BYU President Merrill J. Bateman's short trip to Central America this weekend figures to have a long-lasting impact on the university's research efforts here.
Bateman and several other BYU administrators and professors are touring Central American archaeology sites - such as Chiapas' Palenque, which they visited Saturday - as part of a review of Brigham Young University's role in researching this area's ancient civilizations.So far the trip has gone as planned, despite thick smoke from a slew of forest fires that has caused health problems and cast a dark shroud over Central America and Texas.
On Thursday, Bateman's group feared that the smoke would cut visibility too much to land their Lear jet at the airport at Villahermosa in southern Mexico. But things cleared up on Friday and the group visited ruins at Tikal in Guatemala before returning to Villahermosa. On Saturday, the group went to Palenque, Chiapas, to inspect the ruins of a Mayan city.
The excursion's purpose is to give Bateman and other decisionmakers at the LDS Church-owned school a clearer perspective of what BYU can contribute to Mesoamerican, or Central American, scholarship - an area that has produced both significant successes and failures for the school during the past century.
"For 30 years I've been interested in BYU's connection with Central America and archaeology," said Bateman, noting that he first read about the topic while he was a business professor at the Provo school in the 1960s.
But this is the first trip for Bateman, a member of the First Quorum of the Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to the area many Latter-day Saints consider to be the land of the Book of Mormon. Revered as scripture, the book - from which the nickname "Mormons" is derived - is accepted by church members as a spiritual history of the people who inhabited the American continent both before and after the time of Christ. Bateman is spending a week traveling between Guatemala City and Mexico City.
"My major purpose is to become acquainted with what (BYU researchers) are doing so we can decide where to allocate resources," Bateman said.
Also on the trip are Academic Vice President Alan Wilkins and associate academic vice presidents Gary Hooper and Noel B. Reynolds. BYU anthropology professors Stephen Houston and John Clark are serving as guides.
"We hope the university decides to get more involved in Central American research, especially archaeology," Clark said. "It may be that if we really looked into it, Latin America is one of the university's strong research areas, but there's no coordination."
Clark serves as director of BYU's New World Archaeological Foundation, which is headquartered in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, and focuses on researching the earliest civilized societies in Mesoamerica - the Olmec and pre-Olmec cultures.
Houston is well known for Mayan research. Currently, he is leading an excavation of a classic Mayan city called Piedras Negras, along the Usumacinta River in northwestern Guatemala.
Various other BYU professors past and present - such as Ray Matheny, Donald W. Forsyth, John L. Sorenson and John P. Hawkins - have made recognizably significant contributions to Meso-american research. Some seek to discover fragments of the area's ancient inhabitants, who they believe populate the pages of the Book of Mormon.
In 1841, an adventurous New York attorney named John Lloyd Stephens published "Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan." It was the first exposure for many North Americans to sites such as Copan, Palenque and Uxmal, and it even caught the attention of LDS Church founder Joseph Smith.
After reading the book, Smith - who church members believe translated the Book of Mormon from ancient writings on gold plates - purportedly said, "It will not be a bad plan to compare Mr. Stephens' ruined cities with those in the Book of Mormon."
Since then, it seems, there has been unending speculation about the location of cities inhabited by Book of Mormon peoples known as Nephites and Lamanites. The desire to confirm the suspicions motivated Brigham Young Academy President Benjamin Cluff Jr. to undertake an ill-fated exploring expedition in Central America in 1900 (see accompanying story).
The sting from that failed trip lasted several decades. But by 1952, BYU researchers were once again eager to become involved in Central American research. They organized the New World Archaeological Foundation that year at the university.
Several decades later, Matheny attracted international attention for his excavations at Guatemala's El Mirador, which could have been the largest and most spectacular of all ancient Central American cities.
Sorenson, now an emeritus BYU anthropology professor, published numerous articles and a book in 1985 that theorized about Book of Mormon geography.
Sorenson's newest book, "Images of Ancient America: Visualizing Book of Mormon Life," which was published just this year speculates on the activities of peoples chronicled in the scriptural accounts.
Others, however, aren't so quick to relate the findings of their research in Central America with the book Latter-day Saints believe was derived from a record discovered by Smith in New York in the 1820s. Clark said he doesn't go out of his way to prove or disprove Book of Mormon claims, and Bateman agrees that is the proper approach.
"I think now our purpose is not so much trying to connect those cultures with Book of Mormon people as to understand who they are and what they're about," Bateman said.
"If we get anything out of it that connects to the Book of Mormon, fine. But that's not our purpose for being there.
"That's not how we're going to get people to believe in the book anyway," said Bateman, former presiding bishop of the LDS Church.