Question: How would an archaeologist distinguish a Christian's pot from that of a non-Christian?

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Question: How would an archaeologist distinguish a Christian's pot from that of a non-Christian?

Physical evidence doesn’t provide much information unless it is placed within a context

When examining ancient evidence archaeologists work with a very fragmentary record. In general, they find physical evidence, but such evidence in and of itself doesn’t provide much information unless it is placed within a context—a framework by which it can be understood. For instance, if an archaeologist finds a pot (or, more likely, a fragment of a pot), it provides little evidence concerning the civilization that created or used the pot. Contextual clues—such as other artifacts uncovered near the pot—may provide some clues about the timeframe in which the pot was last used, but it certainly doesn’t provide conclusive evidence as to what the civilization, or the individuals in that civilization, were like.

Critics, for example, sometimes deride the idea that Nephites were, for much of their written history, “Christians.” In the critics' view, there should be archaeological remains indicating a Christian presence in the ancient New World. How, exactly, would an archaeologist distinguish a Christian's pot from that of a non-Christian? What would a Christian pot look like? One must also keep in mind that, according to the Book of Mormon, the New World “Christians” were a persecuted minority who were wiped out over fifteen hundred years ago. How much archaeological evidence would we really expect to have survived the intervening centuries?

For the archaeologist, the strongest contextual clues come from writing or markings that are sometimes found on the physical evidence. These are of two general types: epigraphic and iconographic. Epigraphic evidence consists of a written record, such as this text you are reading, while iconographic evidence consists of pictures, or icons. For instance, the word “cross” is epigraphic, but a picture of a cross is iconographic. Epigraphic evidence, providing it can be translated, provides a record of what people thought or did. Iconographic evidence is much more symbolic and its interpretation depends on the context in which the image is used.

The only way archaeologists can determine names is through written records

As noted by Dr. William Hamblin, "the only way archaeologists can determine the names of political kingdoms, people, ethnography, and religion of an ancient people is through written records."

"Iconography can be helpful, but must be understood in a particular cultural context which can only be fully understood through written records. (Thus, the existence of swastikas, for example, on late medieval mosques in Central Asia or on Tibetan Buddhist temples in Tibet does not demonstrate that Muslims and Buddhists are Nazis, nor, for that matter, that Nazis are Buddhists. Rather, medieval swastikas demonstrate that different symbolic meanings were applied to the same symbol in early twentieth century Germany, Muslim Central Asia, and in Tibet.)"[1]

Many ancient peoples, however, wrote on perishable materials that have deteriorated through the centuries. Egypt, for example, wrote on materials that have survived through the ages, whereas the kingdom of Judah generally did not.

"[F]rom archaeological data alone," notes Hamblin, "we would know almost nothing about the religion and kingdom of ancient Judah. Indeed, based on archaeological data alone we would assume the Jews were polytheists exactly like their neighbors. Judaism, as a unique religion, would simply disappear without the survival of the Bible and other Jewish written texts."

"...Methodologically speaking, does the absence of archaeologically discovered written records demonstrate that a certain kingdom does not exist? Or to put it another way, does the existence of an ancient kingdom depend on whether or not twenty-first century archaeologists have discovered written records of that kingdom? Or does the kingdom exist irrespective of whether or not it is part of the knowledge horizon of early twenty-first century archaeologists? Or, to state the principle more broadly, does absence of evidence equal evidence of absence?"[2]


  1. William J. Hamblin (posting under the screen-name, “MorgbotX”), posted 29 January 2004 in thread, “What Would Be Proof of the Book of Mormon,” on Zion’s Lighthouse Bulletin Board (ZLMB) off-site(accessed 10 April 2005).
  2. Hamblin, "What Would be Proof...."