Editor’s Note: An early version of this paper was presented at the 31st annual Symposium on the Archaeology of the Scriptures and Allied Fields, held on the BYU campus 9 October 1982 and sponsored by the Society for Early Historic Archaeology.
Of all archaeological endeavors, perhaps none have come under so much fire from professionals as those carried on in Latter-day Saint circles. During the 1950s and 1960s, LDS missionaries were showing their non-member contacts slides and books replete with photos of various ruins from South America and Mesoamerica, as proof of the Book of Mormon. Unfortunately, the vast majority of these ruins have been dated to many centuries after the time period covered by the Book of Mormon record.
To be sure, these grandiose monuments of civilizations long dead are impressive and may even shed light on later descendants of the Nephites and Lamanites, as well as on some aspects of Book of Mormon culture that may have been passed on through the centuries. But before one can conclude that any such remains have a connection with the peoples mentioned in Mormon’s record, it is important to consider the geographical context as well. To do otherwise might put us in a position comparable to designating the pyramids of Egypt as great examples of Chinese architecture because similar structures have been found in China. In other words, it is important to first identify where the Nephites lived.
There are, in the LDS community, those who disagree with the foregoing statement. Believing that the Nephites and Lamanites covered all of North and South America in ancient times, they feel that one need only take pick and shovel to the ground to find their remains. Some perhaps hope to one day find an inscription in ancient Hebrew or reformed Egyptian, reading, “General Moroni slept here.” As facetious as this sounds, it is nevertheless a true representation of the difference between the approach taken by a bona fide archaeologist and one lacking expertise in this field.
The geographic setting of the Book of Mormon does not form the basis of this paper. A single example will suffice to show the necessity of incorporating geography into the search for the ancient peoples of the Book of Mormon. In Mosiah, chapter 2, we read that King Benjamin was able to issue a call for his people to assemble on the morrow at the temple in the city of Zarahemla. In view of the fact that the Nephites did not have modern means of transportation, it is inconceivable that they could have all gathered together in such a short period of time unless they lived in a relatively small area.
Other such examples could be elicited from the Book of Mormon itself to illustrate that the area occupied by the peoples of whom the book speaks did not cover a vast expanse of territory. But my purpose is not to present evidence here for the location of the Book of Mormon peoples but, rather, to lay the theoretical groundwork for identifying them. In a sense, scholars who have pursued archaeology in the land from which the Bible came have already laid this groundwork. We can learn much from their methodology that can be of assistance in locating and identifying, for example, Nephite cities. The basic steps involved in biblical archaeology are as follows:
- Study the history found in the Bible and in related historical records. Only when one has an idea of what to look for in the way of geography and physical remains can one proceed to the next step.
- Conduct a regional survey. Several such surveys took place during the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth century. They took into account the relative geographical locations of various sites, along with their positions relative to topographical features mentioned in the Bible. Initially, identifications were made on the basis of toponymy. Arabic site names resembling the Biblical names were presumed to be identical.
- Conduct site surveys at each of the tentatively identified locations. The survey has two purposes: (a) to collect surface finds of pottery and other small items, and (b) to determine the desirability of excavation and suggest specific areas for digging. An examination of finds scattered over the surface of the entire site generally gives an idea of the time periods during which the city was occupied. If there are no indications of occupation during the time in which the Bible says the city existed, then it may be necessary to seek another nearby site to correspond with the biblical name.
- Careful excavation of the site and recording of finds reveals not only archaeological materials of museum quality (uppermost in the minds of laymen) but, more importantly, sheds light on the culture of its ancient inhabitants and confirms the time periods during which the site was occupied, along with destruction levels, periods of abandonment, etc. These can then be correlated with the written record.
- Continual evaluation of all of the previous steps must be made in order to reinforce or deny the site identification.
It must be emphasized that it is a rare biblical site that produces direct archaeological evidence that it is, indeed, the city formerly known by the name assigned to it by modern researchers. It is rare that archaeologists discover an actual artifact, such as a building, mentioned in the Bible, or written documents actually naming the site where found.1 Most of the evidence for the site identification is circumstantial and is based mostly on the geographical location and the archaeological evidence for the time periods in which the site was occupied and the culture of the people who inhabited it.
Because discoveries of direct evidence for a biblical site are found in a very haphazard and fortuitous manner, we can safely assume that the same would be true of Nephite cities. The discovery of an inscription in the Americas naming a Book of Mormon site, while desirable, should not be expected. Nor should we anticipate finding any artifacts specifically mentioned in the Book of Mormon. From this, it should be clear that, without the geographical evidences, there can be no Book of Mormon archaeology.
In order to further illustrate, we shall examine some of the more well-known biblical sites and indicate how they can be identified. We begin with some case histories of site identification from regional surveys.
1. The Philistine Cities
The Bible and other historical records (e.g., those of the Assyrians and Greeks) indicate that the Philistines lived on the southwestern coastal plain of Palestine, adjacent to the tribe of Judah. Their five principal cities are frequently named together. They are Ashkelon, Gaza, Ashdod, Gath, and Ekron. The first three of these have a continual history and are situated on the coast in the anticipated region. Their Arabic names, Asqalan, Ghazzah, and Isdud, accurately reflect the ancient names. Ekron has been identified with Tel Miqneh.2
2. Desert Cities of Judah
In Joshua 15:55, we read of several cities of Judah situated south of Hebron, on the fringes of the desert. Their ancient names, Maon (Hebrew Macon), Carmel, Ziph and Juttah (pronounced Yuttah in Hebrew, and Utah in English) are reflected today in the sites known in Arabic as Khirbet ‘el-Macan, Khirbet ‘el-Karmil, Tell Zif and Yattah. The Arab sites are located where Eusebius listed the biblical sites in his Onomasticon, written in the fourth century A.D.
3. Central Benjamin
A number of cities located in the central portion of the small tribe of Benjamin are frequently listed together in Biblical passages. In order to illustrate, the following chart will be useful:
|1 Kings 15:22//|
|1 Chronicles 16:6||X||X||X|
|1 Samuel 10:29||X||X|
|1 Samuel 13:16-18||*||X||X|
|*Probably “the border” (Hebrew ha-gebul) listed in verse 18.|
In the same region, one finds today Arab villages with identical or similar names, which can hardly be coincidental. A brief word about each of the sites and how they can be identified follows.
Geba (Hebrew gebac, “hill”) is the Arab village of Jabac, located atop a hill. (Classical Arabic j is pronounced g in the dialects of some Bedouin and other Arabs.)
Ramah (Hebrew ha-Ramah, “the height”). The Arab village of ‘ar-Ram, has the same meaning as the Hebrew and is located on a hill. Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews 8.12.3) situated the town 40 stade from Jerusalem, which conforms to the present site.
Mizpeh (Hebrew Mitspeh, “overlook,” is reflected in the similar Arabic name Tell ‘an-Nasbeh, denoting ruins atop a hill north of Ramah. In 1 Kings 15-22 and 1Chronicles 16:6, we read that the stones of a fortress built at Ramah were removed from thence and used by Asa, King of Judah, to build up the towns of Mizpeh and Geba, which must consequently be nearby. Excavations on the site of Mizpeh have uncovered jar handles with a mispelled version of the city’s name, in Hebrew, msh. (The scribe who prepared the seal used to imprint the jar handles prior to firing in the kiln inadvertently left off one letter.)
Michmash is the Arabic village of Mukhmas, also described in Eusebius’s Onomasticon. During World War I, the British actually fought a battle against the Turks at the site, deliberately patterning it after one described in the Bible (1 Samuel 14).
Ophrah. The Semitic root, found in the Hebrew form cOphrah, has a negative connotation in Arabic, where cifrit means “devil.” For this reason, the Arabs, upon arriving in the land in the seventh century A.D., altered the name, calling it ‘a?-?ayibeh, “the good place.”3
Beth-El has been identified with the Arab village of Beit?n. While some scholars have tried to justify the change of the final consonant from l to n, others have noted out that Beth-El is evidently the same as Beth-Aven from which the Arabic name derives. Beth-Aven means “house of idolatry,” while Beth-El means “house of God.” The change in name followed the erection of a temple on the site by Jeroboam, dedicated to the worship of idols in the form of calves. (See 1 Samuel 13:5; 14:23; Hosea 4:15; 5:8; 10:5, 8; Amos 4:4; by this reasoning, Joshua 7:2 and 18:12 would be anachronisms produced by a later scribe, who did not make the complete identification.)
4. An Egyptian Record
The record of an attack made on the land of Canaan by the Egyptian pharaoh Thutmose III (fifteenth century B.C.) has been preserved on the walls of a temple in Karnak. In the rather detailed text, we read of how the Egyptian army came to a site known as Yhm (Egyptian writes no vowels), where a council of war was held. Thutmose’s generals advised him to split the army in two and to send half of the troops through a valley to the north, coming out at Dfty and the other half through a valley to the south, coming out near Tcnk, in order to attack the city of Mkty, where the enemy forces had assembled. They strongly advised against going through the narrow valley of crn. Thutmose, however, ignored their advice and took the middle path through the crn valley, coming out at mkty and taking the city.
Of these sites, two are known from the Bible. Mkty is the Hebrew Megiddo, while Tcnk is biblical Tacnak. Megiddo was renamed Legio, after the Roman Sixth Legion, in the second century A.D., and preserved that name in the Arabic village of Lejjun, beside the ancient mound of Tell al-Muteselim, ancient Megiddo. Tacnak is Tell Ticinnik, situated beside the Arab village of the same name, south of Megiddo. Each stands at the entry of a narrow valley or wadi leading into the Jezreel Valley, and there is a third valley to the north of Megiddo where another ancient mound must be identified as the Dfty of the Egyptian text. The town of Yhm, where Thutmose held his council of war, would then be Khirbet Yamma’, beside the Arab village of the same name. From there, a narrow valley leads through the hills to Megiddo. The valley’s Arabic name, cAra (from one of the villages near its southern entrance), closely resembles the Egyptian name for the same valley, crn.
Though not all Egyptian records are so detailed about Palestinian geography, some of the pharaohs (especially those of the eighteenth and nineteenth dynasties) have left us lists of conquered Syro-Palestinian cities that are often arranged geographically and that can therefore shed additional light on attempts at identifying biblical towns that retained their Canaanite names.
Sites With a Continuous History
Some Palestinian sites have a continuous history under the same or a similar name. Here are some examples:
Acco. Though the city was renamed Ptolemais by the Greeks in the second century B.C., the local population nevertheless continued to call it by its former name, which was preserved in Arabic as cAkka. Even the Crusader period did little to change it; the Knights of Saint John gave the town the French name Saint Jean d’Acre, adding the name of the apostle John to the site. The ancient town is actually a mound, Till ‘al-Fukhkhar, situated beside the medieval and modern city.
Bethlehem. (Hebrew Beit-Lehem, “house of bread”). The name of the city continued through the period of the New Testament and there are records of Christian pilgrims going to Bethlehem from as early as the second century A.D. St. Jerome translated the Bible into Latin in the grotto believed to be the site of the stable where Jesus was born. In A.D. 330, St. Helena, mother of the emperor Constantine, built the first church on the site, remnants of which are still visible today in the Crusader structure. (Indeed, the Basilica of the Nativity is said to be the oldest continuously used Christian church in the world.) The town is still called Beit-Laham in Arabic.
Jerusalem. Though often conquered and sometimes destroyed, Jerusalem has retained such a religious significance that it has been impossible to eradicate the memory of its location. Known in Hebrew as Yerushalaim, it became Hierosolona and Hierousalem in Greek (including the New Testament) and Hierosolyma in Latin. The Arabs have called it both Ur-shalim al-Quds (“Jerusalem the holy”) and Beit el-Maqdis, from the related Hebrew Beit ha-miqdash, “house of the holy place,” referring to the temple. Indeed, remains of Herod’s temple have been found and a great many other specific sites in Jerusalem are also known (e.g., Hezekiah’s tunnel, the pool of Siloam, etc.).
Toponymy is the study of place-names. Insofar as the land of Israel is concerned, we are fortunate that the languages used by most of its conquerers have often been a Semitic tongue, closely related to the Canaanite (Phoenician) and Hebrew languages that gave names to Biblical cities. In this way, the original names have often been preserved with very little difficulty. For example, following the Babylonian conquest of the sixth century B.C., Aramaic, the lingua franca of its day, was spoken in the land.4 Though the Greeks came in the fourth century B.C. and the Romans in the first, Aramaic, a language closely related to Hebrew and written using the same alphabet, remained the language of most of the people, especially those living in small towns and villages. Even the Crusaders, who came from faraway European countries such as England, France, Germany, Italy, etc., adopted Syriac, an Aramaic dialect,5 as the official language of the so-called “Latin” Kingdom of Jerusalem.6 Some of them, of course, preferred the French, but did not attempt to change most place-names, which were already known to the Arabs who had come in the seventh century A.D. Arabic is another Semitic language that readily adopted many of the Hebrew and Aramaic names for sites throughout the Middle East.
Because of these factors, it is often possible to identify a Biblical site on the basis of the Arabic name it bears today. In many cases, the names are exact or nearly exact equivalents of the ancient Canaanite/Hebrew toponymns, often having the same meaning. In other cases, they have been altered slightly due to various factors (e.g., having passed through Crusader French to Arabic), while in others the Hebrew word had no real meaning in Arabic, so was translated into an Arabic name having the same or a similar meaning. The following examples illustrate the use of toponymy in the identification of Biblical sites.
Tekoa, a city located on the desert fringes of the tribe of Judah, was the home of the prophet Amos and was listed by Eusebius in his Onomasticon. The Arabic site is known as Khirbet (“ruin of”) Taquc.
Nain is mentioned in Luke 7:11, where we read of a miracle performed there by Jesus. It was known during Byzantine times (fourth through sixth centuries A.D.) in the Greek form Kome Nais, “village of Nais” and was listed in the fourth-century Onomasticon by Eusebius. The Arabic village is today called Nain. The name has a Hebrew meaning, though the village is not listed in the Old Testament, except perhaps by inference. In Genesus 49:15, when speaking of the land to be inhabited by Issachar, Jacob used the word nacim, “pleasant,” in reference to the ass bearing his burdens. The village of Nain is located at the western base of Mount Moreh, in the territory anciently allotted to the tribe of Issachar. The mountain itself resembles an ass lying on the ground, bearing a burden on each side.
Beth-Shemesh. The Bible indicates that the name of the city in Canaanite times was Beit-Shemesh, “house of the sun(-god),” and that the Israelites re-named it cIr ha-Shemesh, “city of the sun” (Joshua 19:41; Samson, whose name derives from the same root, lived in the region and was perhaps named from the city). The Arab site of cein Shams, “spring of the sun,” appears to preserve the name. However, this site has been investigated and discloses only Roman and Byzantine occupation. The more ancient site, immediately to the west, is called Tell al-Rumeilah, and gives an example of name transfer from one site to another over time, as one is abandoned and another built nearby. Archaeological excavations at the site have indicated occupation during the Canaanite and Israelite periods. Egyptian artifacts of the Late Bronze era may lend support to the suggestion that the site contained a temple to the Egyptian sun-god, whence its name.
Chesuloth (or Chisloth)-Tabor. The Bible records two names for this site, ha-Kesullot (“the flanks”) and Kislot-Tabor (“the flanks of Tabor”). The Roman/Byzantine form of the name was Exaloth, whence the Iksalo of the Mishnah and Arabic Iksal, a town located near the base of Mount Tabor.
Upper and Lower Beth-Horon. These two villages, located one close by the other, have been identified on the basis of the names of the Arabic villages now occupying the sites: Beit cur ‘al-Tahtah (Hebrew Beit Horon Tahton), “Lower Beit-Ur,” and Beit cur ‘al-Fuqah (Hebrew Beit Horon cElyon), “Upper Beit-Ur.” The Biblical description of Joshua’s pursuit of the Canaanite kings from Gibeon down the Beth-Horon ridge (Joshua 10:10-12) adds to the geographic identification of these two sites, for there is but one ridge that leads down from Gibeon and ends, as did Joshua, in the Valley of Ayallon, whose identification is fixed by the location of the ancient site of Ayallon.
Jericho. The Arabic name al-Rikha is very similar in pronunciation to the Hebrew Yeriho, The ancient site is actually Tell ‘es-Sula?n, on the northern edge of the modern city. The Jericho of New Testament times, however, was not found on that site. Rather, it is located at nearby Tulul Abu ‘el-Alqaiq, where a palace belonging to King Herod has been excavated. Indeed, a swimming pool belonging to the palace compound and discovered in recent years is undoubtedly the same mentioned by Josephus (Antiquities 15.3.3), when he recounts how Herod the Great murdered his wife’s brother, the young high priest Aristobulus, by drowning him in the pool. This is another example of name transfer during a period in which a site was abandoned in favor of a nearby newer city, which then took the name of the older town.
Shiloh was located in the territory of the tribe of Ephraim and is therefore to be sought north of Jerusalem. It has been identified with the Arabic Khirbet Seilun, beside the village of the same name. Additional evidence for this identification is to be found in the name of the valley in which the site is located, Arabic Marj al-cid, “valley of the feast.” The Bible mentions the feast that used to take place at Shiloh (Judges 20:19f; 1 Samuel 1:3).
Debir. The location of the Biblical site has long been debated by scholars, though all agreed that the Bible places it in the southern part of Judah. The most recently accepted site is Khirbet Rabud, a large mound south of Hebron, adjacent to the Arab village of the same name. A site survey shows that the occupation periods correspond to those of the biblical record. Nearby are both an upper and a lower spring, corresponding to the ones mentioned in connection with Debir in Judges 1:11-15. In this case, the Arabic name Rabud is a metathesis of Hebrew Debir, wherein the first and the last consonants have shifted place. This phenomenon is known at other sites as well.
Dan was located by noting that, in the far north of the country (where the tribe of Dan emigrated and renamed the ancient site of Laish or Leshem after their ancestor), there existed a site known to the Arabs as Tell al-Qadi, “mound of the judge.” The Hebrew name Dan means “judge,” so it was assumed that the Arabic name was a translation from the Hebrew. Confirmation came during archaeological excavations, wherein a high place–probably that of Jeroboam as mentioned in 1 Kings 12:29f–was found. Also discovered, though dating from a much later time, was an inscription in Greek, “to the God who is in Dan.” Also significant is the fact that the site is located just below the Golan Heights, known anciently as Bashan, which was mentioned in Moses’ blessing on the tribe of Dan (Deuteronomy 33:22).
Well of Harod. No equivalent of the Hebrew cEin-Harod, where Gideon assembled his men and picked 300 warriors to battle the Midianite invaders (Judges 7:1) has been found. Nevertheless, the site has been identified. In Judges 7:3, we read of Mt. Gilead (Hebrew Gilcad), which must be in error, for Gilead is located east of the Jordan River, while Gideon’s battle took place in the Jezreel Valley, between Mt. Moreh and Mt. Tabor. Indeed, the spring is, according to the Biblical description, located south of Mt. Moreh, which would place it at the foot of Mt. Gilboa. Some have seen a confusion in the Hebrew Bible between Gilcad and Gilboac, which have a similar spelling. However, the existence of a spring at the base of the latter, bearing the Arabic name cEin-Jalud, gives rise to the suggestion that the spring had two names, one of them being Hebrew Galud or something akin thereto. The Crusaders called the spring Geluth in their French texts. Here, then, we have a case where a better understanding of the Bible text can assist in making a firm identification of a site.
History, too, can assist us in locating of biblical sites. This is obvious in the case of sites that have always been known, buut it is also true of sites that had to be rediscovered. Here are some examples.
Gath-Hepher. The biblical site is known as the town of the prophet Jonah (2 Kings 14:25; Jonah 1:1). Under the form of Gittah-Hepher (where, in Hebrew, the h has been suffixed to the first word by mistake and should be prefixed to the second), we find that it was on the border between the tribes of Zebulon and Naphtali (Josh. 19:13). Based on this, we may seek the site where it was placed by St. Jerome, who wrote that, in his day, it was a small village situated two Roman miles east of Sepphoris (one-time capital of the Galilee, in the former territory of Zebulon). In this very spot is today found beside the Arab village of al-Meshed an ancient tell named called in Arabic Nebi Yuinis, “the prophet Jonah.”7
Shechem, one of the foremost towns of Old Testament times, Shechem lost its name when, in later times, it was no longer inhabited and a nearby site took the name Neapolis (Greek for “new city”). The latter name is preserved in the modern Palestinian city of Nablus (the Arabs use b because their language has no p sound). The two mountains, Gerizim and Ebal, known from the Bible, flank the city on either side, and the Samaritans continue to offer their sacrifices atop Mt. Gerizim, as they did anciently. It was to this mountain that the Samaritan woman had reference in speaking to Jesus (John 4:20-21). This conversation took place at “Jacob’s well,” situated near the city of Sychar, which is perhaps a Greek form of Shechem (John 4:5-6). The well is still shown beneath a Greek Orthodox church, as is the nearby site of Joseph’s tomb (see Joshua 24:32). Also nearby is the ancient site known today in Arabic as Tel al-Balutah, “mound of the oak-tree.” The reference to the oak is significant because of the Biblical notation that there was a sacred oak at Shechem (Joshua 24:26; in Genesis 12:6 and Judges 9:6, the word “plain” is a mistranslation in the King James Bible and should read “oak”). Archaeological excavations on the site have disclosed a temple thought to be that of Baal-berith (Judges 9:4). A large stone fitting the description of the stone erected at Shechem by Joshua (Joshua 24:25-26) was found near the temple.
In all of the examples given thus far, we have seen how geographic factors have played a primary role in the identification of biblical sites. Archaeology has, in some of these cases, confirmed that the site was occupied during the time period assigned to it by the Bible. But archaeology alone in insufficient to find sites mentioned in the scriptures. In the examples that follow, archaeological discoveries made on the site–and I stress that these followed the tentative geographic identification–have either partially or completely confirmed the correctness of the identification.
Lachish. On the basis of geogralphy, the biblical town of Lachish was tentatively identified as Tell al-Duweir. Confirmation came from excavations made during the 1930s. Some of these discoveries conformed to the story of the Assyrian siege and attack on the city (701 B.C.), mentioned in both the Bible and in Assyrian records discovered in Iraq. The siege ramp, a large number of arrowheads of the correct time period, pieces of armor, and breaches in the city walls retold the ancient tale. In addition, two of the discoveries conformed to items depicted on a wall relief made for Sennacherib, king of Assyria, to commemorate his conquest of Lachish, and found (with an inscription confirming the city under attack to be Lachish) at Nineveh. One was a helmet crest, like those worn by some of the Assyrian soldiers on the relief. The other was the existence of both an inner and an outer wall surrounding the city, also found on the relief. But perhaps the best evidence of all is that one of several letters dating from 588 B.C. and found near the city gate mentions Lachish by name and confirms the account in Jeremiah 34:7. To these archaeological evidences we may add the evidence of history. Eusebius, in his Onomasticon, situated Lachish seven Roman miles south of Beit Jibrin, which is its correct location.
Beer-Sheba. The Hebrew Be’er-Shebac means “well of the oath” or “well of seven” and refers back to the story in Genesis 21:31. Originally, it was merely a well, with the city being added later. Near the modern city known to the Arabs as Bir al-sabac is the ancient site, Tell al-Sabac. Its location conforms to the description in the Onomasticon (i.e., 20 miles south of Hebron) and in the Bible. Excavations on the site showed that the city itself was not built until the time of David, but that there was an ancient well situated just outside the gateway. Further confirmation came from the fact that, inside the gate and to its left was a large building (possibly the governor’s house), and elsewhere on the site an altar such as one would find at a “high place,” both described in 2 Kings 23:8.
Ezion-Geber, Solomon’s Red Sea port was, for a number of years, thought to be Tell al-Khuzeifeh, beside modern Elath. During the 1970s, Israeli archaeologist Beno Rothenberg proposed identifying the ancient city with ruins found at Coral Island, about five miles farther south. Here, Iron Age piers jut out underwater from the island’s ancient port, facing the mainland just a few hundred yards off. This method of locating ports, i.e., on the inland side of an offshore island beside a small bay, is the pattern followed by the Phoenicians in their Mediterranean port-cities, such as Tyre, Arvad, Carthage, etc. Since it was the Phoenician king Hiram who assisted Solmon in preparing the port and navy at Ezion-Geber (I Kings 9:26-28; 10:11), Rothenberg’s identification seems quite likely.
Hebron, a Hebrew name meaning “place of the friend/associate,” and has reference to Abraham, the “friend of God” (2 Chronicles 20:7; Isaiah 41:8; James 2:23), who lived and was buried there.8 The Arabs have retained the ancient name in translation as al-Khalil, “the friend,” a title applied to Abraham in Arab traditions as well. Inside the modern city is the Mosque of Abraham, converted from a structure built by Herod the Great some two millennia ago to mark the site of the Cave of Machpelah, where the patriarchs are buried (Genesis 23:19; 25:9; 49:30; 50:13). (Most of the structure’s stonework dates from the time of Herod.) Other nearby sites reflect traditions concerning Abraham, some of which go back many centuries. Excavations atop the hill to the south have uncovered remains of the ancient city which, as expected from the Biblical record, goes back to the Middle Bronze era.
Beth-Shean/Beth-Shan. Though the Greeks changed the name-of the city to Scythopolis (Latin retained this form), “city of the Scythians,” it nevertheless retained its original name amongst the local inhabitants, being called in Arabic Beisan. The ancient site is Tell al-Husn, situated in the center of town. Excavations have revealed Egyptian inscriptions from the fifteenth (in the Temple of Mekal) and the thirteenth centuries B.C. (a monument of Seti 1), both of which name Beth-Shean and thus confirm the identification. In 1 Chronicles 10:1 and 1 Samuel 31:10, we read of how the Philistines, after defeating the Israelite army, placed the head of king Saul in the temple of Dagon at Beth-Shean and displayed his armor in the same town in the temple of Ashtaroth. A thirteenth-century B.C. temple was uncovered in which was a stela depicting the two-horned goddess Ashtaroth, with another similar temple in the twelfth century and a nearby temple to an unidentified deity. During one of my visits to the site, I found a small statuette of the goddess.
Gibeon.. Hebrew Gibecon means “place of the hill” and is a fit description for the location of the Arab village of al-Jib. Identification of the site was confirmed by the discovery, during archaeological excavation of the site, of jar handles bearing the Hebrew name. More surprising, but of great value, was the discovery of the great pool mentioned in 2 Samuel 2:13 and of wine presses and wine storage rooms carved in the bedrock (cf. Joshua 9:13).
Gezer. The biblical site was identified with a large mound west of Jerusalem, on the basis of the tomb of “Sheikh iezari” located at its summit. The tomb evidently came to be called after the ancient name of the site rather than the person who was actually buried there. Confirmation of this came in the discovery of a large stone monument in a field not far from the site, inscribed with the words “Border of Gezer” in ancient Hebrew script.
Arad. In looking for the site of biblical cArad, archaeologists sought out the Arab site of the same name, halfway between Beer-Sheba and the Dead Sea. The name was also found written in ancient Hebrew script during excavations. Discoveries dating to the Early Bronze period confirmed a tie between Arad and the Sinai copper mining areas to the south, of which there is a hint in the Bible, which notes that the family of Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, who lived in the northwestern part of Arabia, settled at Arad after the Exodus (Judges 1:16). The discovery of a temple of Israelite times on the summit of the mound led Israeli archaeologist Benjamin Mazar to postulate that the site was sacred to the Kenites, descendants of Jethro. The mound was not, however, occupied during the Late Bronze era, when the Bible indicates that Israel fought there. For this reason, archaeologists postulated that the Late Bronze Arad was a nearby site, while the name was moved to the site bearing the Arabic name during the Iron Age (Israelite period).
cEn-Rimmon. The Bible usually lists two cities, cAin (“spring” of water) and Rimmon (pomegranate), as in Joshua 15:32). However, evidence from other passages (e.g., Joshua 19:7; 1 Chronicles 4:32; Nehemiah 11:29) indicates that these two names are really to be read as one, Hebrew cEin-Rimmon, “spring of the pomegranate.” The name is preserved in the site of Khirbet ‘Unn al-R c=a-m-zsn, Arabic meaning “ruins of the mother of the pomegranate,” eighteen miles southwest of Hebron and nine miles north of Beer-Sheba. This location coincides with the Biblical passages that assign the city to the tribe of Simeon, whose capital was Beer-Sheba. The site, however, does not have occupation levels corresponding to the Late Bronze and Iron Ages. The biblical city was therefore identified as another mound one kilometer to the north. Confirmation came from the discovery, in 1977, of a shallow ceramic bowl ornamented in the center by a single raised pomegranate. The artifact, dated to the Iron Age, has no known parallel.
Samaria. The rendering of the name in KJV is from the Greek version of the Hebrew name Shomron, “Shemer’s place,” named from one Shemer, from whom the Israelite king Omri purchased the hill atop which he built his capital (1 Kings 16:24). Evidence for its location came from its geographical location, as well as from the known historical fact that Herod the Great rebuilt the city and named it Sebast – as reflected in the Arabic village of Sabastiyah of today. Archaeological excavation has shown that the earliest town on the site was built during the Iron II period, which corresponds to the biblical story of Omri. Indeed, pottery in the lowest level at Samaria is of the same type as that of the upper level of Tell al-Farcah, indicating that the latter is to be identified with Omri’s previous capital, Tirzah, which was evidently abandoned when Samaria was built. From the time period of Jeroboam II, a number of ostraca recording foodstuffs destined for the palace were found at Samaria, adding further conformation of the identification of the site.
Capernaum. The town is unknown from the Old Testament, though it plays an important role in the mission of Jesus, being described in the New Testament as a fishing town on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, home of Peter, Andrew, Zebedee, James, John and Matthew. Josephus, the Jewish historian of the first century A.D., wrote of being taken by the Romans from the mouth of the Jordan to Capernaum (Life of Josephus 72). Arculfus, writing in 670 A.D., placed it on the north of the Sea of Galilee, saying that the shore was to the south, the hills [of Upper Galilee] to the north. Eusebius (fourth century A.D.) and Matthew 4:13 place it near the lake. Theodosius wrote that it was two miles from Heptapegon (Greek for “seven springs”), a spring known today in Arabic as al-Tabgha (“the seven”). These and other historical accounts, though helpful, did not assist in keeping Capernaum alive, for it was ultimately abandoned and lost. Its relocation was based upon the geographical descriptions noted above and on the reconstruction of its Hebrew name. The New Testament calls the site, in Greek, Kafarnaoum (the usual form) or (sometimes) Kapemaown. Assuming this to be from the Hebrew *Kephar-Nahum, “village of Nahum” (medieval sources identified it with the Old Testament prophet of that name), it came to be considered identical with the ruin known in Arabic as Tell Hum, “brown mound.” Though the Arabic name does not have the same meaning as the Hebrew, nevertheless the close phonetic similarity makes the identification probable. Additional evidences were forthcoming, however, during the archaeological excavations. The most notable of these had to do with the house of Peter, in which Jesus healed the apostle’s mother-in-law (Matthew 8:14-15). Eteria, a Spanish pilgrim of the fifth century A.D., wrote that the house of Peter had been made into a church. The church has, in fact, been discovered, sitting atop a house of the first century with a courtyard of the same period in which early Christian meetings seem to have been held. Some 131 inscriptions (mostly of pilgrims) have been found carved into the plaster of the house, four of them rather large. Two of the inscriptions mention the name “Peter,” lending evidence to the fact that the place was revered as his home. Other apostolic-type names appear on a column from the fourth/fifth century synagogue, where we read of one Halphi the son of Zebidah the son of Yohanan. In the New Testament, we have John (Yohanan) the son of Zebedee (Zebidah) and James (Yacqob) the son of Alphaeus (Halphi) listed as apostles of Jesus (Matthew 10:2-3). That the names were current in Capernaum during later centuries is perhaps some indication that members of the same families continued living at Capernaum, carrying on the names. It has long been typical amongst Jews to name sons after grandfathers and other male relatives.
Nineveh. The site of the Assyrian capital was suspected to be located beneath the two large mounds opposite the north Iraqi city of Mosul. Toponymic evidence included the fact that one of the mounds was called, by the Arabs, Nebi Yunis, “the prophet Jonah,” after the Biblical prophet sent to Nineveh to preach repentance. Excavations revealed one of the largest ancient cities yet discovered, with an inner wall 7-3/4 miles in circumference. The enormity of the site, with its large surrounding suburbs of palaces (as much as 60 miles across) fits well with the description of a city requiring three days to traverse, as noted in Jonah 3:3. Absolute confirmation of the identification came with the unearthing of the palaces and records of the Assyrian kings. Some 22,000 clay tablets from the royal archives at Nineveh (many of them naming the city) made their way to the British Museum.
Tyre. The Biblical site of Tsor (Assyrian Surri, Greek Turos) was readily identified by the name still given to it by the Arabs, al-Tur. It was situated where expected from Biblical, Assyrian and Greek records, on the south Lebanese coast, where it had long served as a Phoenician port city. Originally located on an offshore island, the site had been conquered by Alexander the Great by the building of an earthen and stone conduit out to the island from the mainland. This conduit, called a “mole,” has been uncovered in archaeological excavations beneath the sand that has since filled in the bay. Also found were Phoenician records, some of which name the site as Tyre of old.
In summary, we see that the identification of biblical sites has been accomplished mostly on the basis of geographical factors. Archaeology, while helpful in confirming (or sometimes denying) identifications, has of necessity played a secondary role. The importance of geography to the field of historic archaeology is reflected in the fact that, in Israeli universities, degrees in historic geography are given through the departments of archaeology. From this, it should be obvious that Book of Mormon archaeology must be approached in the same way. By this, we mean that the following steps must be applied to any serious study of the archaeology of this volume of scripture:
- Following a thorough study of the text of the Book of Mormon, it is possible to construct a geographic model whereby the relative locations of various sites one to another can be ascertained and plotted on a hypothetical map. The map should not be related to specific geographical regions and topographical features until the theoretical model is as complete as the text will allow. Several Latter-day Saints have prepared such maps, with the latest comprising a book by John Sorenson.9
- Comparing the hypothetical map to known topography, one can determine the region in which the Nephites and Lamanites lived and thereby prepare a tentative map, with relative locations of sites, based on known sites and topographical features.
- Regional surveys must then be tied in to the tentative map, in order to ascertain (a) if there are sites of archaeological value where one would expect them, (b) whether those sites can be shown to have been inhabited during Book of Mormon times, (c) whether native names for the sites can be tied by either phonology or meaning to the names of Book of Mormon sites, and (d) whether any of the sites appear to fit descriptions of cities given in the Book of Mormon.
Only after the completion of these steps can archaeological excavation and evaluation of finds be of value to the study of the Book of Mormon as an historical record. This is not to say that we should discourage archaeological work while awaiting the results of geographic studies. Whenever competent archaeologists accomplish their work and keep good records, there is hope for use of that information. I am encouraged by the serious attempts of some Latter-day Saint scholars to reconstruct the geography of the Book of Mormon, and I am likewise pleased by the serious archaeological work being conducted, particularly in Mesoamerica. It is my fondest hope to see the day when these two fields of endeavor will become one and Book of Mormon archaeology can, at long last, be placed on a solid foundation of scientific research.
1 Only a handful of sites named in the Bible have been located by in-situ inscriptions bearing the name of the site, and most of the few inscriptions were found after 1930, the last, identifying the Philistine city Ekron, being uncovered as late as 1996.
2 Both Arabic and Hebrew have consonants that are not found in English, so some of the names can only be approximated using an alphabet familiar to most readers.
3 This is the village whence came Sirhan Sirhan, the Palestinian Arab who killed Robert F. Kennedy.
4 The Babylonians and Assyrians spoke dialects of Akkadian, which is part of the Semitic language family, but for communication with conquered territories, they adopted Aramaic, the language spoken in the land called Aram in Hebrew but Syria in Greek.
5 Syriac and Aramaic mean the same thing, though they are distinguished by linguists because Syriac, a later form of Aramaic, used a different alphabet. The earlier Aramaic alphabet was adopted by the Jews for Hebrew. Today, Aramaic survives as a living language in just a few Syrian cities.
6 In this case, the term “Latin” refers not to the language, but to the Latin (Roman Catholic) Church that launched the Crusades.
7 The English j formerly was pronounced y, as in related Germanic languages, but, under the influence of French, introduced into England during the Norman conquest, it came to have its modern pronunciation. The translators of the King James Version of the Bible usually rendered the Hebrew letter yod (y) as j in English.
8 A different Hebrew term is rendered “friend” in the two Old Testament passages, while the one in James is in Greek. The Bible notes the name-change to Hebron from Kirjath-Arba (Genesis 23:2; 35:27; Joshua 14:15; 15:13, 54; 20:7; 21:11).
9 John L. Sorenson, Mormon’s Map (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 2000).