Question: Did the use of metal swords mentioned in the Book of Mormon persist?

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Question: Did the use of metal swords mentioned in the Book of Mormon persist?

Metal swords are rare in the Book of Mormon, and so are likely to be rare in the archaeological record

If we suppose that Nephi made other steel swords, need we assume that all subsequent Nephite swords had blades of steel or other metal? To how many Nephites did Nephi pass on the knowledge of working in steel? Did all Nephites know how to work steel or just some? The last reference to steel among the Nephite is during the time of Jarom (Jarom 1:8). After that, steel is never again mentioned among the Nephites. When the Zeniffites return to the land of Nephi a few generations later, they work with iron and other metals, but not steel. This, perhaps not coincidentally, is the last reference to Nephite "iron" (Mosiah 11:3,8).

One has to wonder if some of these early skills were lost. It was apparently an exceptional thing for Nephi or Benjamin to wield the sword of Laban in the defense of their people (Jacob 1:10; W+of+M 1:13). Why would this be necessary for a king if steel technology was commonplace and well-known? This again, suggests that steel swords were the exception not the norm.

One should remember, too, that the "steel" of Joseph Smith's day was not modern steel, and KJV "steel" referred to bronze, not steeled iron. (See FAIR wiki article on metals, especially steel.)

Historical parallels: The loss of metalworking knowledge

By way of historical analogy, in many rural villages in places such as Asia or Africa, one family of artisans might supply the metallurgical needs of thousands, yet the ferrous skills possessed by those few could easily be lost in just one raid. It seems reasonable to suggest that a similar situation occurred among the early Jaredites and Nephites in ancient Mesoamerica.

In a recent study of North American copper pan pipes, one scholar attempted to explain why certain copper technologies, if once available in North American Middle Woodland cultures, were not passed down to subsequent groups. She reasoned, "The technological information must have been restricted to a limited number of individuals and artisans. Following the disruption of the interaction sphere, this information in the hands of so few artificers and entrepreneurs was not passed on and was consequently lost. There was no retention of that knowledge and when, half a millennium later new societies developed, it was with new copper techniques and new artifact styles."[1]

In the absence of archaeological evidence for metal weapons in early Mesoamerican times, it is worth remembering that there is linguistic evidence, noted by John Sorenson, for metals in Mesoamerican antiquity dating back to Olmec times.[2] When this is coupled with the interpretation of the rarity of metals swords mentioned above, the issue is much less problematic when additional perspective is added.

Notes

  1. Claire G. Goodman, Copper Artifacts in Late Eastern Woodlands Prehistory, edited by Anne-Marie Cantwell, (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Center for American Archaeology, 1984), 73.
  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]),279–280.