Book of Mormon/Archaeology/Hill Cumorah

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  • If Mormon chapter 6 is a literal description of the destruction of the Nephites by the Lamanites — approximately 100 thousand were killed by swords and axes — why hasn't any evidence of the battle been found at the site that was traditionally identified as the hill Cumorah in western New York state?
  • If Joseph Smith returned the gold plates to a cave in the Hill Cumorah, why is there no evidence of this cave?

To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here


Some have used scripture to support the view that the New York drumlin is not the same hill as the place of the Nephite destruction (since that is the majority view among scholars). While that is one plausible view based on this scripture, that point is left ambiguous. During his 36-year wandering to escape the Lamanites, Moroni could have traveled a great distance. If the Nephite Cumorah was not in New York, Moroni could easily have eventually come to modern New York state where he buried the plates. On the other hand, he could have easily remained in the general area of the Nephite destruction in his wanderings.

Regarding the Cumorah's cave containing artifacts, a natural cave could not exist within the glacially created drumlin in New York. Given that the angel Moroni had retrieved the plates from Joseph several times previously, it is not unreasonable to assume that he was capable of transporting them to a different location than the hill in New York.

The Neal A. Maxwell Institute responds to these questions

John E. Clark,"Archaeology and Cumorah Questions", Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, 13/1-2 (2004)

Things are rarely as simple as labels make them appear. For the past 50 years, some scholars have suggested that common Latter-day Saint usage of Cumorah confuses two different places and that the modest hill where Joseph Smith recovered the plates is not the eminence of the genocidal battles. Further, the Cumorah battlefield is seen by many scholars as the key for identifying the location of the ancient lands described in the book. Hence, much rests on its correct placement. All these observations lead to a paradox explored here: before archaeology can reveal Cumorah's secrets, it must first be employed to identify its location. The hill the plates came from is not at issue; the question is whether this final resting place is the same hill where the ending battles occurred. Many serious scholars have attempted to prove that the Palmyra hill was the battle hill, but to little avail, largely because they do not understand archaeology as an inexact science. They argue that the Palmyra hill and its surrounding area once had tons of convincing evidence that has long since been destroyed or carted away.

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Detailed Analysis

There are a couple of incorrect assumptions in this question.

Where is the hill Cumorah?

First, it is not the case that the Church authoritatively identifies the drumlin in western New York as the same Hill Cumorah mentioned in the text of the Book of Mormon. The Church has made it abundantly clear that it does not endorse any particular view of Book of Mormon geography.

The Church has no official position on any New World location described in the Book of Mormon. There is no official revelation in the Church establishing the drumlin in New York as the Hill Cumorah of the Book of Mormon where two nations were destroyed. It is true that a number of Church leaders in the past expressed the opinion that the hill in New York is the same hill described in the Book of Mormon. Whether that opinion was based on personal revelation to those individuals cannot be known. And even if so, personal testimony on points such as this are contradictory, and are not binding on the Church, regardless of how high the position was of the person making the assertion. Only new revelation following proper procedure, and being accepted by the Church as a whole as binding can clear up this point. Statements from Joseph Smith or others on geography are not binding on the Church, despite the claims of various theorists.

There is no clear indication that Joseph Smith ever applied the name "Cumorah" to the hill in New York:

At what point in modern times this New York hill was first called Cumorah is difficult to determine. In his account in the Pearl of Great Price, Joseph Smith refers to the hill where the plates were buried, but never calls it by any name. In the Doctrine and Covenants the name 'Cumorah' only appears one time, in an 1842 epistle written by Joseph Smith: 'And again, what do we hear? Glad tidings from Cumorah' (DC 128:20). No other uses of 'Cumorah' have been found in any other of Joseph Smith's personal writings. When this name does appear it has been added by later editors or is being quoted from another individual.[1]

A late account from David Whitmer is the earliest possible association of the name with the New York hill, though it is long after the fact:

When I was returning to Fayette, with Joseph and Oliver, all of us riding in the wagon, Oliver and I on an old fashioned, wooden spring seat and Joseph behind us, while traveling along in a clear open place, a very pleasant, nice-looking old man in a clear open place, who saluted us with "Good morning, it is very warm," at the same instant wiping his face or forehead with his hand. We returned the salutation, and by a sign from Joseph I invited him to ride if he was going our way, but he said very pleasantly, "No I am going to Cumorah." This was something new to me, I did not know what Cumorah meant, and as I looked enquiringly at Joseph, the old man instantly disappeared so that I did not see him again.[2]

Even this use of the term does not identify any specific site with Cumorah.

Joseph Fielding Smith

One review of this topic notes:

In 1938 Elder Joseph Fielding Smith wrote an article published in the Deseret News arguing against what he then termed the "modernist" theory that the final battlefield of the Nephites and Jaredites may have been in Central America rather than in New York. In 1956 this article was included in a selection of Elder Smith's writings compiled by his son-in-law Bruce R. McConkie. Although Elder Smith would later become president of the church in 1970, his article arguing for a New York location as the scene of the final battlefield was written many years before he assumed that position, and he apparently never revisited the question as president of the church. There is evidence that Elder Smith may have softened his opposition on the Cumorah question. In a letter written to Fletcher B. Hammond, who argued emphatically for a Central American location and had sent Elder Smith a copy of his findings, the apostle explained, "I am sure this will be very interesting although I have never paid any attention whatever to Book of Mormon geography because it appears to me that it is inevitable that there must be a great deal of guesswork."  Apparently, he did not consider his 1938 argument as settled and definitive or as a measure of doctrinal orthodoxy.
Sidney B. Sperry, after whom an annual Brigham Young University symposium is named, was also one who initially supported the New York Cumorah view (that is, an area of New York as the final battlefield of the Nephites and Jaredites). During the 1960s, as he began to explore the issue, he came to a different conclusion... Reversing his earlier position, he wrote: "It is now my very carefully studied and considered opinion that the Hill Cumorah to which Mormon and his people gathered was somewhere in Middle America. The Book of Mormon evidence to this effect is irresistible and conclusive to one who will approach it with an open mind. This evidence has been reviewed by a few generations of bright students in graduate classes who have been given the challenge to break it down if they can. To date none has ever been able to do so."  Sperry, who was very familiar with what Joseph Fielding Smith had previously written, told him that he did not feel comfortable publishing something that contradicted what the apostle had written, but that he and other sincere students of the Book of Mormon had come to that conclusion only after serious and careful study of the text. Sperry said that Elder Smith then lovingly put his arm around his shoulder and said, "Sidney, you are as entitled to your opinion as I am to mine. You go ahead and publish it." [3]

It seems clear, then, that Elder (later President) Smith did not regard his views as the product of revelation, nor did he regard it as illegitimate to have a different view of the matter.

Archaeology of New York site?

Even if there is a chance that the drumlin in New York State is the Hill Cumorah, no actual archaeological digs have been performed at the site to actually attempt to find artifacts. Dirt has been overturned when it has been farmed, and also by equipment when structures have been built. Nobody went through the dirt with a fine-toothed comb. Only unofficial site surveys by non-professional people have been done there in recent years, without professional archaeological supervision, and without careful corroboration and documentation. Historical accounts of artifacts found at the site by farmers and so forth are only unsubstantiated folklore accounts. Even if true, the accounts show that the arrowheads that could be found were tampered with and carried away and sold. So there is nothing left but the accounts themselves, which are not archaeological evidence in themselves. And if arrowheads were found there, does that really prove that it was Cumorah? Arrowheads found at any location in the United States is an unremarkable thing to begin with, as they can be found all over the country in a great many sites. So even if things were found, it still wouldn't prove much.

While we call the drumlin in New York "Hill Cumorah" based on a usage initiated early in Church history (probably by Oliver Cowdery or W. W. Phelps),[4] that does not necessarily make the two hills the same. Most LDS scholars do not think they are the same, because they believe the New York drumlin does not meet the textual requirements for the geographic placement of the hill in relation to the narrow neck of land.[5] The view of these scholars is that the text requires a relatively short distance between Cumorah and the neck of land. David A. Palmer's criteria for the Ancient Cumorah have historically supplied some of the basis for the way most scholars understand the Book of Mormon description of Cumorah.[6] Scholars in support of those same ideas have built upon his work, and have added their ideas to the mix over the years. However, in contrast to other distances in the Book of Mormon, John Clark stated that "The relative location of the hill Cumorah is most tenuous, since travel time from Bountiful, or the narrow neck, to Cumorah is nowhere specified." [7]

And yet, others have argued to the contrary that a significant distance between those landmarks is unambiguously specified. That idea should not necessarily be conflated with the Hemispherical model, and it doesn't mean that the urban Nephite domain under the neck of land was not a limited area. For example, Andrew H. Hedges (of the Joseph Smith Papers Project, who was a professor of Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University) has documented his views.[8] (Matt Roper provided a response to Hedges' article).[9] Another author has also documented his opinions.[10]

The critical question of distance between Cumorah and the neck of land determines archaeological, cultural and environmental considerations for the ancient Cumorah. If, as Hedges argues, a more rural "northern hinterland" of the Nephite nation existed far north, and Cumorah is within that northern domain, then the expectations for what should be found in that area are not necessarily the same as those for the urban centers in the south. If Palmer and others in favor of the limited view are correct, then there is no such northern area. All sides of the issue regarding the Ancient Cumorah should be evaluated carefully. Any position that claims to be the definitive answer on this particular point, to the exclusion other points of view, when the Book of Mormon text is so ambiguous on it should be viewed with extreme caution.

Also note that the Book of Mormon does not state that the plates of Mormon were buried in the Hill Cumorah; in fact, it states that the plates were not buried in Cumorah at that time, but were given to Moroni to safeguard until it came time for them to be put in their ultimate place of deposit:

"And it came to pass that when we had gathered in all our people in one to the land of Cumorah, behold I, Mormon...made this record [the plates of Mormon] out of the plates of Nephi, and hid up in the hill Cumorah all the records which had been entrusted to me by the hand of the Lord, save [except] it were these few plates which I gave unto my son Moroni." (Mormon 6:6) (emphasis added)

This demonstrates that the burial place of the rest of the plates from the people of the Nephites were buried at the hill where the Nephite destruction took place, the actual ancient Cumorah.

This took place in approximately A.D. 385. Moroni did not bury the plates of Mormon until A.D. 421. During this 36-year period Moroni explained:

"[The Lamanites] put to death every Nephite that will not deny the Christ. And I, Moroni, will not deny the Christ; wherefore, I wander whithersoever I can for the safety of mine own life." (Moroni 1:3)

During that 36-year wandering to escape the Lamanites, it seems likely that he could have traveled a great distance. If the Nephite Cumorah was not in New York, Moroni could easily have eventually come to modern New York state where he buried the plates. On the other hand, he could have easily remained in the general area of the Nephite destruction in his wanderings.

The Neal A. Maxwell Institute responds to these questions

Michael J. Dorais,"The Geologic History of Hill Cumorah", Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, 13/1-2 (2004)

Cumorah! The very mention of the name brings multiple images to the minds of Latter-day Saints. We commonly think of the coming forth of the golden plates under the direction of the angel Moroni and of the faithfulness of the Prophet Joseph Smith in fulfilling his mission. We may also think of the preparation of the plates themselves, from Nephi's making a second set of plates, whose ultimate purposes he knew not, to Moroni's final words engraved on that sacred record before he placed it in the Hill Cumorah. The preparation of the Smith family may come to mind as well, such as the fact that Joseph was born of righteous parents and thus was spiritually prepared to become the prophet of the restoration. Perhaps less thought goes to the climatic1 and financial difficulties that the Smith family experienced while living in New England, prompting them to move to New York in proximity to Cumorah, where a new dispensation would dawn.

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Large population counts in the scriptures

A second questionable premise is that the numbers recited in the text should be understood as accurate in the same sense we would understand those numbers today. Ancient militaristic texts, including those of the Bible, frequently exaggerated the numbers involved in battle for their own propagandistic purposes, or to simply convey the general concept of 'a very large number'. Very large numbers in the scriptures should always be taken with a grain of salt, since ancient authors (having their own purposes and approach) did not use such terms with the same precision as a modern military historian.

It has also been noted that "so-and-so and his 10,000" may use the term "10,000" as a designation for a military unit. Roman armies had "centuries" (or centuria) which were lead by a "centurion," which implies a hundred men. While such units originally had 100 men, the normal size of such units (even at full strength) was only 60–80 men.[11]

Interestingly, at the time of the Spanish Conquest, Bernal Diaz described Tlascalan armies in the same terms:

Of the followers of the old Xicotenga . . . there were ten thousand; of another great chief named Moseescaci there were another ten thousand; of a third, who was called Chichimecatecle, there were as many more....[12]

Without further information, it is difficult to know whether the Book of Mormon uses the term literally, in a symbolic/propagandist sense to convey a great number of dead, or as a technical military term familiar to Mormon and Moroni but opaque to the modern reader.

Question: Is there a cave in the Hill Cumorah containing the Nephite records?

Brigham Young related a story about how the plates were returned to Moroni in a cave in the Hill Cumorah

On June 17, 1877, Brigham Young related the following at a conference:

I believe I will take the liberty to tell you of another circumstance that will be as marvelous as anything can be. This is an incident in the life of Oliver Cowdery, but he did not take the liberty of telling such things in meeting as I take. I tell these things to you, and I have a motive for doing so. I want to carry them to the ears of my brethren and sisters, and to the children also, that they may grow to an understanding of some things that seem to be entirely hidden from the human family. Oliver Cowdery went with the Prophet Joseph when he deposited these plates. Joseph did not translate all of the plates; there was a portion of them sealed, which you can learn from the Book of Doctrine and Covenants. When Joseph got the plates, the angel instructed him to carry them back to the hill Cumorah, which he did. Oliver says that when Joseph and Oliver went there, the hill opened, and they walked into a cave, in which there was a large and spacious room. He says he did not think, at the time, whether they had the light of the sun or artificial light; but that it was just as light as day. They laid the plates on a table; it was a large table that stood in the room. Under this table there was a pile of plates as much as two feet high, and there were altogether in this room more plates than probably many wagon loads; they were piled up in the corners and along the walls. The first time they went there the sword of Laban hung upon the wall; but when they went again it had been taken down and laid upon the table across the gold plates; it was unsheathed, and on it was written these words: "This sword will never be sheathed again until the kingdoms of this world become the kingdom of our God and his Christ." [13]

The geologic unlikelihood of a cave existing within the drumlin in New York called "Hill Cumorah" suggests that the experience related by the various witnesses was most likely a vision

There are at least ten second hand accounts describing the story of the cave in Cumorah, however, Joseph Smith himself did not record the incident. [14] As mentioned previously, the Hill Cumorah located in New York state is a drumlin: this means it is a pile of gravel scraped together by an ancient glacier. The geologic unlikelihood of a cave existing within the hill such as the one described suggests that the experience related by the various witnesses was most likely a vision, or a divine transportation to another locale (as with Nephi's experience in 1 Nephi 11:1). John Tvedtnes supports this view:

The story of the cave full of plates inside the Hill Cumorah in New York is often given as evidence that it is, indeed, the hill where Mormon hid the plates. Yorgason quotes one version of the story from Brigham Young and alludes to six others collected by Paul T. Smith. Unfortunately, none of the accounts is firsthand. The New York Hill Cumorah is a moraine laid down anciently by a glacier in motion. It is comprised of gravel and earth. Geologically, it is impossible for the hill to have a cave, and all those who have gone in search of the cave have come back empty-handed. If, therefore, the story attributed to Oliver Cowdery (by others) is true, then the visits to the cave perhaps represent visions, perhaps of some far distant hill, not physical events.[15]

Given that the angel Moroni had retrieved the plates from Joseph several times previously, it is not unreasonable to assume that he was capable of transporting them to a different location than the hill in New York. As Tvedtnes asks, "If they could truly be moved about, why not from Mexico, for example?"[15]

The Neal A. Maxwell Institute responds to these questions

Cameron J. Packer,"Cumorah's Cave", Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, 13/1-2 (2004)

The Hill Cumorah's significance in the restoration of the gospel goes beyond its being the ancient repository of the metal plates known as the Book of Mormon. In the second half of the 19th century, a certain teaching about a cave in the hill began surfacing in the writings and teachings of several leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In their view, the hill was not only the place where Joseph Smith received the plates but also their final repository, along with other sacred treasures, after the translation was finished. According to some of those leaders, Joseph Smith and others returned the plates to a cave in the Hill Cumorah after he finished translating them. At least 10 different accounts, all secondhand, refer to this cave and what was found there.

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  1. Rex C. Reeve, Jr., and Richard O. Cowan, "The Hill Called Cumorah," in Larry C. Porter, Milton V. Backman, Jr., and Susan Easton Black, eds., Regional Studies in Latter-day Saint History: New York and Pennsylvania (Provo: BYU Department of Church History and Doctrine, 1992), 73–74.
  2. David Whitmer interview with Joseph F. Smith and Orson Pratt; version recorded in Joseph F. Smith, Diary, 7-8 September 1878, LDS Church Archives, Salt Lake City, Utah; reproduced in Vogel, Early Mormon Documents 5:41–49.
  3. Matthew Roper, "Losing the Remnant: The New Exclusivist "Movement" and the Book of Mormon (A review of "Prophecies and Promises: The Book of Mormon and the United States of America" by: Bruce H. Porter and Rod L. Meldrum)," FARMS Review 22/2 (2010): 87–124. off-site wiki
  4. Reeve and Cown, 71-89.
  5. See, for example, Sidney B. Sperry, "Were There Two Cumorahs?," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 4/1 (1995): 260–268. off-site wiki. See also discussion on FAIR Wiki here.
  6. David A. Palmer, In Search of Cumorah, Horizon Publishers & Distributors (February 2005).
  7. John Clark, "Book of Mormon Geography," in Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 4 vols., edited by Daniel H. Ludlow, (New York, Macmillan Publishing, 1992).
  8. Andrew H. Hedges, Cumorah and the Limited Mesoamerican Theory in Religious Educator 10, no. 2 (2009): 111–134 off-site
  9. Matt Roper's response to Hedges, entitled Plausibility, Probability, and the Cumorah Question in Religious Educator, Vol 10, No 2 (2009): 135-158 off-site
  10. Edwin Goble, Resurrecting Cumorah, Second Revised Edition, May 2011
  11. A. Brent Merrill, "Nephite Captains and Armies," in Ricks and Hamblin, eds., Warfare in the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1990), 270. Reference cited is Graham Webster, The Roman Imperial Army (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1969). GL direct link
  12. Bernal Diaz del Castillo, The Bernal Diaz Chronicles, trans. and ed. A. Idell (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1956), 161–162, 110, 103; cited 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 [1985]), 263. GL direct link
  13. Brigham Young, "TRYING TO BE SAINTS, etc.," (June 17, 1877) Journal of Discourses 19:38.
  14. Cameron J. Packer, "Cumorah's Cave," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 13/1 (2004): 50–57. off-site wiki
  15. 15.0 15.1 John A. Tvedtnes, "Review of Little Known Evidences of the Book of Mormon by Brenton G. Yorgason," FARMS Review of Books 2/1 (1990): 258–259. off-site

Further reading and additional sources responding to these claims

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