Posted by: Johan Normark | October 21, 2010

The Book of Mormon and Mesoamerican archaeology

My coverage of the 2012 circus was never intended to become a major focus of this blog. I had planned to sometime cover what we can call pseudoscience, new age, creationism and other religious interpretations of archaeology. The 2012 circus will soon be over; at least the importance of the date will pass. My prediction is that the believers will move on to other dates they can find in some ancient myth. My guess is that the Aztec associated year of 2027 will be the next target unless these people have become tired of Mesoamerica by then.  

The 2012 prophets will have little to no impact on Mesoamericanist research itself. The same cannot be said about another prophet. I am talking about Joseph Smith, the founder of the Latter Day Saint movement (the Mormon Church). I have mentioned the ideas prevalent among the Mormons twice before. Mormons have a broad and deep interest in the archaeology of the Americas, particularly that of Mesoamerica. Several important projects have been sponsored by the New World Archaeological Foundation at Brigham Young University which is funded by the above mentioned Church. However, the foundation includes plenty of people who are not members of the Church and it’s goal is not to focus on issues connected to the Book of Mormon. This is clearly shown in their field reports. However, can there be some subtle religious influence on archaeology practiced by a Mormon?

A former director of the foundation is John E. Clark, a well known Mesoamericanist with his focus set on the Olmecs. He is now professor of anthropology at Brigham Young University. Clark is also a member of the Church. If you read his many academic publications this is not obvious since he follows the standards set up by other archaeologists and Mesoamericanists. Yesterday I read one of his publications that attempts to link The Book of Mormon to Mesoamerican archaeology. I assume that we here find what he truly believes, ideas that he cannot include in academic literature. Here we find indications that there is some Mormon influence on some diffusionist archaeological models of Mesoamerica that still are considered valid.

By non-Mormons it is argued that Joseph Smith wrote the whole book himself rather than received it from the angel Moroni in 1827 (and that is my belief as well, I am after all an atheist). In his article Clark attempts to show that “the hypothesis of Joseph Smith’s authorship of the Book of Mormon demands that truth claims in the book be judged by what was believed, known, or knowable in Joseph’s backyard in the 1820s. The book’s description of ancient peoples differs greatly from the notions of rude savages held by 19th-century Americans. The book’s claim of city societies was laughable at the time, but no one is laughing now” (p 43). Hence, he lists 12 “items” that he argues Smith cannot possibly have known about Mesoamerica at that time.

However, I believe that there was enough information about Mesoamerica back then for Smith to mix that information into his own writings. Even though the Maya area was largely unknown before Stephens travelled in the area, the conquest of the Aztecs was known as was the ruins of Teotihuacán. Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora excavated at Teotihuacán already in the 17th century. Thus, Smith could have had access to most of the “items” that Clark lists. There are some apparent flaws in Clark’s list and the demand of accuracy is much lower when it comes to faith than to science. For example, when he mentions the art of war we can read that “there are indications of wooden swords in the Book of Mormon—how else could swords become stained with blood?” (p 44). This is a strange way of reasoning. Can blood only be stained on wood but not on metal? That is of course wrong but even if it was true, how can such a statement prove that the Book of Mormon mention wooden swords? That is a leap of faith.

Other statements based on faith rather than on science is the claim that the Book of Mormon describes both katuns and baktuns. Clark writes that “Moroni bids us farewell just after the first katun of this final baktun, or 420 years since the “sign was given of the coming of Christ” (Moroni 10:1)” (p 47). Clark equals 400 years with a baktun (but it is actually 394.25 years) and 20 years with a katun (but it is actually 19.7 years). The katun and baktun are based on the tun which is a period of 360 days, not 365.25 days as we might assume that the Book of Mormon refers to. In short, there is no reference to Maya calendars in the Book of Mormon.

Clark ends the calendar issue with the following statement: “What are the chances of Joseph Smith guessing correctly the vigesimal system of timekeeping and prophesying among the Maya and their neighbors over 50 years before scholars stumbled onto it?” The answer is that he did not use the vigesimal system at all. This is proven in another statement from Clark where he claims that “the final battle at Cumorah involved staggering numbers of troops, including Nephite battle unit of 10,000” (p 44). Units of 20, 400, or 8000 would be expected in a vigesimal system. 10,000 sound too similar to the decimal system that Smith was used to.

Clark ends the list with claiming that “I have shown that the content of the Book of Mormon fits comfortably with Mesoamerican prehistory, both in general patterns and in some extraordinary details” (p 49). I fail to see what the extraordinarily details are. His examples are general or even more general patterns. This description relies on a truly arborescent (“tree-like”) model of culture which I have discussed many times before on this blog. At the bottom of this tree are the roots to which everything in the rest of the tree can be traced. The leaves, branches and trunk are nourished and upheld by the roots. Changes in the branches do not affect the roots, etc. The root concept can be different in various contexts. In most cases it is Culture itself. In Clark’s case it is Mesoamerican (or rather Olmec) culture.

This gives me reason to return to item 11. The Book of Mormon “describes an earlier Jaredite civilization that overlapped a few centuries with Lehite civilization” (p 48). Clark checks correlations between the Book of Mormon and Mesoamerican archaeology by focusing on the rise and decline of cities. Basically, the Olmecs are the earliest civilization to be replaced by the Maya. Clark concludes that “the correspondences between the Book of Mormon and cycles of Mesoamerican civilization are striking” (p 48). In short, the Olmec is the “Mother Culture”/root of Mesoamerica Culture. If we look into some of Clark’s academic writings we’ll see that these ideas actually are present there as well. Here I quote my own dissertation thesis:

“In some Mayanist research, there is still an issue whether or not some of the architectural features and ideas behind site layout found in the Maya area originally diffused to the area from another area, or if it was “indigenous”. For example, Clark believes that the so-called E-groups and their associated royal compounds came to the Maya area from the west, whereas Hansen argues for the opposite direction (Clark and Hansen 2001:18-32). Although I am not arguing that this is not of some relevance, such diffusionist ideas are usually joined with other “cultural” traits that can be explained by local developments. My discussion of site layout shall not problematize the origin of various elements. In short, the task of trying to find the geographical and temporal origin or reason(s) behind design, tries to find an original ideal that has never existed.” (Normark 2006:28)

Later I discuss the origin of kingship in the Maya area and here I refer to the same article by Clark and Hansen:

“It is currently believed that the roots of kingship (ajawlel) in the Maya area can be found in the Mirador basin in northern Guatemala sometime between 600 to 400 B.C. where the first “states” or “polities” emerged around 300 B.C. (Hansen 2001). Some argue that this institution “diffused” into the Maya area from other “cultures” (Clark and Hansen 2001:1). However, Estrada-Belli (2006:57) shows that the Lowlands, during the Middle Formative, followed patterns similar to the Olmec area, but did not derive from them.” (Normark 2006:31)

Although Clark does not include references to the Book of Mormon in his academic publications, there seems to be some influences from that faith in his overall interpretation of Mesoamerican archaeology, particularly the Olmec. I just wonder how deep such patterns of thought run in Mesoamerican archaeology (or in archaeology in general). We are still talking about fairly distinct cultures and their origins. But then I am also of the opinion that the concept of culture must be destroyed.

Clark, John E. (2005). Archaeology, relics and Book of Mormon belief. Journal of Book of Mormon Studies. 14(2):38-49.

Clark, John E. & Richard Hansen (2001). The architecture of early kingship: comparative perspectives on the origins of the Maya royal court. The Maya Royal Court, Takeshi Inomata and Stephen D. Houston, eds., pp. 1-45. Westview Press.



  1. Thank you for putting this information out. I find it interesting how Mormon Archaeologists take their beliefs first and apply them to archaeology. The same has happened in study of archaeology in Israel but fundamentalist Christians.

  2. Unfortunately archaeology is also a tool used by nationalist movements to proclaim ownership of land and places. Hitler used Kossinna’s work on ancient Germans to legitimize his attack on Poland. Conflicts between Hindus and Muslims in India have targeted Ayodhya, etc. In all these examples ideology or faith determines the interpretation.

  3. I have native blood from the ancient people. i have done extensive amount of research in my family history to know the roots of my ancestors and i have old family artifacts that have been passed down that show truth to what clark talks about. Its amazing how you can find other pieces of information and see similarities and how they compare to each other.

  4. It is amazing that you believe you know anything of your ancestors because you have their native blood and possess artifacts… I do have both Sami and Viking ancestors but does that make me an expert of their history? Of course not. A relative of mine has done an extensive amount of research on our family history (going back to the 17th century). That is pretty much as far back as one can get here. But you have apparently traced your family’s history back to the Olmecs (at least 2500 years back in time). That is amazing!

  5. Zaira, where is the evidence of a Semitic Jewish people in Central America? It is non-existant. No matter how much you want to believe something is true does not make it true. Like Johan, I have doen extensive genealogical research too. Not only via birth records but also with DNA research. And you know what? Trying to make any inferences going back more than a three to four hundred years (for an area that has good records) is hard. trying to show something from areas that do not have geological records before the Spanish arrived is impossible.

  6. People are obsessed with the origin of various “cultures” (the Olmec are often portrayed as a “mother culture”). To me these questions are only of interest for contemporary people with a certain agenda (political, religious, ethnic, nationalist, etc.). Truth is that the origins of anything is not straightforward. There are no “mother cultures” (no matter if they are believed to have originated in Tabasco or in the Middle East).

  7. Johan:
    Thanks for your critique of Clark’s paper. I’m a Mormon and I’m sure Clark & other people at FARMS appreciate your critique. Since Book of Mormon discussions aren’t permitted in refereed journals, posts like yours are the only means through which FARMS can really be subject to the discipline of peer review and thereby sharpen their arguments.

    I hope Clark responds.


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