering warriors with iron-studded clubs [H. H. Bancroft, The Native Races (of the Pacific States), vol. 2 (San Francisco: A. L. Bancroft and Co., 1882), pp. 407-8, as cited by J. Sorenson, p. 284].
A quote from Hugh Nibley is also relevant here (Lehi in the Desert, p. 57):
The Arab forager is everlastingly prowling, scouting, tracking, and spying; in fact, some believe that the original root of the names Arab and Hebrew is a combination of sounds meaning "to lie in ambush." "Every Bedawin is a sportsman both from taste and necessity," writes one observer, who explains how in large families some of the young men are detailed to spend all their time hunting. Nephi and his brethren took over the business of full-time hunters and in that office betray the desert tradition of the family, for Nephi had brought a fine steel bow from home with him. Though we shall consider steel again in dealing with the sword of Laban, it should be noted here that a steel bow was not necessarily a solid piece of metal, any more than the Canaanites' "chariots of iron" (Joshua 17:16-18; Judges 1:19; 4:3) were solid iron, or than various implements mentioned in the Old Testament as being "of iron," e.g., carpenter's tools, pens, threshing instruments, were iron and only iron. It was in all probability a steel-ribbed bow, since it broke at about the same time that the wooden bows of his brothers "lost their springs" (1 Nephi 16:21). Only composite bows were used in Palestine, that is, bows of more than one piece, and a steel-backed bow would be called a steel bow just as an iron-trimmed chariot was called a "chariot of iron." Incidentally the founder of the Turkish Seljuk Dynasty of Iran was called Yaqaq, which means in Turkish, says our Arab informant, "a bow made out of iron."
Anti-Mormon writers who condemn the Book of Mormon for its mention of steel rarely point out that the Bible mentions steel in equally ancient times (the same is true of brass). Examples of "steel" being mentioned in the Old Testament include 2 Sam. 22:35 (which refers to a steel bow, perhaps similar to the one Nephi had), Psalms 18:34, Job 20:24, and Jeremiah 15:12. Was "steel" in the King James Version really steel? Hugh Nibley has pointed out that scholars are uncertain about the meaning of "steel" in several ancient texts from the Old World. Steel is mentioned in the Old Testament under conditions where it seems out of place - perhaps the King James translators should have used the word "bronze" instead of "steel" in those places. Job 20:24, however, also clearly refers to iron weapons at the same time in one of the most ancient parts of the Bible: "He shall flee from the iron weapon, and the bow of steel shall strike him through." Jeremiah 15:12 also mentions steel in the context of iron. The New English Bible, a 20th century translation which incorporates several modern advances in learning, uses bronze in all those passages except for Jeremiah 15:12: "Can iron break steel from the north?" - a passage dating from the time of Lehi.
John Sorenson writes of the difficulty in understanding apparent references to steel in ancient texts (An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, p. 286):
Even experts have a problem, as suggested by a recent technical article entitled "Steel in Antiquity: A Problem in Terminology" [Lenore O. Keene Congdon, "Steel in Antiquity: A Problem in Terminology," in Studies Presented to George M. A. Hanfmann, ed. David G. Mitten et al., Harvard University, Fogg Art Museum Monographs in Art and Archaeology, vol. 2 (Mainz, West Germany: Verlag Philipp Von Zabern, 1971), pp. 17-27]. In Mexico we face similar obscurity. The native chronicler Tezozomoc reported that the Tarascans (Mesoamerica's most noted metallurgists at the time of the Spanish conquest) wore "steel" helmets [Bancroft, The Native Races, vol. 2, p. 407]. Since we know so little about either our Nephite text or the materials and processes in use in prehispanic Mesoamerica, we all would do well not to jump to conclusions about the accuracy or inaccuracy of such a statement. In a recent dispute about the use of tin in the early Near East, J. D. Muhly and T. E. Wertime emphasized that documents that refer to the unexpected use of a metal are more persuasive as positive evidence than the failure of archaeologists to come up with specimens is acceptable as negative evidence ["Evidence for the Sources and Use of Tin During the Bronze Age of the Near East: A Reply to J. E. Dayton," World Archaeology, vol. 5 (1973): 116]. Caley and Easby make the identical argument regarding pre-Columbian tin in Mexico. After demonstrating that specimens of the metal were there all the time despite the doubts of archaeologists, who had failed to examine the evidence, they end by observing, "The results also show that it is not prudent always to discount or ignore historical accounts as possible sources of technical information; some of the 16th century chroniclers apparently were wiser and more observant in such matters than many of their critics" [Caley and Easby, "New Evidence of Tin," p. 515]. Perhaps the Jaredite historian who talked of steel (Ether 7:9) and Tezozomoc with his steel helmets on the Tarascans both knew something that archaeologists will yet document.
Actually, a material that could be called steel was available in Mesoamerica, namely meteoric nickel-iron alloys. Robert J. Forbes in Metallurgy in Antiquity: A Notebook for Archaeologists and Technologists (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1950, p. 402, as cited by John L. Sorenson, "A New Evaluation of the Smithsonian Institution 'Statement Regarding the Book of Mormon,'" FARMS Paper SOR-93, Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1993, p. 17) lists it as "a type of steel" and its presence in Mesomerica is well known (3 references given by Sorenson, 1993, p. 18). I verified this recently while at the Georgia Tech library, where I found the Handbook of Iron Meteorites (2 vols.) by Dr. Vagn F. Buchwald, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1975. Nickel-iron alloys appear very common in metorites. Further, I found several examples of meteoric metals that the author compared to man-made steel listed in Volume 2, including haxonite from Canyon Diablo in Arizona (p. 393), a face-centered cubic carbide related to tool steels and stainless steels; kamacite from Tucson, with similarities to hypo-eutectoid steels (p. 1243); and metal from the Kamkas mass (South Africa, I believe) whose structure "is reminiscent of commercial ferritic stainless steel" (p. 1387). The point is that at least some meteoric metals can be called steel with technical accuracy, and could certainly be called steel by ancient peoples or modern translators, who might easily call a broad range of iron alloys "steel."
Thus, the word "steel" may refer to meteoric alloys, to naturally or accidentally carbonized iron, or to other metals altogether than the "steel" we think of in the 20th century (and don't forget that the anachronistic word "steel" occurs in the King James version of the Old Testament - but probably refers to bronze or copper).
Many say that it is. Certainly swords were known in the ancient Old World, but the Book of Mormon speaks of swords used for centuries in the New World, where it is "common knowledge" that swords as we know them were not in use prior to the time of Columbus. But the ancient peoples in Book of Mormon lands, especially in Central American lands, definitely did use weapons that qualify as swords and were even called "swords" by Europeans who later saw them in use. These "swords", however, could have been non-metallic Central American sword-like weapons incorporating obsidian blades. A well known form of these pre-Columbian New World swords is the macuahuitl or the macana. Though the macuahuitl has been described as a "war club with sharp rocks embedded in it" by a Book of Mormon critic, the Spaniards that came to Central America consistently described it as a sword, not a club, as is shown by Matthew Roper in the article, "Eyewitness Descriptions of Mesoamerican Swords," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 5, No. 1, 1996, pp. 150-158. Roper notes that the early Chroniclers of Mesoamerica, DurŠn and Clavijero, regularly called that weapon a sword [Diego DurŠn, The History of the Indies of New Spain, trans. Doris Heyden (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994), pp. 66, 76, 109, 135, 139, 150, 152–53, 171, 198, 279, 294, 323, 375, 378, 412, 428, 437, 441, 451, 519, 552–53; Diego DurŠn, Book of the Gods and Rites and the Ancient Calendar, trans. Doris Heyden and Fernando Horcasitas (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971), pp. 124, 178–80, 234, 236; Clavijero said the macuahuitl "was equivalent to the sword of the Old Continent"; Francesco S. Clavijero, The History of Mexico, trans. Charles Cullen, 3 vols. (Philadelphia: Budd and Bartram, 1804), 2:165; all as cited by Roper, p. 151]. Many modern Mesoamerican historians also agree that the macuahuitl can be described as a sword [Hubert H. Bancroft, Native Races (of the Pacific States), 5 vols. (San Francisco: Bancroft, 1883), 2:409–10; Philip Drucker, La Venta, Tabasco: A Study of Olmec Ceramics and Art (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1952): 202; Maurice Collis, Cortťs and Montezuma (New York: Avon Books, 1954), pp. 41, 91, 94, 97, 202; Jon M. White, Cortes and the Downfall of the Aztec Empire (New York: Caroll & Graf, 1971), p. 115; Ross Hassig, Aztec Warfare: Imperial Expansion and Political Control (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988), pp. 33, 45, 50, 75, 80–86, 90, 92, 96, 101–2, 111, 116, 121, 143, 172, 290 n. 67; Ross Hassig, War and Society in Ancient Mesoamerica (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), pp. 7, 112–14, 122–23, 126–27, 137–39, 150–51, 153, 160, 162, 172–73, 177; Hugh Thomas, Conquest: Montezuma, Cortes and the Fall of Old Mexico (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993), p. 237; all as cited by Roper, p. 151].
Among the many eyewitness descriptions of Mesoamerican swords, I'll cite only a few from Roper's lengthy list, following Roper's use of added italics:
The Admiral thanked God for having shown him in a moment samples of all the goods of that country without exertion or exposing his men to any danger. He ordered such things to be taken as he judged most handsome and valuable, such as . . . long wooden swords with a groove on each side where the edge should be, in which the cutting edges of flint were fixed with thread and bitumen (these swords cut naked men as if they were of steel).
[Samuel E. Morison, Journals and Other Documents on the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (New York: Heritage Press, 1963), p. 327.]
Many bands of Indians came along the coast from the town of Champoton, as it is called, wearing cotton armour to the knees, and carrying bows and arrows, lances and shields, swords which appeared to be two-handed, slings and stones. . . .
Then they attacked us hand to hand, some with lances and some shooting arrows, and others with their two-handed cutting swords. . . .
They were carrying their usual weapons: bows, arrows, lances of various sizes, some of which were as large as ours; shields, swords single and double handed, and slings and stones. . . .
They carried two-handed swords, shields, lances, and feather plumes. Their swords, which were as long as broadswords, were made of flint which cut worse than a knife, and the blades were so set than one could neither break them nor pull them out.
Montezuma had two houses stocked with every sort of weapon; many of them were richly adorned with gold and precious stones. There were shields large and small, and a sort of broadsword, and two-handed swords set with flint blades that cut much better than our swords.
[Bernal Diaz, The Conquest of New Spain, trans. J. M. Cohen (New York: Penguin Books, 1963), pp. 22,23,29,142-143,228.]
(The above quotations are from a lengthy list in Matthew Roper, "Eyewitness Descriptions of Mesoamerican Swords," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 5, No. 1, 1996, pp. 150-158.)
If the swords commonly used in the Book of Mormon were not metal swords but wooden instruments with flint blades, then a once puzzling discussion of such swords in the Book of Mormon would make sense. The passage is in Alma 24:12-15, where a group of converted Lamanites make an oath to bury their swords and "stain" them no more with blood:
Now, my best beloved brethren, since God hath taken away our stains, and our swords have become bright, then let us stain our swords no more with the blood of our brethren.
Behold, I say unto you, Nay, let us retain our swords that they be not stained with the blood of our brethren; for perhaps, if we should stain our swords again they can no more be washed bright through the blood of the Son of our great God, which shall be shed for the atonement of our sins.
Oh, how merciful is our God! And now behold, since it has been as much as we could do to get our stains taken away from us, and our swords are made bright, let us hide them away that they may be kept bright, as a testimony to our God at the last day, or at the day that we shall be brought to stand before him to be judged, that we have not stained our swords in the blood of our brethren since he imparted his word unto us and has made us clean thereby.
Metal swords are easily cleaned and do not stain with blood, but the wooden handles of a macuahuitl could absorb blood and become stained. They would be difficult to clean - and would almost take a miracle to remove the stains, much as the converted Lamanites understood that it was the miracle of Christ's grace that had removed the stain of blood from their souls. I think the reference to the swords being made "bright" could be a metaphor referring to a lighter color or bleaching of the cleansed swords as a whole or to the shiny brightness of the cleaned obsidian blades.
A related objection raised by critics is against the alleged presence of iron or steel swords among Book of Mormon peoples in the New World. 2 Nephi 5:14 reports that Nephi made swords in the New World "after the manner" of the sword of Laban. Does "after the manner" mean that the same materials were used? Not necessarily. He may have made similar swords (two-bladed weapons with a hilt) using other materials. The following verse, 2 Nephi 5:15, informs us that Nephi taught his people how to work with ores and metals, as if that was an additional aspect of Nephite technology, not the basis for making swords. However, a verse in the Book of Ether, from the earlier Jaredite civilization, does refer specifically to swords of steel:
Wherefore, he came to the hill Ephraim, and he did molten out of the hill, and made swords out of steel for those whom he had drawn away with him; and after he had armed them with swords he returned to the city Nehor and gave battle unto his brother Corihor, by which means he obtained the kingdom and restored it unto his father Kib.
Regardless of what the original writer meant by the term steel (this was Joseph Smith's translation of a Nephite translation of Jaredite records) or whatever metal was actually used, this incident of making "steel" swords is presented in the text as if it were unusual and there are no further references to steel swords. In fact, among New World Book of Mormon peoples, later references to iron place it as a precious metal (at least after 400 B.C.), not as a common utilitarian material.
John Sorenson is careful to note that we do not have archaeological evidence of metal swords being used in ancient Mesoamerica (Review of Books on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 6, No. 1, p.331):
Matheny is correct that "no case has been made that metal swords existed in Mesoamerica before the Spanish conquest" . . . . Neither I nor anyone else has seriously attempted to do so, yet. This does not mean it might not be possible. I wish Matheny had tried it by delving exhaustively into the recondite sources on Aztec-period warfare that ought to be known to her instead of pointing to another "problem" that may be only an uninvestigated bogey-man. The bow and arrow provides a parallel case. It has commonly been said that this device arrived or developed in central Mexico "late" [So Hassig, War and Society, 137–38]. This is an error based on inadequate examination of the archaeological record, as Paul Tolstoy has shown. He has found "prima facie evidence of the limited use of the bow and arrow in central Mexico since early agricultural times" [See "Utilitarian artifacts of Central Mexico," Handbook of Middle American Indians, vol. 10, Archaeology of Northern Mesoamerica, Part 1, eds. G. F. Ekholm and I. Bernal (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971), 281, 283. Compare what I said about the weapon in "Digging into the Book of Mormon," 33–34].
While some questions remain, much of what the Book of Mormon says appears plausible. Bows and arrows were once thought to be recent innovations, but are now known to have been in use anciently. As for the many types of weapons mentioned in the Book of Mormon, please examine the quotes above from European eyewitnesses who saw "swords" in use among the Mesoamericans they encountered. Even more weapons are mentioned in the full list of quotes compiled by Matthew Roper. Though the quotations were selected to emphasize the use of swords, other weapons are also mentioned (Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 5, No. 1, 1996, pp. 150-158). After translation to English, these terms include: single-handed swords, doubled-handed swords, broadswords, lances, spears, knives, cudgels, bows and arrows, slings, stones, darts, clubs, and bucklers. Defensive shields and cotton armor are also mentioned. This variety of weapons corresponds well with those mentioned in the Book of Mormon, which includes swords, cimeters (presumably a sword-like weapon), slings, stones, clubs, bows, arrows, and shields:
And it came to pass that I did arm them with bows, and with arrows, with swords, and with cimeters, and with clubs, and with slings, and with all manner of weapons which we could invent, and I and my people did go forth against the Lamanites to battle.
Therefore the people of the Nephites were aware of the intent of the Amlicites, and therefore they did prepare to meet them; yea, they did arm themselves with swords, and with cimeters, and with bows, and with arrows, and with stones, and with slings, and with all manner of weapons of war, of every kind.
And it came to pass that he met the Lamanites in the borders of Jershon, and his people were armed with swords, and with cimeters, and all manner of weapons of war.
And when the armies of the Lamanites saw that the people of Nephi, or that Moroni, had prepared his people with breastplates and with arm-shields, yea, and also shields to defend their heads, and also they were dressed with thick clothing--
Now the army of Zerahemnah was not prepared with any such thing; they had only their swords and their cimeters, their bows and their arrows, their stones and their slings; and they were naked, save it were a skin which was girded about their loins; yea, all were naked, save it were the Zoramites and the Amalekites;
But they were not armed with breastplates, nor shields--therefore, they were exceedingly afraid of the armies of the Nephites because of their armor, notwithstanding their number being so much greater than the Nephites.
The weapons and armor mentioned above are quite plausible, based on what the Spaniards encountered and what we known from pre-Columbian culture, though some problems remain. The thick clothing of Alma 43:19 may be reflected in the cotton armor encountered by the Spaniards. The Book of Mormon also mentions breastplates and headplates as defensive armor, which may be reflected in the elaborate clothing and headgear shown in Mayan carvings of warriors and in pre-Columbian artwork featuring breastplates of gold. The ax is also mentioned in the Book of Mormon, which could have been a form of a Mesoamerican broadsword. An ancient Jaredite battle involving swords having metal is still a puzzle, though it is known that the ancient Olmec culture (dating to Jaredite times) mined iron in the form of magnetite.
(My answer is derived largely from "The Golden Plates," Chapter 81 in Reexploring the Book of Mormon, edited by John Welch, Deseret Book, SLC, UT, 1992, pp. 275-277; this source provides detailed documentation on most of the following points.)
Two factors make the expected weight of the gold plates fit into the range of reported weight (those who hefted them estimated the weight between 50 and 100 lbs, with 60 seeming like a reasonable number based on the ability of Emma, Joseph's wife, to move them herself a time or two). Thin metal plates, when stacked, are not perfectly flat. There is some space in between them due to imperfections in manufacture, the effect of engraving and handling, etc. Even for carefully made sheets of thin metal, it is easy to have air space occupying 20% or more of the volume - with 50% void volume being a reasonable value. (Try this with a heavy grade of aluminum foil: even without engravings on the sheets, see if you can stack the foil sheets by hand into a stack that weighs anything close to the weight of a solid chunk of aluminum of equal thickness.) Further, the metal itself is described as gold in appearance, but is most likely to have been the Mesoamerican alloy tumbaga, which is gold alloyed with copper. It is much lighter than pure gold (about half the density). Tumbaga washed with acid (simple citric acid will do) leaches out some of the copper on the surface, making it appear much more like gold and providing a surface well suited for engraving. Using the reported dimensions of the plates (6 by 8 by 6 inches, or 0.188 cubic feet), assuming the use of tumbaga, and allowing typical air content (due to small gaps between parts of the plates) for thin metal plates, the weight estimate of 60 lbs or so is entirely reasonable. An LDS metallurgist, Reed Putnam, made this point in a paper presented to the Society for Early Historic Archaeology in 1964, reprinted in the Improvement Era, Vol. 69, pp. 788-89, 828-831, Sept. 1966. He did not know at the time that William Smith, Joseph's brother, had handled the plates and had estimated on several occasions that the weight was about 60 pounds. (William also said that the plates were a mixture of copper and gold - Saints' Herald, 31: 644, 1884.) Had it been a block of pure, solid gold, it would have weighed nearly 200 pounds (0.188 cubic feet * 1200 lbs/cubic foot = 200 pounds, not 800 pounds as one e-mail inquirer guessed), which is too heavy for most people to lift.
I find it surprising that the objection about the weight of the plates is one of the most common issues raised in modern anti-Mormon literature. The difference in mass between a stack of many thin sheets and solid metal of the same dimensions does not require advanced research and degrees to grasp.
(As with the previous question, I have used information from Welch, op cit., pp. 275-277 for the following reply.)
Joseph and others said the plates were thinner than common tin, which was typically around 0.02 inches thick at the time. Others said the plates were as thick as parchment or thick paper. An estimate of 0.015 inches per plate thus seems reasonable. Adding 50% air space (see the discussion of the density of the plates for the previous question), we can estimate that each plate occupied 0.03 inches. A stack 6 inches thick would hold roughly 200 plates, one third of which was sealed, leaving about 133 plates and 266 surfaces from which our modern 500-page Book of Mormon was obtained. If the characters were compact and fine, as some accounts describe them to be, there is no difficulty in fitting the Book of Mormon onto the available plates - a collection that could have easily weighed around 60 pounds.
A good question. Brass (an alloy of copper and zinc) was long thought to have been invented quite recently, many centuries after Nephi's time. For example, the article on brass in Funk and Wagnall's encyclopedia (1990) states that it did not come into use until the 16th century.
You may be interested to know that "brass" is also mentioned many times in the Old Testament and New Testament (e.g., the brass serpent made by Moses in Numbers 21:9; see also Gen. 4:22; Exo. 30:18; Isaiah 60:17; Dan. 2:32; 1 Cor. 13:1; among others). Bible scholars dealt with that problem not by rashly condemning the Bible but by assuming that "bronze" (an alloy of copper and tin) was actually meant, for bronze and other alloys of copper were known anciently (though I understand that a different Hebrew word was used to designate what has been translated as "brass" than the word for bronze and copper). However, recent findings in the Mediterranean area have shown that true brass - copper alloyed with zinc - was in use among the ancient Etruscans in a time frame that lends plausibility to the Book of Mormon account (see P.T. Craddock, "Europe's Earliest Brasses," MASCA Journal, 1:4-5 [Philadelphia, Dec. 1978], as cited by John L. Sorenson in An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, Deseret Book Comp., SLC, UT (1985), pp. 283-284). Also interesting is the Book of Mormon's metallurgically correct description of brass being manufactured from copper ore (Ether 10:23) instead of talking about "brass ore."
The issue of metals in antiquity raises many interesting questions. Dates for the existence of iron, steel, brass, and other metals in the Old and New Worlds have been the subject of some uncertainty and debate, with dates that seem to have been progressively pushed back in recent years. And while Nephi seems to have been skilled in metallurgy, the Nephite records become relatively silent about metals after Nephi's time, typically describing them as precious materials (including iron). Metallurgical skills or abundant sources of ore may have declined with time among the Nephites (though skills in gold and a gold-copper alloy, tumbaga, apparently persisted).
There are ancient examples of smelted iron in Mesoamerica (mentioned as a precious metal in the Book of Mormon), but it seems to have become a lost technology. Sorenson (op. cit., chapter 7) provides a good discussion on this topic. Apart from several findings of metal, three separate linguistic analyses by non-LDS scholars suggests that words for "metal" were in regular use no later than 1000 B.C. to 2000 B.C. in Mesoamerica - a time when metal working was "not supposed" to be going on based on the limited knowledge we have of this (the American) continent. See R.E. Longacre and Rene Millon, Anthropological Linguistics, 3:22 (1961); T. Kaufman, Univ. Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, Centro de Estudios Mayas, Caudernas 5: 188 (1972); see also American Antiquity, 41: 80-89 (1976); and other references as cited by Sorenson, op. cit, pp. 279-280, 391.
Sorenson also cites recent evidence showing metals were being worked in Peru as early as 1900 B.C. and were being traded in Ecuador around 1000 B.C. (On the related issue of ancient iron and steel, I just encountered an interesting news item about the Haya tribe of Western Tanzania, who apparently derived their ancient but sophisticated ironworking skills from Mediterranean technology, coupled with their own experimentation. The news item is in Science, Vol. 270, Dec. 8, 1995, p. 1571. See also the article by Peter Schmidt and S. Terry Childs in the Nov.-Dec. issue of American Scientist.)
A not-quite relevant but interesting Web page is Native American Technology and Art: Contact & Precontact Copper & Brass Sheet Metal in the Northeast. The Native American Technology and Art Web site focuses on Native Americans in the northeastern U.S. (not Central America), but does note that Native Americans worked with copper before European contact, and impurities in the ore may have naturally resulted in some brass. For Central America, though, it is likely that imported metal technology was later lost, something which has happened in other parts of the world.
Some recent critics have suggested that Mesoamerica lacks sources of metals, based on the paucity of modern metal mines in the region. John L. Sorenson responds (Review of Books on the Book of Mormon, Volume 6, No. 1, 1994, pp.325-326):
Matheny discusses Mesoamerican ore sources but inexplicably refers to "mineralogical maps of Mexico" based on present-day commercial exploitation of minerals (pp. 287–88). I would have thought she would follow her training in the documents from the period around the Spanish Conquest to find out where the peoples of Mesoamerica then obtained metals. The location of modern mines is irrelevant. Contrary to the geographical picture she offers, placering, the commonest pre-Columbian method employed, was used in Veracruz, Oaxaca, Tabasco, and Chiapas states in Mexico and in Belize, El Salvador, and Guatemala. [See literature indexed under "mining" in Sorenson, "Metals and Metallurgy," 56; and the map in Robert C. West and John P. Augelli, Middle America: Its Lands and Peoples, 2d ed. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1976), 283.] Furthermore, Clair Patterson argues that ores in ancient times were easier to locate and exploit than in late pre-Spanish times, by which time many surface sources were likely to have been exhausted [Clair C. Patterson, "Native Copper, Silver, and Gold Accessible to Early Metallurgists," American Antiquity 36 (1971): 286–321]. Hence even the ore locations known to the Indians at the time of the Conquest might not reflect fully the wider sources accessible in the Book of Mormon era.
Incidentally, in an authentic metallurgical touch, Ether 10:23 refers to the Jaredites "did make" brass, using copper ore to do so (the parallel structure of that verse links copper ore to the making of brass). Had someone without metallurgical knowledge written this - such as the young farmboy, Joseph Smith - it might have been easy to mention "brass" ore, not recognizing that brass is a copper alloy.
John L. Sorenson offers these comments:
The number of known tombs of that age [Olmec era] is very limited, and those that have been dug typically contain few artifacts, for whatever reason. If we are going to speculate, and we are all forced to do so at present for lack of concrete information, it is at least as reasonable that valuable metal objects would have been passed carefully down to heirs rather than being stuck into tombs where, experience would have shown, they would in short order "canker with rust" like the sword blades of the Jaredites did after less than 400 years. Anyway, the linguistic data going back to the Olmec period assures that metal was in use, whatever the tombs show.
(Review of Books on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 6, No. 1, 1994, p.326)
A historically popular anti-LDS question, "Who ever heard of ancient peoples writing on metal plates?!" is now gradually being superseded by the more up-to-date anti-LDS question, "Didn't Joseph Smith just make up the story of the plates based on the well known fact that many ancient peoples wrote on metal plates?" Both questions are addressed on a separate Web page, Metal Plates and the Book of Mormon. As with many other attacks on the Book of Mormon, something that seemed silly in 1830 is strong evidence of authenticity today.
This common claim is not true. Some past experts have stated that metals were not known in Mesoamerica until 900 A.D. In 1954, John Sorenson published evidence to the contrary ["Preclassic Metal?" American Antiquity, 20 (1954): 64], and since then many forms of evidence have shown that the experts were wrong. Metals were used in Book of Mormon lands during Book of Mormon times. Sorensen mentions some of the evidence in An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, p. 278-280:
The most compelling sort [of evidence for metals in ancient Mesoamerica] consists of actual specimens found where an early date is positively indicated. Over a dozen of these significantly precede A.D. 900 [Sorensen, "A Reconsideration of Early Metal in Mesoamerica," Katunob 9 (March 1976):1-18]. The earliest piece so far probably dates back to around the first century B.C. It is a bit of copper sheathing found on top of an altar at Cuicuilco in the Valley of Mexico [Byron Cummings, "Cuicuilco and the Archaic of Mexico," University of Arizona, Bulletin IV, no. 8, Social Science Bulletin, 4 (Tucson, 1933), pp. 38-39; Robert F. Heizer and James A. Bennyhoff, "Archaeological Investigation of Cuicuilco, Valley of Mexico, 1957," Science 127, no. 3292 (1958):232-33]. In addition to surely early specimens, other finds, not firmly dated, could be pre-A.D. 900; a late date has been inferred for some of them mainly because metal was found and "everybody knows" that metal occurs only in late sites. When all current information is considered, it appears that archaeologists should now be asking a new question. The old query was, why was there no metal in early Mesoamerica? Now it ought to become, why do we recover so little evidence of the metallurgical skill that was surely there?
The paucity of evidence for metal use in ancient Mesoamerica may be related to the factors that made it so hard for scholars to recognize the widespread ancient use of metals in the North American Arctic. A 1997 news article in the journal Science (Heather Pringle, "New Respect for Metal's Role in Ancient Arctic Cultures," Vol. 277, No. 5327, Aug. 8, 1997, pp. 766-768) discusses the recent discovery by several groups that iron (presumably meteoric iron) and copper were widely used by ancient inhabitants of northern Canada and Greenland and were involved in trade over large distances. The significance and scope of the use of metals was only recognized in the past couple of years, for intact metal specimens have been extremely rare. Since metal was rare and precious in those cultures and was easily reused and recycled, it appears that metal parts were not wasted or buried with the dead but were continually reused. Thus, very few metal specimens were left to be found centuries later. But once scholars accepted the possibility that metals may have been used anciently, they could then look for other signs of use, such as rust deposits in ancient settlements, rust stains on wooden handles, wooden parts with slots to receive metal parts, etc. Once they knew what to look for, scientists found extensive evidence of ancient metal use in Arctic regions (though Arctic use appears to postdate Book of Mormon times). Since the metals mentioned in the Book of Mormon are also described as precious, at least by 200 B.C., they were probably not casually discarded but may have been used and recycled frequently, resulting in few ancient specimens to be found.
Sorensen also notes that linguistic evidence points to the presence of metals in ancient Mesoamerican societies (An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, p. 279-280):
Traditional Mesoamerica accounts from various groups have reported use of metals that dirt archaeologists have failed to document. Evidence from language also indicates knowledge in the metallurgical arts beyond the supposed A.D. 900 barrier. Longacre and Millon reconstructed part of the Proto-Mixtecan language of the state of Oaxaca and thereabouts on the basis of words found in its daughter languages. In identifying terms that must have been in use before the descendant tongues split apart, the researchers were puzzled by the fact that a word for "metal" seemed to have existed in the proto-language at about 1000 B.C. [R. E. Longacre and Rene Millon, "Proto-Mixtecan and Proto-Amuzgo-Mixtecan Vocabularies: A Preliminary Cultural Analysis," Anthropological Linguistics 3 (1961):22] Of course, metalworking is not supposed to have been going on then.
The same linguistic procedure has been applied to Mayan languages. Proto-Tzeltal-Tzotzil dating to perhaps A.D. 500 had a term for metal. But a related term occurs in Huastecan, considered to be the language that first split off the basic Maya stem, supposedly around 2200 B.C. [Terrence Kaufman, "El Proto-Tzeltal-Tzotzil: Fonologia Comparada y Diccionario Reconstruido," Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, Centro de Estudios Mayas, Cuadernos 5 (1972), p. 118; Marcelo Alejandre, Cartilla Huasteca con su Gramatica, Diccionario y Varias Reglas para Aprender el Idioma (Mexico: Secretaria de Fomento, 1899), pp. 84, 88; Hyacinthe de Charency, "Les Norns des Metaux chez Differents Peuples de la Nouvelle Espagne," Compte-Rendu, Congres International des Americanistes, Paris, 1890 (Paris, 1892), pp. 539-41]. Even if we arbitrarily reduced this figure to around 1500 B.C., this linguistic evidence indicates that metal was known to Mayan people at a startlingly early date. Yet Kaufman and Campbell, in an influential study of the Mixe-Zoquean language group, added further support. They concluded that Proto-Mixe-Zoquean was likely the language of the Olmecs known to the archaeologists. That early tongue too had its word for metal by around 1500 B.C. ["A Linguistic Look at the Olmecs," American Antiquity, 41 (1976):80-89]. So work in comparative linguistics shows that metals must have been known, and presumably used, at least as early as 1500 B.C. That date extends back to the time of the Jaredites, for which so far we have not a single specimen of actual metal. Does it not seem likely that specimens are going to be found someday?
Arguments from comparative studies support the idea that metals were long known in Mesoamerica. Archaeologists only recently learned that metal was being worked in Peru as early as 1900 B.C., and it was being traded in Ecuador before 1000 B.C. [J. W. Grossman, "An Ancient Gold Worker's Tool Kit: The Earliest Metal Technology in Peru," Archaeology 25 (1972):270-75; A. C. Paulsen, "Prehistoric Trade between South Coastal Ecuador and other Parts of the Andes" (Paper read at 1972 Annual Meeting, Society for American Archaeology). Dates given in these papers need to be corrected backward to accord with bristle-cone pine corrections.] At the same time, all Mesoamerican scholars agree that intercommunication with Peru and Ecuador occurred over a period of thousands of years. Some definitely believe that it was via these voyages that metalworking reached Mexico and Guatemala. At the same time, we are asked to suppose that something as valuable as metal waited to be carried north until A.D. 900; then, suddenly, the metal connection finally "took." Such a strange idea of the culture contact process is now impossible to accept.
David Palmer comments on the knowledge of metals among the ancient Olmec culture in Central America, predating the Mayans (David A. Palmer, In Search of Cumorah, Horizon Publishers, Bountiful, Utah, 1981, p. 114:)
A particularly remarkable find is the discovery of iron mirrors used by the Olmecs. Small flat mirrors were manufactured in Oaxaca at the town of San Josť Mogote from about 1000-850 B.C. Some of these flat mirrors, found in the workshops there, are on display in the town museum. . . .The metal worked at San Josť Mogote was magnetite, a form of iron. It was extracted from one of the score of ancient iron mines in the Oaxaca valley. Four mines in the valley of Oaxaca have been identified as the source of ores used at that time. [Jane W. Ferreira, "Shell and Iron Ore Exchange in Formative Mesoamerica, with Comments on Other Commodities," The Early American Village, ed. K.V. Flanner, Academic Press, New York, 1976, p. 317.]
The iron mines of the Olmecs may be related to the mining of the Jaredites, who during at least era "did cast up mighty heaps of earth to get ore, of gold, and of silver, and of iron, and of copper" (Ether 10:23).
Palmer also notes that several conical lumps of iron oxide were discovered in a Tomb in Kaminaljuyu, near present Guatemala City, possibly the site of the ancient City of Nephi, which could be evidence for the use of ancient iron in that area (the original iron in the humid environment there would corrode, leaving iron oxide). The mound is dated at 200 B.C. to 1 B.C. [E.M. Shook and A.V. Kidder, "Mound E-III-3, Kaminaljuyu, Guatemala," Carnegie Institution of Washington, Publication 596, Contribution 53, 1952, as cited by Palmer, p. 114.]
Update: I received a news article from the Reuters news service dated Sept. 17, 1997 through Infobeat News titled "Peru Gold Find Hailed as Oldest in Americas." Here it is:
LIMA (Reuter) - Archeologists have uncovered an ancient tomb in Peru, probably belonging to a tribal ruler and containing 1000 B.C. gold ornaments they believe are the oldest in the Americas.
Japanese archeologist Yoshio Onuki and a team of Peruvian experts discovered the tomb, with seven perfectly-preserved gold pieces used mainly as ear-ornaments, at a pyramid buried in the ground in the northern highland zone of Cajamarca.
Alvaro Puga, of the government's National Culture Institute, said Wednesday it was not clear which of Peru's various B.C. cultures had dug the tomb, one of eight uncovered during excavation work in Cajamarca.
Experts in Peru have compared the find to the 1987 uncovering of the famous "Lord of Sipan" tomb, also in northern Peru. That grave contained tonnes of dazzling gold, silver and turquoise objects and is considered one of the great archeological discoveries of the late 20th century.
Certainly metals were known to ancient Americans in 1000 B.C.
Certainly there was abundant gold in Central America, as we know from the Spanish Conquest, and silver is also well known. Copper and some of its alloys have also been found. Some examples of iron, tin, and mercury in ancient Mesoamerica have also been found. As for general metals and metallurgical skills, the Book of Mormon does not indicate that we should find such material and knowledge to be widespread. Indeed, after 400 B.C., references to all metals are in terms of precious substances, not everyday utilitarian items. John Sorensen explains (An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, p. 281):
Upon arriving in the promised land, Nephi made a set of plates on which he kept his record (1 Nephi 19:1). Approximately twenty years later he manufactured more plates ("the small plates of Nephi," 2 Nephi 5:28-30). By that time he and his followers had left the Lamanites behind in the Pacific coastal lowlands and settled up in the land of Nephi. There he undertook to pass on what knowledge he did have in these matters. He taught his people "to work in all manner of wood, and of iron, and of copper, and of brass, and of steel, and of gold, and of silver, and of precious ores." (2 Nephi 5:15). This is an impressive list. Unfortunately, the language leaves us uncertain what the Nephites did with these substances. We could infer that practical as well as decorative use was made of some of these (see 2 Nephi 5:16 regarding "precious things"). If so, utility soon took second place. Nephite concern with ores and metals a bit later had come to be with their "precious" quality (Jacob 1:16; 2:12). Only once thereafter, about 400 B.C., was utilitarian metalworking suggested (Jarom 1:8: tillage tools and weapons are mentioned). From that point on in the Nephite history, every reference to metals states or implies that they were strictly precious - a source of wealth. In fact, during the final 400 years of the Nephite account even gold and silver, the only metals mentioned at all, are noted but four times. Perhaps by that period the labor-cheap surface deposits had been exhausted, making ore harder to obtain. One discussion of American metals has suggested that such a difficulty probably arose generally, for it is a geological likelihood [Clair C. Patterson, "Native Copper, Silver, and Gold Accessible to Early Metallurgists," American Antiquity, 36 (1971):292-94].
Thus it may be that easily accessible and processable surface deposits of metals or metal ores that Nephi may have been able to use were long depleted by the time the Spaniards arrived.
Sorenson goes on to document details of evidence for various Mesoamerican metals, including molten iron and other metals. I strongly recommend examining his book to gain further information about the issue of metals in the Book of Mormon. While some questions remain, recent evidence has given much more plausibility to the Book of Mormon account than there seemed to be 50 years ago.
In terms of Nephite use of iron, certainly meteoric iron was known to ancient Americans. After the early years of the Nephite colonists, references to iron are in terms of a precious metal, which would be consistent with use of meteoric iron. But smelted iron was found by archaeologist Sigvald Linne in a tomb at Mitla, Oaxaca ("Zapotecan antiquities," Ethnographical Museum of Sweden, Stockholm, Publication 4 [n.s., 1938]: 75, cited by Sorenson, FARMS Paper SOR-93, 1993, p. 18). A Teotihuacan find also provides evidence of copper and iron being having been melted in a pottery vessel ("Mexican highland cultures," Ethnographical Museum of Sweden, Stockholm, Publication 7 (n.s., 1942): 132, cited by Sorenson, 1993, p. 18). Many other iron artifacts have appeared in museum collections from Mesoamerica, with John Sorenson having compiled a listing of over 100 ancient Mesoamerican iron specimens reported in the literature but consistently ignored by the keepers of old paradigms (see Metals and Metallurgy Relating to the Book of Mormon Text, Provo: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1992).
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