Book of Mormon/Anachronisms/Metals
Did no metal use occur in the Americas prior to A.D. 900?
Some attack the Book of Mormon's mention of metal and metalworking in the Americas:
- It is claimed that no metal use occurred in the Americas prior to A.D. 900.
- It is claimed that certain metals mentioned in the Book of Mormon were not available in the Americas.
To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here
Metal and metallurgy was more common and of earlier date in Mesoamerica than has been assumed. Critics also sometimes read the text anachronistically, inserting 21st century ideas about metals (such as steel) into Joseph Smith's 19th century context, and the Book of Mormon's pre-Christian context. Not every issue concerning metals can at present be correlated with archeological data, but the case has been strengthened considerably even in the last 50 years. Given the linguistic evidence for metal at an early date, it is premature to suppose that no physical evidence of metal will turn up for those periods still in question.
Rejecting the Book of Mormon on these grounds commits a fallacy in which the absence of evidence is turned into evidence of absence.
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
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.
The New World
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).
Presence of metal prior to A.D. 900
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.  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."
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:
|Language||Date of term for metal|
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 Columbia.
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.
"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.
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.
This is well-known in a pre-Columbian context.
This is well-known in a pre-Columbian context.
Iron is documented among the pre-Columbian peoples. Even if they did not practice smelting (extracting iron from ore), they used exposed iron sources or meteorite iron. Production of iron artifacts from such sources is documented in San Jose Mogote by 1200 B.C. Several tons of Olmec-era iron artifacts are known: "the Olmec were a sophisticated people who possessed advanced knowledge and skill in working iron ore minerals." 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).
This is well-known in a pre-Columbian context.
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.
As John Sorenson noted in 2008:
- [One author wrote that] "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."
"Steel" in Joseph Smith's day also referred to simply "making hard," and not necessarily to the specific metal with which we now associate the term. This is consistent with ancient usage and conflations of metals (e.g., copper and iron among the Egyptians) modern readers now consider to be separate entities.Consider the entry from Noah Webster's 1828 dictionary of American English:
- STEEL, n. [G.]
- 1. Iron combined with a small portion of carbon; iron refined and hardened, used in making instruments, and particularly useful as the material of edged tools. It is called in chemistry, carburet of iron; but this is more usually the denomination of plumbago.
- 2. Figuratively, weapons; particularly, offensive weapons, swords, spears and the like...
- 4. Extreme hardness; as heads or hearts of steel. off-site
FairMormon Perspectives offers answers to these questions
William Hamblin, "Steel in the Book of Mormon," FairMormon Papers
The minimalist and tightest reading of this evidence is that Nephi had a steel weapon from the Near East. He attempted to imitate this weapon-whether in function, form, or material is unclear. His descendants apparently abandoned this technology by no later than 400 B.C. Based on a careful reading of the text of the Book of Mormon, there are no grounds for claiming-as anti-Mormons repeatedly do-that the Book of Mormon describes a massive steel industry with thousands of soldiers carrying steel swords in the New World.(Click here for full article)
"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.
Part(s) of this criticism are addressed in a FairMormon video segment. Click here to see video clips on other topics.
- Philip J. King and Lawerence E. Stager, Life in Biblical Israel (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 169.
- 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 ), 278.
- 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
- 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 ),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
- Source: Archaeology (Nov/Dec 1985): 81. PDF link
- 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 ), 283.
- 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 ), 285.
- Richard A. Diehl, The Olmecs: America's First Civilization (Thames & Hudson, 2004), 93–94. FairMormon link
- John B. Carlson, "Lodestone Compass: Chinese or Olmec Primacy? Multidisciplinary Analysis of an Olmec Hematite Artifact from San Lorenzo, Veracruz, Mexico," Science 189, No. 4205 (5 September 1975): 753-760.
- Matthew Roper, "Right on Target: Boomerang Hits and the Book of Mormon," FAIR Conference, 2001.
- John L. Sorenson, "Steel in Early Metallurgy," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 15/2 (2006): 108–109. off-site wiki (References silently omitted.)
- William J. Hamblin, "Steel in the Book of Mormon," FAIR article.
- 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.