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Challenging Issues, Keeping the Faith: Challenging Issues, Keeping the Faith: The difference between Old and New World archaeology

Published: Monday, May 23 2011 5:00 a.m. MDT

Before I begin sharing some of the interesting New World evidences that are consistent with an ancient Book of Mormon, there is one more topic to discuss regarding the way some critics approach Book of Mormon archaeology.

Some critics like to compare the lack of archaeological support for the Book of Mormon with the supposedly voluminous archaeological support for the Bible. As Dr. William Hamblin has pointed out, however, there is a drastic difference between the Old and New Worlds when it comes to epigraphic (written) data, the continuity of culture and toponyms (place names). While the arid environment of biblical archaeology is conducive to preserving archaeological artifacts, the hot, humid Mesoamerican climate is detrimental to the preservation of most artifacts such as wood, bone, metal and clothing.

There’s also a big difference between the general states of New and Old World archaeology. Many more decades, resources and experts have been devoted to “biblical archaeology” than to Mesoamerican archaeology. In 1980, for instance, one New World scholar claimed that less than 1 percent of known ancient American sites had been excavated (cited in "The Firm Foundation of Mormonism," 103).

Thirty years later, it doesn’t appear that things have improved. Doctoral candidate Mark A. Wright tells of a recent conversation with Dr. George Stuart, who up until his recent emeritus status was National Geographic’s resident Maya archaeologist. Stuart complained that of the 6,000 known ancient Mayan sites, only 1 percent of them had been excavated. The 1 percent to be excavated have only been about 5-10 percent uncovered. Adding salt to the wound is the fact that many ancient American sites are looted before archaeologists can fully examine them.

As noted last week, most ancient societies wrote on perishable materials. Even in the Old World, where we have rare exceptions of texts written on metal, stone or clay, most other documents have vanished. Nearly all surviving ancient Greek and Roman books, for instance, are actually copies of copies from the eighth century or later. The disappearance of ancient texts is the norm, not an aberration. Thanks to unique ecological conditions conducive to preservation, however, several thousand texts and contemporary inscriptions from biblical lands have survived to modern times.

These surviving texts are significant tools in helping archaeologists locate ancient biblical cities. Some ancient documents even give detailed lists of distances between cities. Knowing the exact location of one city helps biblical archaeologists locate other cities, simply by calculating the distances.

Even with such Old World advantages, however, only slightly more than half of all place names mentioned in the Bible have been located and positively identified. Most of these identifications are based on toponym preservation. For biblical locations with no preserved toponym, only about 7 to 8 percent of them have been identified to a degree of certainty, and about another 7 to 8 percent of them have been identified with some degree of conjectural certainty. The identification of those locations without place names could not have been made were it not for the identification of locations with preserved toponyms. If few or no biblical toponyms survived, the identification of biblical locations would be largely speculative.

When we turn to the New World, we find that many toponyms disappeared from one era to the next. Archaeologists simply don’t know the original names for all ancient American cities. With such considerations, how could we ever hope to provide translated English names for those cities — such as names provided in the Book of Mormon?

And, as noted last week, scholars are still uncertain as to the pronunciation of some Mesoamerican cities — for which they do have names — because city inscriptions are often iconographic. Surviving icons are not only rare (as previously noted) but they are often symbolic rather than phonetic. In other words, when archaeologists find an iconographic inscription designating a place as the "Hill of the Jaguar," the pronunciation of this inscription would be dependent on the language of the speaker — be it a Zapotec, a Mixtec or a Nephite. The only way to identify an ancient site is by way of an inscription giving a phonetically intelligible name.

If the epigraphic data from the Old World were as slim as the epigraphic data from the New World, scholars would be severely limited in their understanding of the Israelites. It would likely be impossible, using strictly non-epigraphic archaeological evidences, to distinguish between Canaanites and Israelites when they coexisted in the pre-Babylonian (pre-587 B.C.) Holy Land.

The same problem would be apparent if scholars were faced with the absence of Christian epigraphic data. Dr. Hamblin notes, for example, that if the persecutions of Christianity had been successful, if Constantine had never converted and if Christianity had disappeared around 300 A.D., it would be very difficult if not impossible to reconstruct the history of Christianity using nothing but archaeological artifacts and imperial Roman inscriptions.

This should be a sobering reminder for those critics who claim that archaeology has proved the Bible but that New World archaeology had not proved the Book of Mormon.

Michael R. Ash is on the management team for FAIR (the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research FAIRLDS.org) and is the author of "Shaken Faith Syndrome: Strengthening One's Testimony In the Face of Criticism and Doubt" (ShakenFaithSyndrome.com) and "Of Faith and Reason: 80 Evidences Supporting the Prophet Joseph Smith" (OfFaithandReason.com). Michael's column, "Challenging Issues, Keeping the Faith," appears Mondays on MormonTimes.com.

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