When attempting to identify ancient cities and peoples, the strongest archaeological clues come from writings or glyphs. Epigraphic evidence consists of a written record, such as the text in this article, while iconographic evidence consists of pictures, or icons. For instance, the word “cross” is epigraphic, but a picture of a cross is iconographic. Epigraphic evidence, providing it can be translated, affords a record of what people thought or did. Iconographic evidence is much more symbolic.

Dr. William Hamblin, a specialist on ancient history, explains that written records are the only way in which an archaeologist can determine the names of political kingdoms or the religious and societal aspects of a people. “Iconography can be helpful,” Hamblin explains, “but must be understood in a particular cultural context, which can only be fully understood through written records.”

The cross, for example, was used by both Christians and non-Christians. Likewise, the swastika is found on medieval mosques in Central Asia and on Tibetan Buddhist temples, but this doesn’t mean they were Nazis. Instead, it means that these symbols were adapted by different cultures to symbolize different things.

Unfortunately, most ancient people wrote on materials that deteriorated over time, leaving little or no evidence of their records (although we know they had written records). Others wrote on clay tablets, stone or metals that survived to be discovered by modern archaeologists. “Thus,” notes Hamblin, “the problem of what records survive in a state that can be discovered by archaeologists is dependent on the cultural habits of the civilization being studied.

“This,” explains Hamblin, “creates for archaeology a natural and unavoidable imbalance in understanding more about civilizations” that wrote on non-perishable materials and much less about civilizations who wrote on perishable materials. Some Egyptians, for example, wrote on materials that survived to modern times. The people of Judah, however, typically wrote on perishable materials.

“Hence, from archaeological data alone we would know almost nothing about the religion and kingdom of ancient Judah. Indeed, based on archaeological data alone we would assume the Jews were polytheists exactly like their neighbors. Judaism, as a unique religion, would simply disappear without the survival of the Bible and other Jewish written texts.”

Dr. Hamblin poses this interesting question:

"Does the absence of archaeologically discovered written records demonstrate that a certain kingdom does not exist? Or to put it another way, does the existence of an ancient kingdom depend on whether or not twenty-first century archaeologists have discovered written records of that kingdom? Or does the kingdom exist irrespective of whether or not it is part of the knowledge horizon of early twenty-first century archaeologists?”

What do we find when we turn to ancient America prior to 400 A.D. (when the Nephite record came to a close)? Of the approximately half-dozen known written language systems in the New World (all of which are located in Mesoamerica), only the Mayan language can be fully read with confidence. Scholars can understand the basic structure of some other New World languages, but they cannot fully understand what the ancients were saying (although progress is being made).

For the time period in which the Nephites lived, scholars are aware of only a very limited number of inscriptions from the entire ancient New World that can be read with some degree of certainty. Author Brant Gardner notes that the earliest Mesoamerican name of which he is aware is that of a king from around A.D. 90.

Among these fragments, four have inscriptions of dates or a king’s name — a very limited cultural context. Another handful of inscriptions contain historical information and five kings' names. For years, we didn’t even know how the ancients pronounced these names.

Progress has been made, but in some cases the ancient pronunciation of some New World proper and place names still remains uncertain. And the precise meaning of those names — even when they can be phonetically read — remains unclear.

With such sparse epigraphic information, how could we possibly recognize, under current conditions, the location of cities we know as Bountiful and Zarahemla, or if the religious rulers were actually named Nephi or Moroni? The critics like to claim that there is no archaeological evidence for the Book of Mormon, but the truth is that there is scant archaeological data to tell us anything about the names of ancient New World inhabitants or cities — and names are the only means by which we could archaeologically identify whether there were Nephites in ancient America.

Of all known ancient New World inscriptions, very few survived from Book of Mormon times, and most come from cities that are not considered by Latter-day Saint scholars to have been Nephite.

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.