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Trent Toone, Deseret News
Matthew Roper, a research associate at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at BYU, spoke about Mesoamerican swords and cimeters in the Book of Mormon at the FairMormon Conference last week.

PROVO — Nephi ended Laban's life with his own sword. Ammon cut off the arms of sheep-scattering bandits, and Jaredite warrior Coriantumr smote off the head of his rival Shiz.

These and other stories in the Book of Mormon clearly show that Nephites and Lamanites used swords and other weapons. But how do these ancient instruments of warfare compare with pre-Columbian swords and other examples of Mesoamerican art?

Matt Roper, a research associate at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University, addressed this topic at the FairMormon Conference at the Utah Valley Convention Center on Aug. 4. He titled his remarks, "'To Inflict the Wounds of Death': Mesoamerican Swords and Cimeters in the Book of Mormon."

"Swords and cimeters were only a part of the arsenal of weaponry used by peoples of the Book of Mormon, but they were a significant one," Roper said. "I am going to talk about swords and cimeters in the Book of Mormon in light of what we can learn from Mesoamerican history, art and archaeology."

In his hour-long presentation, Roper analyzed descriptions of steel swords and other sword-like weapons in the Book of Mormon and compared those findings with pre-Columbian swords and cimeters/scimitars (curved swords) known from ancient Mexico and Central America using examples from Mesoamerican art.

One of the earliest criticisms of the Book of Mormon was that Laban's sword couldn't be made of steel because steel-making technology wasn't invented until later. About 30 years ago, Israeli archeologists discovered a meter-long steel sword near the site of Jericho, which dates back to the time of King Josiah, Laban and Lehi. It's now on display at a museum in Jerusalem, Roper said.

But no metal blades have been found from pre-Columbian America, Roper said. In studying the Book of Mormon, Roper has found references to steel swords among the Jaredites and Nephites up to Jacob's grandson, Jarom. There is no mention of steel swords after that, Roper said.

Although Nephi mentions taking the sword of Laban and making others like it (2 Nephi 5:14), it seems the steel sword-making technology was lost and wood-bladed swords became the preferred weapon, Roper said.

"It was apparently an exceptional thing for Nephi or King Benjamin to wield the sword of Laban in defense of their people (Jacob 1:10; Words of Mormon 1:13)," Roper said. "This suggests to me that steel swords were probably the exception not the norm and that among the people of the Book of Mormon metal blades were rare and elite items. If that is the case, other kinds of swords would have been adequate to their needs."

The best known Mesoamerican sword was an Aztec weapon called a Macana or Macuahuitl, a long, flat piece of hardwood embedded with sharp pieces of obsidian or flint. It may have included staggered blades or a pointed tip, and was designed to slash and cut and not crush or club, Roper said as he clicked through a slide show of Mesoamerican art depicting decapitation and dismembered limbs.

"I hope you don't lose your lunch today, brothers and sisters," Roper said with a smile. "These weapons were quite deadly."

Later in the presentation, Roper displayed more art to demonstrate the use of the curved scimitar-like weapons, which often acted as a second, shorter sword, Roper said.

"It was a real military advantage to have a short sword in addition to your other weapons," Roper said.

While Book of Mormon swords were created to inflict wounds of death, Roper also discovered a spiritual metaphor for the Savior's Atonement in his weapons' study. In Alma 24, the Lamanite king named Anti-Nephi-Lehi describes the deep spiritual conversion of his people, who had previously lived a lifestyle saturated with warfare. In several verses the king is grateful to the Lord for taking aways "stains" and making their swords "bright."

It would be easy to wipe blood off a metal blade, Roper said, but a wooden sword would be stained after soaking up blood in each battle.

"How do you remove blood from a blood-soaked wooden weapon? You can't," Roper said. "Swords stained with blood mirror human hearts and consciences stained with sin and guilt. So we have a powerful metaphor emphasizing the profound power and mercy of God in taking away the stains of sin and guilt through his own atoning blood. … Having learned of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and having believed it, these converts repented of all their sins to be made clean. Freed from guilt and shame they obtained a hope as bright as the light once reflected upon their obsidian blades. … While the metaphor is understandable with steel blades, it would have been especially meaningful and profound, perhaps more so in a cultural context of Mesoamerican warfare and weapons."

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