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Book of Mormon/Metals/Steel
Steel in the Book of Mormon
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- Question: What was known about steel in ancient America?
- Madden et al.: "by the beginning of the tenth century B.C. blacksmiths were intentionally steeling iron"
- Roper: "For example, an iron knife was found in an eleventh century Philistine tomb showed evidence of deliberate carburization"
- Roper: "archaeologists have discovered a carburized iron sword near Jericho"
- Sorenson: "By 1400 BC, smiths in Armenia had discovered how to carburize iron by prolonged heating in contact with carbon"
- Hamblin: "there are no references to Nephite steel after 400 B.C."
The absence of evidence is not proof. Here’s one small example. Matthew Roper, in a FairMormon Blog on June 17, 2013, writes about a criticism that was repeated many times over the years about the mention of steel in the Book of Mormon. In 1884, one critic wrote, “Laban’s sword was steel, when it is a notorious fact that the Israelites knew nothing of steel for hundreds of years afterwards. Who, but as ignorant a person as Rigdon, would have perpetuated all these blunders.” More recently Thomas O’Dey, in 1957, stated, “Every commentator on the Book of Mormon has pointed out the many cultural and historical anachronisms, such as steel. A steel sword of Laban in 600 B.C.”
We had no answer to these critics at the time, but, as often happens in these matters, new discoveries in later years shed new light. Roper reports, “it is increasingly apparent that the practice of hardening iron through deliberate carburization, quenching and tempering was well known to the ancient world from which Nephi came “It seems evident” notes one recent authority, “that by the beginning of the tenth century B.C. blacksmiths were intentionally steeling iron.” In 1987, the Ensign reported that archaeologists had unearthed a long steel sword near Jericho dating back to the late 7th century B.C., probably to the reign of King Josiah, who died shortly before Lehi began to prophesy. This sword is now on display at Jerusalem’s Israel Museum, and the museum’s explanatory sign reads in part, “the sword is made of iron hardened into steel.”
—Elder D. Todd Christofferson, "The Prophet Joseph Smith", Devotional Address, BYU Idaho, September 24, 2013.
Question: What was known about steel in ancient America?
The steel of the Book of Mormon is probably not modern steel. Steel, as we understand today, had to be produced using a very cumbersome process and was extremely expensive until the development of puddling towards the end of the 18th century. Even in ancient times, however, experienced smiths could produce steel by heating and hammering pig-iron or, earlier still, the never-molten iron from a bloomery to loose the surplus of carbon to get something like elastic steel. Early smiths even knew that by quenching hot steel in water, oil, or a salt solution the surface could be hardened.
Any Mesoamerican production likely depended upon the first method, which requires lower temperatures and less sophistication. Laban's "steel sword" is not anachronistic; Middle Eastern smiths were making steel by the tenth century B.C.
Madden et al.: "by the beginning of the tenth century B.C. blacksmiths were intentionally steeling iron"
Robert Maddin, James D. Muhly and Tamara S. Wheeler:
It seems evident that by the beginning of the tenth century B.C. blacksmiths were intentionally steeling iron. 
Roper: "For example, an iron knife was found in an eleventh century Philistine tomb showed evidence of deliberate carburization"
Archaeologists, for example, have discovered evidence of sophisticated iron technology from the island of Cyprus. One interesting example was a curved iron knife found in an eleventh century tomb. Metallurgist Erik Tholander analyzed the weapon and found that it was made of “quench-hardened steel.” Other examples are known from Syro-Palestine. For example, an iron knife was found in an eleventh century Philistine tomb showed evidence of deliberate carburization. Another is an iron pick found at the ruins of an fortress on Mount Adir in northern Galilee and may date as early as the thirteenth century B.C. “The manufacturer of the pick had knowledge of the full range of iron-working skills associated with the production of quench hardened steel” (James D. Muhly, “How Iron technology changed the ancient world and gave the Philistines a military edge,” Biblical Archaeology Review 8/6 [November-December 1982]: 50). According to Amihai Mazar this implement was “made of real steel produced by carburizing, quenching and tempering.” (Amihai Mazar, Archaeology of the Land of the Bible 10,000-586 B.C.E. New York: Doubleday, 1990, 361).
Roper: "archaeologists have discovered a carburized iron sword near Jericho"
More significant, perhaps, in relation to the sword of Laban, archaeologists have 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 have been a contemporary of Lehi. This find has been described as “spectacular” since it is apparently “the only complete sword of its size and type from this period yet discovered in Israel.”(Hershall Shanks, “Antiquities director confronts problems and controversies,” Biblical Archaeology Review 12/4 [July-August 1986]: 33, 35).
Today the sword is displayed at Jerusalem’s Israel Museum. For a photo of the sword see the pdf version of the article here.
The sign on the display reads:
This rare and exceptionally long sword, which was discovered on the floor of a building next to the skeleton of a man, dates to the end of the First Temple period. The sword is 1.05 m. long (!) and has a double edged blade, with a prominent central ridge running along its entire length.
The hilt was originally inlaid with a material that has not survived, most probably wood. Only the nails that once secured the inlays to the hilt can still be seen. The sword’s sheath was also made of wood, and all that remains of it is its bronze tip. Owing to the length and weight of the sword, it was probably necessary to hold it with two hands. The sword is made of iron hardened into steel, attesting to substantial metallurgical know-how. Over the years, it has become cracked, due to corrosion.
Such discoveries lend a greater sense of historicity to Nephi’s passing comment in the Book of Mormon.
Sorenson: "By 1400 BC, smiths in Armenia had discovered how to carburize iron by prolonged heating in contact with carbon"
John L. Sorenson: 
Steel is "iron that has been combined with carbon atoms through a controlled treatment of heating and cooling."  Yet "the ancients possessed in the natural (meteoric) nickel-iron alloy a type of steel that was not manufactured by mankind before 1890."  (It has been estimated that 50,000 tons of meteoritic material falls on the earth each day, although only a fraction of that is recoverable.)  By 1400 BC, smiths in Armenia had discovered how to carburize iron by prolonged heating in contact with carbon (derived from the charcoal in their forges). This produced martensite, which forms a thin layer of steel on the exterior of the object (commonly a sword) being manufactured.  Iron/steel jewelry, weapons, and tools (including tempered steel) were definitely made as early as 1300 BC (and perhaps earlier), as attested by excavations in present-day Cyprus, Greece, Turkey, Syria, Egypt, Iran, Israel, and Jordan.  "Smiths were carburizing [i.e., making steel] intentionally on a fairly large scale by at least 1000 BC in the Eastern Mediterranean area." 
Hamblin: "there are no references to Nephite steel after 400 B.C."
William Hamblin: 
Steel is mentioned only five times in the Book of Mormon, once in the Book of Ether (7.9), and four times in the Nephite records (1 Ne 4.9, 1 Ne 16.18, 2 Ne 5.15 and Jar 1.8). Of these, two refer to Near Eastern weapons of the early sixth century B.C. 1 Ne 4.9 states that the blade of Laban’s sword was “of most precious steel.” Nephi’s Near Eastern bow was “made of fine steel” (1 Ne 16.18). The next two references are to steel among generic metal lists. The first is to the time of Nephi, around 580 B.C.:
“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 Ne 5:15)
The second is from Jarom 1:8, around 400 B.C.:
“workmanship of wood, in buildings, and in machinery, and also in iron and copper, and brass and steel, making all manner of tools of every kind to till the ground, and weapons of war–yea, the sharp pointed arrow, and the quiver, and the dart, and the javelin, and all preparations for war”
Notice that these two texts are what is called a “literary topos,” meaning a stylized literary description which repeats the same ideas, events, or items in a standardized way in the same order and form.
Nephi: “wood, and of iron, and of copper, and of brass, and of steel” Jarom: “wood, …iron and copper, and brass and steel” The use of literary topoi is a fairly common ancient literary device found extensively in the Book of Mormon (and, incidentally, an evidence for the antiquity of the text). Scholars are often skeptical about the actuality behind a literary topos; it is often unclear if it is merely a literary device or is intended to describe specific unique circumstances.
Note, also, that although Jarom mentions a number of “weapons of war,” this list notably leaves off swords. Rather, it includes “arrow, and the quiver, and the dart, and the javelin.” If iron/steel swords were extensively used by Book of Mormon armies, why are they notably absent from this list of weapons, the only weapon-list that specifically mentions steel?
Significantly, there are no references to Nephite steel after 400 B.C.
See FairMormon Evidence:
More on steel in the Book of Mormon
- Matthew Roper, "Right on Target: Boomerang Hits and the Book of Mormon," FAIR Conference, 2001.
- Robert Maddin, James D. Muhly and Tamara S. Wheeler, “How the Iron Age Began,” Scientific American 237/4 [October 1977]:127. Cited by Matthew Roper, "Laban’s Sword of 'Most Precious Steel' (Howlers #5)," FairMormon Blog (17 June 2013)
- Matthew Roper, "Laban’s Sword of 'Most Precious Steel' (Howlers #5)," FairMormon Blog (17 June 2013)
- Matthew Roper, "Laban’s Sword of 'Most Precious Steel' (Howlers #5)," FairMormon Blog (17 June 2013)
- John L. Sorenson, "Steel in Early Metallurgy," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 15/2 (2006): 108–109. off-site wiki
- Lenore O. Keene Congdon, "Steel in Antiquity: A Problem in Terminology," in Studies Presented to George M. A. Hanfmann, ed. David Gordon Mitten et al. (Cambridge: Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, 1971), 18–19.
- Robert James Forbes, Metallurgy in Antiquity: A Notebook for Archaeologists and Technologists (Leiden, The Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1950), 402.
- Harvey Harlow Nininger, Find a Falling Star (New York: Paul S. Erikson, 1972), 238.
- Congdon, "Steel in Antiquity," 24–25; D. Davis et al., "A Steel Pick from Mount Adir in Palestine," Journal of Near Eastern Studies 44/1 (1985): 42; and Muhly, "Mining and Metalwork," 3:1515.
- Patrick E. McGovern, "The Innovation of Steel in Transjordan," Journal of Metals 40/7 (1988): 50; Jane C. Waldbaum, From Bronze to Iron: The Transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age in the Eastern Mediterranean (Göteborg, Sweden: Paul Åström, 1978), 54; and Robert Maddin et al., "How the Iron Age Began," Scientific American 237 (1977): 122.
- Tamara S. Wheeler and Robert Maddin, "Metallurgy and Ancient Man," in Coming of the Age of Iron, ed. Wertime and Muhly, 116.
- William Hamblin, "Steel in the Book of Mormon," FairMormon Papers