Reviews of Old Research

The Two Cumorah theory.

The Mesoamerican theory relies on two propositions:

First, Oliver Cowdery was wrong about the New York Cumorah (Letter VII).

Second, there are actually two Cumorahs; one in New York (where Moroni buried the plates Joseph found) and one in Mexico (where Mormon buried all of the Nephite records except the ones he gave Moroni).

Almost all the scholarly literature about Book of Mormon geography published to date relies, explicitly or implicitly, on the two-Cumorah theory. In my reviews of the existing literature, I will highlight these two ongoing problems.

Introduction.

The two-Cumorah theory has been built up over the decades to the point where now, as Terryl Givens wrote in the Foreword to Mormon’s Codex, “So influential has Sorenson’s work on the Book of Mormon geography been that there is widespread consensus among believing scholars in support of what is now called the ‘Sorenson model,’ which identifies the scripture’s setting within a Mesoamerican locale.”

There are decades of scholarly publications that, in my opinion, are interesting from a historical perspective (for those who want to see how the two-Cumorah theory came to dominate LDS scholarship and Church media). The Mesoamerican theory will soon be of little more than historical interest as people examine it more closely.  In this section, we take a look at some of the more influential examples of research to see how well they hold up when viewed from a different perspective. I recognize both good points and not-so-good points.

I have over 1,000 pages of commentary on existing scholarship, and it will take a while to get to it all, so be sure to subscribe to the newsletter for updates.

Here’s an example of my analysis of one of the most influential articles ever published about the Hill Cumorah.

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“Archaeology and Cumorah Questions,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies (2004)

As near as I can tell, the primary source that the Mesoamerican proponents rely on to reject the New York Cumorah from an archaeological standpoint is an article by John E. Clark titled “Archaeology and Cumorah Questions,” published by the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, 13/1-2 (2004): 144-51, 174.

Brant Gardner cites it on p. 377 of his 2015 Traditions of the Fathers, introducing the second part of the quotation below with this: “Countering the force of traditional association is the archaeological data for the hill and the surrounding area. John E. Clark discusses the reasons that the New York hill could not have been the location of the final Nephite battle.” (emphasis added)

In this article, Brother Clark reaches a definitive conclusion: “I am unaware of any archaeological investigation of the hill itself, but sufficient information is available for the surrounding regions to make a critical assessment. Mormon’s hill and Moroni’s hill are not one and the same… Archaeologically speaking, it is a clean hill. No artifacts, no walls, no trenches, no arrowheads. The area immediately surrounding the hill is similarly clean. Pre-Columbian people did not settle or build here. This is not the place of Mormon’s last stand. We must look elsewhere for that hill.”

Brother Gardner’s deference to Clark’s article appears typical among Mesoamerican advocates. “Archaeology and Cumorah Questions” is cited on the FairMormon page here. It is found on the BMAF page here. It’s not on BookofMormonCentral.org, but probably will be once BOMC merges with BMAF.

When you read the article along with me, I think you’ll be as astonished as I was that scholars would even cite the article, let alone defer to it. But then again, we’re dealing with Mesoamerican seers who are content with bias confirmation and can’t unsee their theories. If I haven’t offered enough examples of that yet, you’ll enjoy this one. It’s a lot of fun.
As always, my comments in red.

 

ARCHAEOLOGY AND CUMORAH QUESTIONS

John E. Clark

 

If known truth were accepted, Joseph Smith’s recovery of the golden plates from the Hill Cumorah would rank as one of the greatest archaeological finds of all time; coupled with the subsequent translation of this golden record into the Book of Mormon, there is nothing comparable in the annals of history. [Very well said.] The story of the coming forth of the Book of Mormon reveals a constant tension between the miraculous and the mundane—angels and inscribed golden plates on the one hand, and on the other the work of lifting and carrying heavy objects, periodically hiding the plates, and translating a portion of them character by character. Surely there must have been easier ways. If divine intervention were necessary, why not have an angel just hand young Joseph an English copy of the sacred text and be done with it? Why the drudgeries of exhumation, translation, and transcription, line for line? Was it necessary that Joseph deal with ancient artifacts and spend months with palpable relics dictating paragraphs to scribes? Apparently so. [This is an excellent point. I’ve addressed this specific question elsewhere, but for now I suggest that Joseph Smith was an empiricist. He feared being deceived in spiritual things, as he expressed to Emma, which is why he needed the plates to know the history he was reading off the seer stone was real. (King Benjamin told his sons the same thing in Mosiah 1.) One lesson from this is the importance of evidence to enable and encourage faith. It’s why the historicity of the Book of Mormon is such an important issue.] 

We await answers for most questions evoked by this miracle of divinely supervised archaeological toil. What we do know is that Joseph Smith Jr. found the golden plates and other relics in a stone box in a hill near his home, a prominence now known as Cumorah. And as many believe, Cumorah was also the place of the final battles described in the Book of Mormon that destroyed the Nephites and, centuries earlier, the Jaredites. If any place merits archaeological attention, it is Cumorah. The very word elicits a series of empirical questions that can only be addressed through archaeology. [I completely agree with all of this.]

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. [Fair enough; some scholars have suggested that. But it’s a direct contradiction to what Oliver Cowdery said was a fact in Letter VII.] 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. [That makes sense.] 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. [It’s only a paradox if we disregard what Oliver and Joseph and David Whitmer said. Each of them had personal encounters with Moroni, unlike any archaeologist. They gave us a specific pin in the map: the Book of Mormon Cumorah is in New York.] 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. [That’s the specific question Oliver answered in Letters VII and VIII. This is not a new question; it arose early on, which is why Oliver answered it and why Joseph had it republished so often while he was alive.] Many serious scholars have attempted to prove that the Palmyra hill was the battle hill, [Oliver Cowdery said the battle took place in the valley west of the hill, not on the hill, but Brother Clark ignores this to insist battles took place on the hill.] but to little avail, largely because they do not understand archaeology as an inexact science. [This vagueness is problematic on two grounds: first, who are these “serious scholars” and second, why is their work unsuccessful? I’d like citations here because I’m not aware of any such attempts to prove this.] 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. [I’d like to see what publications he’s referring to here, but there’s nothing inherently irrational about the argument. Looting of archaeological sites is widely known throughout the world. Building over archaeological sites, tearing down stone structures for modern buildings, plowing over earthworks–all of this destruction is common behavior. ISIS is doing it today; the Taliban has done it in the recent past; and in the 19th century, it was a deliberate policy of the federal government to obliterate Native American earthworks. That’s why governments eventually pass laws to protect sites. In New York, such laws weren’t passed until several hundred years after the Europeans arrived, which was over 1,000 years after the final conflict at Cumorah. It’s surprising anything survived to the present.]

Most proposals for the location of Mormon’s final stand fall into one of two possibilities: either the Palmyra hill or one in Middle America 2,000 miles to the south. [There are other proposals, but I agree that the choice is between these two options.] Here I consider reasons for questioning the case for a New York location. I am unaware of any archaeological investigation of the hill itself, [in the previous paragraph,”serious scholars have attempted to prove that the Palmyra hill was the battle hill” but now no one has investigated the hill. This is the type of inconsistency that arises when authors are vague and don’t cite sources.] but sufficient information is available for the surrounding regions to make a critical assessment. [I’m curious if Brother Clark would make such a claim based on two old books on Mesoamerica, plus one highway survey. Somehow I suspect not.] Mormon’s hill and Moroni’s hill are not one and the same. [It’s fun to have a declarative statement here, as we’ll see.]

What does archaeology reveal about the immediate environs of the New York hill? Is there evidence of habitation by the millions involved in the final battles? [Is there evidence in the text that millions of people inhabited the area around Cumorah? Not in the text Joseph translated, but I’m not surprised that Mesoamerican seers find that requirement somewhere. This was a battleground, not a city.] Did ancient fortifications ever stand on the Palmyra hill? [Is there any suggestion of fortifications on Cumorah in the text? I’d like a citation if so. This is a classic straw man argument; i.e., you make up a requirement (fortifications on the hill) and then reject the hill because it has no fortifications.] Currently, few general works on the archaeology of Pennsylvania or New York exist, so serious students must consult local histories, articles, and technical reports for details. [Now we’re getting into a semantic game. What constitutes few or general? As I’ll show, there are numerous books on the archaeology of the area that Brother Clark neither cites nor quotes. And what does he mean by “serious students” here? Does he include himself?] These are particularly difficult to read and interpret. [Why would local histories and articles be difficult to read and interpret?] There is one old but excellent source for New York compiled by E. G. Squier in 1851.1 Another, which is almost 40 years old, was written by William A. Ritchie and most recently revised in 1994.2 [So far, Brother Clark identifies two books. Later in the piece, he will identify three more, two of which deal with Pennsylvania. At the end of my review, I’ll show there are many others that should be known to every Book of Mormon scholar, given that they were cited and quoted in a book titled Book of Mormon Geography by Gavin and Bean, published in 1948 and republished in 2012. No “serious student” of this subject can be ignorant of that seminal book.] Overall, the paucity of published sources and archaeological projects in western New York reflects a lack of interest in this region by the archaeological community. [This is a stunning statement. The archaeological community has produced several substantial books on the subject that Brother Clark ignores. The lack of interest in this region is Brother Clark’s, not the archaeological community’s.] Perhaps one reason for the meager treatment and low interest is that the archaeology of this region for ancient time periods is relatively dull compared to that of adjacent regions to the south and west. [He could only reach this conclusion by ignoring the amount of work that has been done in western New York.] This circumstance is rather telling and involves considerable irony because western New York was one of the first regions to receive archaeological attention in the early 1800s, the time of the Smiths’ residence there. [Where’s the irony? This attention persists.]

Early settlers’ accounts of upstate New York describe numerous trenched and walled fortifications, weapons, and mass graves of disorderly bones—the latter presumably casualties of war. However, not all is as it seemed. One of the interpretive challenges is that apparently much of the evidence either has been destroyed or would not have survived normal processes of decay to the present day. In addition, it is possible that much of the evidence for early fortifications, battlefields, weapons, and war dead was destroyed when the lands in question were brought under cultivation. The plow destroys the sword in this case. [Good phrase, but Brother Clark started out criticizing previous scholars who have identified this very problem on the ground that they “do not understand archaeology as an inexact science.” Setting aside the condescension of his original complaint, Brother Clark now recognizes that this pattern of destruction presents a very real interpretive challenge.] Possibilities and probabilities of destroyed evidence have become an excuse for avoiding serious archaeological research altogether. [An excuse? What is a professional archaeologist supposed to do when documented sites have been raided, obliterated or overbuilt?] But the early reports, which give glowing accounts of wonderful finds—and of the destruction of the sites from which they came—can only be considered as hearsay. [Hearsay is a person’s statement about what someone else said. Direct evidence is what people relate about what they actually observed. As we’ll see, the early accounts he dismisses are mostly direct evidence; i.e., people report what they observed. And note the irony; Brother Clark received a letter from a reader who related what a long-time resident on New York supposedly said–the very definition of hearsay. Because this hearsay supported Brother Clark’s thesis, he submitted it to the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, which published it. I pointed out the fallacies in that letter here, but I didn’t mention the hearsay problem. There’s another irony here. By Brother Clark’s definition, the Book of Mormon itself is hearsay. Why is he even writing about the topic?] William Ritchie’s work is telling. He provides a complete archaeological sequence for New York, with nothing missing. He relies on acceptable techniques of dating materials through radiocarbon and through changes in artifact styles. For our interests, Ritchie’s account shows that the Nephite-equivalent period in New York is one of relatively low population. [I’m not sure what to make of “for our interests,” but since Brother Clark is writing for a Mesoamerican journal that is part of the citation cartel, he knows who his readers are. “Our” means “Mesoamerican seers.” On the merits, the Book of Mormon never says people lived at Cumorah. If we stick with the text, we would expect a relatively low population around Cumorah because it was a battleground. So assuming Ritchie is correct, he corroborates the text.] Subsequent research in New York and adjacent regions is substantiating the historic patterns described by Ritchie.3 [Brother Clark cites Custer’s book on eastern Pennsylvania. The prevalent North American setting has Zarahemla in Iowa, with Bountiful in Ohio. The Ohio and Allegheny rivers were the borders between the Nephites and Lamanites, placing eastern Pennsylvania squarely in Lamanite territory. The archaeological evidence there is consistent with what the text says about the Lamanites; i.e., Custer corroborates the North American setting.] Sites dating to Nephite times are represented in Ritchie’s work, but there are not that many of them, and they are unimpressive. His findings do not support expectations derived from the Book of Mormon. [Expectations is the key term here. What the text says and what Brother Clark expects are not the same thing. Speaking of Ritchie, though, it’s interesting to read what Ritchie says about destruction of sites. Writing about Kipp Island, a site about 25 miles due east of the Hill Cumorah, Ritchie writes “Several futile attempts to obtain permission for excavations by the Rochester Museum of Arts and Sciences on this key site, which gravediggers had molested off and on over a period of many years, were made by the writer in the early 1930s. When the land changed hands suddenly several years later, local collectors immediately seized the opportunity to virtually demolish the remainder of the site. The writer’s account of the grave finds made here at that time is all that will ever be known about this unhappy episode of the site’s history… Still later, the New York State Thruway appropriated for fill the entire northern two thirds of the island, which had contained the burial plots.” According to Brother Clark, as you’ll see in the next sentences, this type of destruction has no bearing on the archaeological record.]

What about site destruction? Can we account for the discrepancies in the number and size of sites reported for New York and our expectations from the Book of Mormon account by considering how many were plowed under? No. [Again with the expectations. This entire article is really just a straw man argument, as we’ll see.] In practical terms, the only way buried sites can be found is when they are partially destroyed during normal urban or rural activities, such as a sewer line encountering burials in downtown Salt Lake City. Archaeologists are drawn to land disturbance like moths to a light because they have a chance to view what is beneath the surface without digging blindly. [People have lived in western New York continuously since Book of Mormon time frames. The French arrived in the 1500s and the British took over in the 1700s, all the while cutting forests, plowing fields, and constructing roads, buildings, infrastructure, etc. The current population of Buffalo, NY, over 260,000, is less than half what it was in the 1950s. Currently, 2.6 million people live in western New York. How many archaeologists have been available to attend every land disturbance over these hundreds of years? This is not an undeveloped area like the jungles of Mesoamerica. Besides, Brother Clark ignores the actual accounts of what people have found during land disturbance in western New York.] Opinions among archaeologists on the benefits of destruction, such as those voiced by Squier in the opening lines of his early study on fortifications in western New York, are not uncommon:

The Indian tribes found in possession of the country now embraced within the limits of New England and the Middle States have left few monuments to attest their former presence. The fragile structures which they erected for protection and defense have long ago crumbled to the earth; and the sites of their ancient towns and villages are indicated only by the ashes of their long-extinguished fires, and by the few rude relics which the plough of the invader exposes to his curious gaze. Their cemeteries, marked in very rare instances by enduring monuments, are now undistinguishable, except where the hand of modern improvement encroaches upon the sanctity of the grave.4

[Okay, now I have to ask if Brother Clark actually read Squier’s book. Squier’s introduction, quoted by Brother Clark, is intended as a contrast to the ancient people who lived in New York! The very next paragraph in the book makes this clear. “But notwithstanding the almost entire absence of monuments of art clearly referable to the Indian tribes discovered in the actual possession of the region above indicated, it has long been known that many evidences of ancient labor and skill are to be found in the western parts of New York and Pennsylvania, upon the upper tributaries of the Ohio, and along the shores of Lakes Erie and Ontario. Here we find a series of ancient earth-works, entrenched hills, and occasional mounds, or tumuli, concerning which history is mute, and the origin of which has been regarded as involved in impenetrable mystery.” Squier spent only 8 weeks on his survey. He writes, “In the short period of eight weeks devoted to the search, I was enabled to ascertain the localities of not less than one hundred ancient works, and to visit and make surveys of half that number. From the facts which have fallen under my notice, I feel warranted in estimating the number which originally existed in the State at from two hundred to two hundred and fifty.” BTW, I have a chapter on Squier in my upcoming Moroni’s History.] True, many features of these sites, such as posthole patterns and earth embankments, can eventually become too scrambled to detect. But evidence of the site will not vanish. The issue here is of visibility vis-a-vis site disturbance. Those who have collected arrowheads know that the best places to look are plowed fields, erosion channels, and other sites where surface vegetation is removed and where subsurface deposits are exposed or churned to the surface. [People have been collecting arrowheads in this area for hundreds of years. Eventually the supply will run out, but there are thousands of collectors who have many thousands of artifacts from this area. I attended a flint-knapping show in western New York in 2015 where artifacts from the area were on sale. These arrowheads are equivalent to money; how many farmers leave money lying in the fields? Especially when the market is bigger now than ever, thanks to the Internet.] The same principle applies to site visibility. Weekend collectors and pothunters tend to preserve and display in collections the artifacts they find. Such artifacts are removed from sites but not from sight—quite the opposite. In his study of New York, Ritchie makes frequent use of observations from private collections. [Recall that Ritchie published his book in 1965–50 years ago. Collectors continue to remove artifacts. Some put them on display, but many do not. One reason is the risk of theft and burglary. Another is concern about the impact of NAGPRA, which has been used to seize private collections that may contain remains of Native Americans. Nevertheless, there are thousands of artifacts from Western New York on display.]

Naturally, one should not expect silk, linen, roast beef, perfume, honey, feathers, or lemonade—or the like—to survive long in the archaeological record under New York conditions. In turn, stone, bone, gold, copper, and shell survive under most conditions. Turning to the Book of Mormon, given the cultural features and events described in the record, what kinds of archaeological evidence would be preserved? What things were made of stone, shell, wood, gold, or cement? [In the text, the only things made of stone were walls. No stone temples, houses, etc. The only mention of building materials were wood (including King Noah’s palace) and cement. In North America, the ancient use of cement with wood is well documented. By contrast, Mesoamerican seers find cement and stone structures in their translations of the text; otherwise they couldn’t explain Mesoamerica. But here, I deal with the text Joseph translated.] And where should we find them on the Book of Mormon landscape, and for what time periods? Perhaps significantly, the archaeological record of New York is full of evidence for wooden structures, so claiming that buildings were of wood and would leave no traces is a poor argument. [I don’t follow this argument. The text describes building with wood. The archaeological record of New York shows wood structures. If the archaeological evidence is full of evidence of wooden structures, why would anyone argue there are no traces of wood buildings?] Of course, most of the evidence consists only of floor plans as marked by postholes of ancient buildings rather than their superstructures. [Yes. And?]

It is always possible that many sites have not been discovered because they have not had the dubious fortune of being partially destroyed. No archaeological record is completely known, so there are always sites, or features at known sites, yet to be discovered. An important concern in dealing with an archaeological record is its representativeness. Do sites of the various periods have an equal chance of coming to the attention of the archaeological community or of being reported in print? Clearly not. Archaeological reporting is biased to archaeological visibility. Large sites are easier to find than small ones, and most mound sites are easier to identify than non-mound sites. Sites with pottery and chipped stone are easier to find than those without such diagnostic artifacts. Sites with exotic artifacts and burials are reported more rapidly and frequently than those without. Sites in areas of frequent human activity are easier to find than those in remote places; thus, sites located in valleys, along river floodplains, on lakeshores, or on tilled land are easier to find because of increased human disturbance. Knowing these things, one can compensate for underrepresentation of some sites by assessing the ebb and flow of regional histories. Most places within the continental United States, however, have now had sufficient archaeological activity that the basic outlines of prehistory are known. Future efforts will be directed to filling in details and making minor adjustments. In short, what we see in the New York archaeological record is probably a representative sample of what once existed there. [All of this is pretty standard. It seems to be an argument against a proposition no one is making, though.]

I am not an expert on New York archaeology, nor am I likely to be, but I took a few hours to peruse some of the literature and learned that the general course of prehistory outlined for New York fits comfortably and logically with the histories of adjacent regions and that it makes good anthropological sense. [Can there be a more succinct statement of confirmation bias than this? As we saw with the Squier quotation, Brother Clark looked for what confirmed his biases and stopped there.] The inferences made from archaeological observations appear reasonably supported by known facts. When we pay attention to time and to cultural context, it becomes clear that the events described in the Book of Mormon did not occur in New York. [Are we “paying attention” or are we “perusing some of the literature for a few hours?”]

The Book of Mormon makes hundreds of clear cultural and chronological claims. Here it will suffice to touch on just a few principal ones. The dates inserted at the bottom of each page of the modern publication of the Book of Mormon provide the needed chronological frame. As to cultural practices, the Book of Mormon describes for all its peoples, even the Lamanites, a sedentary lifestyle based on cereal agriculture, with cities and substantial buildings. [I’d like the citations, of course, because as I read the text, as we enter the Cumorah period we have people who are “without civilization” (Morm. 9:11), engaged in cannibalism, etc. The accounts of peaceful city life are nowhere near Cumorah.] Thus, we should be looking for evidence of city dwellers, permanent populations, kings, farmers, and grains, among other things. These should start in the third millennium before Christ and persist at least until the fourth century after his death. There should be some climax and nadir moments in developments and demography, and these should occur in specific places on the landscape. [All of this is present in the lands of Zarahemla and Bountiful in the Midwest.] New York lacked cities and cereal agriculture until after AD 1000 and is thus not the place where the events described in the Book of Mormon took place. [? If Brother Clark is referring to the theories that the entire Book of Mormon took place in New York, I’d agree with him here. But we’re supposed to be focused on whether the final battles took place in Cumorah, not whether the entire history of the Nephites took place in New York. He has switched topics–a classic red herring fallacy.] We are not missing archaeological evidence of indigenous peoples, their settlement patterns, or subsistence practices for the time periods under consideration. These are reasonably well known for each period from a variety of evidence, and they simply do not fit the requirements specified in the Book of Mormon.[This might be the most fun sentence in this entire piece. Two paragraphs ago, “No archaeological record is completely known, so there are always sites, or features at known sites, yet to be discovered.” Now, “we are not missing archaeological evidence.” Then, the known evidence does “not fit the requirements specified in the Book of Mormon,” yet everything Brother Clark has presented so far exactly matches the requirements of the text for Cumorah; i.e., no permanent cities, no stone temples or large buildings, lots of evidence of wooden structures, lots of arrowheads and implements of war in private collections, etc. Finally, his footnote 5 claims Sorenson’s Mesoamerica fits the requirements, but Mesoamerica is as stark a contrast to the text as one can find.]

The largest Nephite cities and towns of the Book of Mormon narrative were located in valley settings, necessarily in areas with good agricultural land. [Of course, the text says no such thing. It’s a reasonable assumption, though, so let’s consider that. Which area has “good agricultural land” sufficient to support the large populations described in the text? Ohio or Guatemala? Indiana or southern Mexico? Those aren’t rhetorical questions. Even today, farming in Mesoamerica is essentially subsistence level, while the Midwest has been the breadbasket for the world for decades.] Some areas were occupied for centuries and experienced periodic building and rebuilding. Some had temples and other religious structures, walls, gates, and dwellings. In archaeological terms, these sites should be spatially extensive and thick, with significant stratigraphy. These are the types of archaeological sites with the highest potential for visibility and the greatest probability of being located and consistently reported. We would not expect evidence of their size or date to be annihilated, even with several centuries of plowing. Rather, such activity would make them easier to find—more visible. [This is patently false, of course; substantial sites throughout the Midwest that were documented in the 1800s are invisible today except by LIDAR because of plowing.] They should have been part of the early settlers’ descriptions. New York and Pennsylvania lack sites that fit this description. [Exactly! That’s what we expect to find around Cumorah. It was a battleground, not a city.] Finding a 2,000- to 4,000-year-old city in New York State would be so novel that it would be reported quickly in all scientific outlets. [It would also contradict the text, except in the Buffalo area, where ancient sites have long since been obliterated.] It has never happened, and it will not happen. [Fun contradiction to what Brother Clark wrote above, of course.] The most likely locations for such cities are already archaeologically well known because they are also the prime locations for modern occupation. [Is it a question of likelihood (this sentence) or impossibility (the previous sentence)?]

The archaeology of the midcontinental and northeastern United States covers a long time period. The Book of Mormon time period corresponds to the archaeological phases of the Late Archaic (Jaredite), Adena (Jaredite and Nephite), and Hopewell (Nephite) periods. But evidence of prehistoric occupation at the right time is not the same as evidence of occupation by Book of Mormon peoples and their civilizations. Civilization is a technical term with a special meaning in archaeology, usually [a special term usually means something?] meaning societies complex enough to have lived in cities and to have been ruled by kings—a basic requirement that matches the Book of Mormon. [All good.]

The term civilization is an appropriate interpretation of the text but not for northeastern U.S. archaeology. [That red herring keeps jumping out of the water. Watch.]  For this area, the Adena and Hopewell cultures are particularly attractive candidates for Book of Mormon peoples because they represented the most sophisticated cultures on their time horizon in the United States. They were the first cultures in this area to build burial mounds and mound enclosures, they engaged in long-distance trade, and they fabricated artistic items that they buried with select individuals. According to reports, some individuals were buried with thousands of pearls. Adena and Hopewell peoples lived in Pennsylvania and western New York, but this region represented the impoverished fringe of their culture. [Isn’t that exactly what the text says? First, Pennsylvania was Lamanite territory. Second, western New York was the battleground site, not the center of Nephite civilization. Even with his dismissal of the actual archaeological record in New York, what Brother Clark describes is exactly what we expect from the text.]

What is the basic cultural sequence for this region? I take the following succinct summary statements of cultural periods and their typical cultural practices from a masterwork on Pennsylvania archaeology:[This is the previously cited article on eastern Pennsylvania–i.e., Lamanite territory–that received a mixed review that included this qualification that would be a good one to remember here: “Of course, the archaeological record is a matter of interpretation, not immutable fact. Any account of past human events involving archaeology or history is meaningful only in light of careful, up-to-date research, logical analysis of results, and continuing critical review. One might call it a matter of best opinions about the past. Those ideas that we are inclined to consider most meaningful are those that most closely match our own subjective efforts at research and logic.” The review is available online here:  https://journals.psu.edu/pmhb/article/view/45198/44919 ]

 

  • Archaic period (7000–1000 BC): “Bands of hunters and gatherers, following patterns of restricted seasonal wandering.”
  • Transitional period (1800–800 BC): “Far ranging bands of hunters and gatherers, occupying temporary hamlets; heavy dependence on riverine resources.”
  • Early Woodland (1000–300 BC): “Bands of family units living in scattered households; persistence of hunting and gathering, with a possible shift in some areas to semi-sedentary settlement due to a more stable economic base.”
  • Middle Woodland (500 BC–AD 1000): “Incipient tribal village life in western Pa. [Pennsylvania], supported by horticulture, hunting and gathering; bands in eastern Pa. living in scattered hamlets, practicing hunting and gathering.”
  • Late Woodland (AD 1000–1550): “Seasonally sedentary tribes; villages and hamlets (some stockaded villages); horticulture, hunting and gathering.”7

For the nearby Genesee Valley in New York, Neal L. Trubowitz gives detailed information from an intensive survey carried out in conjunction with the construction of a recent highway.For the wide strip of land involved, there is 100 percent coverage, so the information for relative changes in occupation is unusually good, as such things go in archaeology. Trubowitz’s information is more recent than Ritchie’s summary.

Hunting and gathering as a way of life continued into the Early Woodland Period [1000–300 BC], with land use still centered on the valley slope above the Genesee-Canaseraga junction as in the previous period. Very few data have been found on flood plain or lake plain sites during this time period. There are a number of camps recorded for the upland, though the site density there is still the lowest. The population probably remained stable. . . . The basic stability in lifestyle continued despite the adoption of new technology (including ceramic pots and smoking pipes) and ideology (as seen in the elaboration of mortuary ceremonialism of the Middlesex and Meadowood phases in line with influences reaching the Genesee Valley from the Adena Tradition heartland in Ohio).

This pattern continued and intensified during the following Middle Woodland Period [500 BC–AD 1000]. Subsistence of the Point Peninsula Tradition was still based on hunting and gathering, and mortuary ceremonialism reached its fullest expression in exotic grave goods left in burial mounds of the Squawkie Hill phase, patterned after those found in Ohio (Hopewell Tradition). Verified mound sites are all on the valley slope overlooking the flood plain, as is often the case for contemporary mounds found in the Illinois and Ohio Valleys. Although only one site was found on the lake plain in the highway sample, others did exist in the lower Genesee River basin. . . . Point Peninsula site density was greatest on the flood plain as opposed to the valley slope. This could show a shift in subsistence focus, but small sample size may be a controlling factor here. However, the number of known sites and total site density drops from the Early Woodland Meadowood and Middlesex phases to the Point Peninsula Tradition and Squawkie Hill phase. This implies that a population decline took place during the Middle Woodland Period.9

These findings support Ritchie’s earlier reports for New York. The population of the Genesee Valley was always small and dispersed in small bands. The food quest involved hunting and gathering of wild plants, fruits, nuts, and berries. During the key time period (ca. AD 100–400), the Genesee Valley suffered a decline in an already sparse population. [Isn’t this exactly what we would expect from the text? The Cumorah area was not a setting for Book of Mormon events prior to the final battles of the Jaredites and the Nephites. In both cases, the defeated armies has retreated to this area for a last stand. This would mean a decline in population even of the few hunters/gatherers who lived there.] No large sites are found here for any time period. Corn agriculture did not become a significant factor here or elsewhere in the midcontinental or the southeastern United States until after AD 1000.10 With the commitment to corn agriculture, population and village sizes increased, and so did tensions. All the known fortified sites and villages in New York date to the latest time period, the Late Woodland (AD 1000–1550). Clearly there were many settlements, and reports of them go back to the beginning of colonization, with the best report being Squier’s 1851 study, complete with maps. It bears emphasizing that these fortified knolls and spurs were all quite small and would have accommodated only about 100 to 400 people each. They really do not fit large populations, even if they were of the right period. Fortifications are found associated with mass graves and large storage pits, some of which still have evidence of stored maize. These are all known features of late occupation. The archaeology of western New York forms a long record of small bands of hunters and gatherers (berry eaters) who lived there for millennia. The record is clear, and I accept it as it stands. [Anyone interested in the larger record can consult the excerpts in Bean’s book from Turner’s Pioneer History of the Holland Purchase of Western New York, Fairchild’s Drumlin Hills of Western New York, Doty’s History of Genesee County, and many others. Here’s an example of a first-hand account that predates the Book of Mormon: “Reverend Samuel Kirkland was one of the first Protestant preachers to venture into the Indian country. He visited some of the ruins in 1788. He writes:, ‘After leaving Kanawagas (an Indian village, now Avon, a town about 30 miles west of Cumorah) I traveled 26 miles and encamped for the night at a place called ‘Joaki’ on the river Tonawanda. With my Indian guide, I went six miles from camp where we found an open are which the Indians called Tegatainghque, which means a double fortified town or a town with a fort at each end. One fort contained about four acres and the other possibly twice that. There was a ditch four or five feet deep around the former fort. A small stream of water with a high bank circumscribes nearly one-third of the area. There were six avenues or openings in the fort and a dugway leading from the works to the water. Near the northern fortification, which is situated on high ground, are the remains of a funeral pile. The earth is raised about six feet above the natural surface. From many concurring accounts which I have been able to get from elderly Indian historians from several tribes, there are well defined traditions that long before the white man came here there was a great war in these parts that lasted many moons. An old gray-headed Indian told me that he and his progenitors for generations back had lived among these ruins. He said that many ages ago,k before his people knew anything about firearms, there was a great war in these parts. They then fought with bow and arrow, cutting swords, spear, javelin, war-clubs, death-mauls, slings, and other ways to kill. He also said they wore jackets or coverings for their bodies made of willows and split moon-wood and a thick pad on their heads and that the dead were so many that they could not be counted.”]

In summary, the archaeology of New York is persuasive evidence that Book of Mormon peoples did not live in that region. By implication, the Cumorah of the golden plates is not the Cumorah of the final battles. [This implication flatly contradicts the text itself. Cumorah was a battleground, not the land Bountiful.] These conclusions follow from a few basic points and assumptions. First, I presume that the archaeology of New York State, as currently published (2004), is a fair representation and adequate sample of what is there, and particularly that the evidence for some periods has not been systematically destroyed. Second, I presume that the evidence published for the various regions and time periods is accurate—that is, that the majority of archaeologists working in this region are competent and academically honest in terms of their archaeology. Third, I assume that additional research and discoveries will not significantly alter current understandings of the times or places of prehistoric occupation nor of the cultural practices involved; rather, such data will lead to minor adjustments to some of the details of prehistory. Fourth, the archaeological record lacks evidence for cities, sedentism, corn agriculture, fortifications, and dense populations during Archaic, Early Woodland, and Middle Woodland times. [Even if these points and assumptions are valid, they all directly corroborate the Book of Mormon text. It’s Brother Clark’s red herring and straw man arguments that are the problem, not the text or the archaeology.] In accord with these general observations about New York and Pennsylvania, we come to our principal object—the Hill Cumorah. Archaeologically speaking, it is a clean hill. No artifacts, no walls, no trenches, no arrowheads. [No artifacts or arrowheads? I’ll have a lot more to say about that in a subsequent post. In the meantime, we don’t expect walls or trenches on the hill itself if we believe Oliver Cowdery and the text.] The area immediately surrounding the hill is similarly clean. Pre-Columbian people did not settle or build here. This is not the place of Mormon’s last stand. [This conclusion is not supported by the evidence Brother Clark cited, nor by all the evidence he failed to mention. Instead, the archaeological evidence supports the text (and Oliver Cowdery) regarding Cumorah being in New York.] We must look elsewhere for that hill.11 The Palmyra hill is still a sacred place and was the repository of the golden plates and other relics placed there by Moroni. How Moroni made his way to this place and constructed his time capsule of artifacts is a historic adventure for another time.

Notes:

  1. G. Squier, Antiquities of the State of New York(Buffalo, NY: Derby, 1851).
  2. William A. Ritchie, The Archaeology of New York State, ed. (Fleischmanns, NY: Purple Mountain Press, 1994).
  3. For Pennsylvania, see Jay F. Custer, Prehistoric Cultures in Eastern Pennsylvania(Harrisburg: Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1996).
  4. Squier, Antiquities of the State of New York,
  5. It is important to note that other places in the Americas do fit these requirements, and this is what most of the debate is about. See John L. Sorenson, The Geography of Book of Mormon Events: A Source Book,  ed. (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1992).
  6. Barry C. Kent, Ira F. Smith III, and Catherine McCann, eds., Foundations of Pennsylvania Prehistory(Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1971).
  7. Kent, Smith, and McCann, Pennsylvania Prehistory, 
  8. Neal L. Trubowitz, Highway Archeology and Settlement Study in the Genesee Valley(George’s Mills, NH: Occasional Publications in Northeast Anthropology, 1983).
  9. Trubowitz, Highway Archeology,144–45.
  10. Gary W. Crawford, David G. Smith, and Vandy E. Bowyer, “Dating the Entry of Corn (Zea Mays) into the Lower Great Lakes Region,” American Antiquity62/1 (1997): 112–19.
  11. Consult John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon(Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1985), 1–95; Mormon’s Map (Provo, UT: FARMS, 2000); and The Geography of Book of Mormon Events, 209–315, 329–53; also David A. Palmer, In Search of Cumorah: New Evidences for the Book of Mormon from Ancient Mexico (Bountiful, UT: Horizon, 1981).
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