Book of Mormon/Metals/Metallurgy and use

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The fabrication and use of metals in the Book of Mormon

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Question: How were metals used in the Book of Mormon?

The Book of Mormon tends to use metals as sources of wealth and for ornamentation

It is important first of all to realize that the Book of Mormon tends to use metals as sources of wealth and for ornamentation, and relatively rarely for 'prestige' weapons (e.g. sword of Laban) or items (e.g. metal plates for sacred records). It does not appear that Nephite society had as extensive a use of metal as the Middle East of the same time period. Attempting to insist otherwise misrepresents the Book of Mormon.

What the Book of Mormon does and does not claim

The Old World that Lehi and his family came from was certainly familiar with metal working. Nephi appears to have a direct knowledge of it. However, when they went to the New World, things changed and what metal working that Nephi knew did not start a revolution in the way buildings or anything else was built. Why?

Jared Diamond discusses some of the issues of cultural diffusion (and loss of information) in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel. There is simply no historical evidence that an innovation that exists in one place will necessarily carry over to a new location. In fact, there are places where important innovations used to exist and were lost. That tells us that we must not make unwarranted assumptions about the automatic transfer of Old World capabilities to the New.

The Old World: Steel weapons are known from this period in the ancient near east

The Book of Mormon reports that Laban had a steel sword. Steel weapons are known from this period in the ancient near east. (See Anonymous, "Out of the Dust: Ancient Steel Sword Unearthed," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 14/2 (2005): 64–64. off-site wiki)

Wrought iron heated in contact with charcoal (carbon) at high temperature produces carbonized iron or steel, which is more malleable than cast iron. Steel can be hardened by quenching (practiced as early as the tenth century B.C.E.), that is, cooling off the red-hot steel by sudden immersion into a vat of cold liquid. . . . At Har Adir in Upper Galilee, a remarkably well-preserved "steel pick" with an oak handle within the socket was found in an eleventh-century B.C.E. fortress. It was made of carburized iron (steel) that had been quenched and then tempered. This extraodinary artifact, one of the earliest known examples of steel tools, is a tribute to the skill (or luck) of the artisans of ancient Palestine.[1]

The New World: The majority of metals available were best suited for decorative purposes, not functional ones

The next problem is the New World itself. There were two things retarding the use of metals in Mesoamerica. One is the availability of obsidian. Both for technical and sacred reasons, it was the cutting tool of choice. As a cutting tool, it was vastly superior to metal blades (rivaling modern surgical instruments). There was no need to look for a better blade, because they already had it.

The second is that the majority of metals available (a factor that continued through the time of the Spanish Conquest) were best suited for decorative purposes, not functional ones. There was gold and silver, but these were too soft for functional implements. When they were used, it was for artistic purposes.

In the Book of Mormon the strongest textual evidence for metalworking is the presence of gold plates. That fits the bill of the softer metal, not a functional one. Most of the described ores (save iron—see below) are soft metals. Mesoamerica did use quite a bit of iron ore, but much of it was used without smelting, establishing a cultural/religious connotation that would have retarded experimentation with the ore for any other purpose (ascription of religious value to any physical artifact delays changes in that artifact—see Amish clothing as a more modern example).

The 'conventional wisdom' that metal was not used in the New World prior to A.D. 900 cannot now be sustained

The 'conventional wisdom' that metal was not used in the New World prior to A.D. 900 cannot now be sustained. Copper sheathing on an altar in the Valley of Mexico dates to the first century B.C. [2] Furthermore, in 1998, a discovery in Peru pushed the earliest date of hammered metal back to as early as 1400 B.C.:

"Much to the surprise of archaeologists, one of the earliest civilizations in the Americas already knew how to hammer metals by 1000 B.C., centuries earlier than had been thought.

"Based on the dating of carbon atoms attached to the foils, they appear to have been created between 1410 and 1090 B.C., roughly the period when Moses led the Jews from Egypt and the era of such pharaohs as Amenhotep III, Tutankhamen and Ramses. 'It shows once again how little we know about the past and how there are surprises under every rock,' comments Jeffrey Quilter, director of Pre-Columbian Studies at Dumbarton Oaks, a Harvard University research institute in Washington, D.C."[3]

Sorenson also adduces evidence for metals and metalwork through linguistic evidence. Many Mesoamerican languages have words for metals at very early dates; it would be very strange to have a word for something that one did not have or know existed! Some examples:[4]

Language Date of term for metal
  • Proto-Tzeltal-Tzotzil
  • A.D. 500
  • Proto-Mixtecan
  • 1000 B.C.
  • Proto-Mixe-Zoquean
  • 1500 B.C.
  • Huastecan
  • 1500 B.C. (conservatively; it is perhaps even earlier to a limit of about 2200 B.C.)

Metallurgy is known in Peru from 1900 B.C., and in Ecuador via trade by 1000 B.C.

As one non-LDS author wrote:

Current information clearly indicates that by 1000 B.C. the most advanced metallurgy was being practiced in the Cauca Valley of Colombia.[5]

Metallurgy is known in Peru from 1900 B.C., and in Ecuador via trade by 1000 B.C. Since Mesoamerica is known to have had trade relations with parts of the continent that produced metals, and because metal artifacts dating prior to A.D. 900 have been found in Mesoamerica, it seems reasonable to assume that at least some Mesoamericans knew something about metallurgy.


Question: What is "brass" in the Book of Mormon?

"Brass" is an alloy of copper and zinc

"Brass" is an alloy of copper and zinc. It is a term used frequently in the Bible and the Book of Mormon. Some occurrences in the Bible have been determined by Biblical scholars to actually reflect the use of bronze (an alloy of copper and tin), rather than brass.

On the other hand, actual brass has been found in the Old World which dates to Lehi's era, and so the idea of "brass" plates is not the anachronism which was once thought. Either "brass plates" or "bronze plates" would fit.[6]

The Jaredites dug for gold, silver and iron, but they "made" brass

An interesting point concerning alloys is found in Ether 10:23 in which the Jaredites "did make...brass," (an alloy), but "did dig...to get ore of gold, and of silver, and of iron, and of copper." The Book of Mormon author has a clear understanding of those metals which are found in a raw state, and those which must be made as an alloy.


Question: Is the mention of copper in the Book of Mormon an anachronism?

Copper is well known in a pre-Columbian context in Mesoamerica

The Book of Mormon mentions the use of copper eight times.

Copper is well known in a pre-Columbian context in Mesoamerica.


Question: Is the mention of gold in the Book of Mormon an anachronism?

Gold is well known in a pre-Columbian context in Mesoamerica

The mention of "gold" in the Book of Mormon is sometimes called an anachronism, however the use of gold is well known in a pre-Columbian context in Mesoamerica.


Question: Is the mention of silver in the Book of Mormon an anachronism?

Silver is well known in a pre-Columbian context in Mesoamerica

Silver is mentioned 48 times in the Book of Mormon. This is not an anachronism since Silver is well known in a pre-Columbian context in Mesoamerica.


Question: Is the mention of the metal "ziff" in the Book of Mormon an anachronism?

"Ziff" is not an anachronism. Better yet, there is a Hebrew meaning for the word that makes sense

"Ziff" is a metal of uncertain identity. "Ziff" as a Hebrew word suggests two meanings, either "shining" or "to be plated." Sorenson suggests that this could be 'tumbaga' (a mixture of gold and copper which was both cheaper and lighter than gold), tin, or mercury.[7]


Notes

  1. Philip J. King and Lawerence E. Stager, Life in Biblical Israel (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 169.
  2. John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, Utah : Deseret Book Co. ; Provo, Utah : Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1996 [1985]), 278.
  3. Available on ABCnews.com; original story from Richard L. Burger and Robert B. Gordon, "Early Central Andean Metalworking from Mina Perdida, Peru," Science 282:5391 (6 November 1998) :1108–1111. Cited by jefflindsay.com off-site
  4. Adapted from data in John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, Utah : Deseret Book Co. ; Provo, Utah : Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1996 [1985]),278–280. Similar arguments in a later source can be found in John L. Sorenson, "Steel in Early Metallurgy," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 15/2 (2006): 108–109. off-site wiki
  5. Source: Archaeology (Nov/Dec 1985): 81. PDF link
  6. John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, Utah : Deseret Book Co. ; Provo, Utah : Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1996 [1985]), 283.
  7. Roy W. Doxey, "I Have A Question: What was the approximate weight of the gold plates from which the Book of Mormon was translated?," Ensign (December 1986), 64.