Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Was Ziff the metal Tumbaga, Tin or Mercury as Claimed?

John L. Sorenson of BYU suggests that the word ziff in the Book of Mormon was tumbaga, or possibly tin or mercury. Others have said it was probably aluminum or platinum. Let’s take a look at these possibilities for the word ziff:
First of all, Ziff is mentioned only twice in the Book of Mormon, both times in connection with King Noah and the City of Nephi (Lehi-Nephi) in the Land of Nephi. “He laid a tax of one fifth part of all they possessed, a fifth part of their gold and of their silver, and a fifth part of their ziff, and of their copper, and of their brass and their iron; and a fifth part of their fatlings; and also a fifth part of all their grain” (Mosiah 11:3), and “It came to pass that king Noah built many elegant and spacious buildings; and he ornamented them with fine work of wood, and of all manner of precious things, of gold, and of silver, and of iron, and of brass, and of ziff, and of copper” (Mosiah 11:8). In both instances, ziff was obviously something considered of great value since it was connected to precious things.
As for what it was, of the 86 metals on the periodic table of elements, only 12 were known to western science before the 18th century, and seven are the so-called metals of antiquity: gold, copper, silver, lead, tin, iron, and mercury (though tin and lead must be smelted from ore, a simple campfire is hot enough to do so—the others are found in their native states). When arsenic was first isolated in the 13th century, an eighth metal was known. However, isolated peoples of antiquity often found elements or alloys unknown in Europe at the time.
While the meaning of the word ziff is unknown, we can look at the five mentioned to see if they might have been available in Mesoamerica as Sorenson suggests:
Mercury (commonly known as quicksilver) was found in Egyptian tombs from 1500 BC. It is an extremely rare element in the Earth’s crust. It is liquid at standard conditions such as room temperature. It is highly toxic, can be inhaled, and exposure leads to serious adverse health effects. The Romans and Greeks used it in cosmetics and ointments with horrible results. At the present time, China produces 2/3 of the world’s share with 1400 tons, leaving Peru (140 ton) a distant third and (northern) Mexico (21 ton) barely listed at 6th.
Mercury is not found in all of Central or Meso-America, though it is found in northern Chile and northern Mexico
Tin was first smelted in combination with copper around 3500 B.C. to produce bronze, though tin artifacts date from only 2000 B.C. In the Western Hemisphere, tin is found in Peru, 3rd largest in the world behind China and Indonesia), Bolivia (4th largest) and Brazil (6th largest) with Malaysia, Russia, Thailand, and Australia following, and new major deposits found in Colombia, South America. With Peru, Bolivia, and Brazil producing a total of 70,000 tons, all of Mexico produced 15 ton, and the rest of Central and Meso-America produced none.
Platinum discovered in 1735, but the first description of it was from South America in 1557. It is the rarest element in the Earth’s crust, with 80% found in South Africa, with Russia 2nd and the U.S. a distant third. Besides Canada, Colombia is the only other Western hemisphere country to produce any (only a few hundred tons are produced annually worldwide). It is also found in the alluvial sands of various rivers, and first used by pre-Columbian South American natives to produce artifacts. There is no record of it in Mexico, Central or Meso America.
Aluminium, first predicted in 1787 (alumina believed to be the oxide of an undiscovered element), and first isolated in 1825. It ranges from silver to dull gray in color, depending on the surface roughness, and reflects 92% of visible light, but in the visible range it is outperformed by tin and silver. Because of its strong affinity to oxygen, it is almost never found in the elemental state (it is almost always produced from the ore bauxite, which outside of South America, is not found much in the Western Hemisphere). Brazil is the 8th largest in world production of aluminum, Argentina 15th, Venezuela 16th, with no other Western Hemisphere country in production besides Canada (3rd), and the U.S. (4th).
Bauxite ore is refined to produce alumina, which is further processed to make aluminium. The vast majority of bauxite is found in Guinea, with Australia 2nd, and the largest producer, and Brazil 2nd in production and 3rd in reserves
Of all the above mentioned, none are in any abundance, and only one even mined today in the area of Sorenson’s Land of Promise. In addition, ziff is mentioned in connection with construction ornamentation, like gold, silver, iron brass and copper. Therefore ziff would need to play a part in such ornamentation. Which leaves us only Sorenson’s tumbaga from the above list of five, as a possibility.
Tumbaga is the name given by Spanards to a non-specific alloy of gold and copper which they found in widespread use in pre-Columbian South America and Mesoamerica. Composed mostly of gold and copper. It has a significantly lower melting point than gold or copper alone, and is harder than copper, but maintains malleability after being pounded. In that sense, it would fit as an ornamentation. However, it is doubtful the word tumbaga would have been known to Joseph Smith, since it is a Spanish word and was not used in the United States, and certainly not known to Noah Webster for it is not found in his 1828 dictionary, which included over 200,000 words known in America in Joseph Smith's day. The problem in that being ziff is that Joseph Smith knew about gold and copper and used those terms extensively in the record. When he came to the word ziff, it would seem he would have translated that as gold, copper, or an ore of gold and copper, since such language was used by him in the translation (1 Nephi 18:25).
Thus, it must be concluded that tumbaga was not the ziff mentioned. As for what ziff was, I have a factual opinion, but frankly, there is no way of knowing for certain.
Bismuth. It is interesting to note that archaeologists have found that the ancient Peruvians used the metal bismuth as a decoration. Bismuth (meaning “white mass”) is about twice as plentiful in the earth’s crust as gold, and was confused in early times with tin and lead because of its resemblance to those elements—but was not officially discovered until the 8th century AD by the Muslim alchemist, Jabir ibn Hayyan (also known as Geber). Its many properties and uses were described by Basilius Valentinus in 1450, and demonstrated to be a separate metal, distinct from lead, by Claude Fran├žois Geoffroy the Younger, in 1753.
Bismuth is often found with copper, silver and gold, and in early times often used in a similar manner, and occurs as a native metal in Peru. Today that Andean country produces the second highest amount of bismuth annually throughout the world. In addition, bismuth was known to the Incas and used (along with the usual copper and tin) in a special bronze alloy for knives, and also as a decoration. It is also not surprising that the pre-Inca peoples knew of it and used it on ornamental items as a decoration.
In ancient times, "artificial bismuth" was commonly used in place of the actual metal. It was made by hammering tin into thin plates, and cementing them by a mixture of white tartar, saltpeter, and arsenic, stratified in a crucible over an open fire. Today, the bulk of the world’s bismuth comes from South America, both in natural form and extracted as a byproduct from the smelting of other metals. It is rather unique among the elements for having a liquid state that is more dense than its solid state, and is identified as Bi with an atomic number of 83. Bismuth did not become well known in the United States until 1900 (70 years after Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon), when it was found that the bismuth salts used in England for various ailments of the gastrointestinal tract, could cure a deadly disease called “cholera infantum,” which claimed the life of 2 out of every 10 children in the U.S. before the age of four, leading to the development of Pepto Bismo.
Today, bismuth compounds provide the “frosty” look in cosmetics, hitting a high use in 1966—a big year for “pearlescence” in cosmetics—when manufacturers used several hundred thousand pounds of bismuth in lipstick, eye shadow, etc. It is also used for medicines, and in medical procedures and, as the toxicity of lead has become more apparent in recent years. Alloy uses for bismuth metal as a replacement for lead in alloys and solder, have become an increasing part of bismuth’s commercial importance.
Ziff, of course, might have been some other metal, but the fact that the ancient Peruvians used bismuth in the same way described in King Noah’s time, as an ornamental metal, which is plentiful in Peru, and easily produced as a byproduct of the processing of other metals, like lead, copper, tin, silver, and gold, makes it a strong possibility that this was the Nephite ziff.


  1. For a access to a free new electronic book exploring the origin of the word ziff call Ziff, Magic Goggles, and Golden Plates, it is available at

  2. For a access to a free new electronic book exploring the origin of the word ziff call Ziff, Magic Goggles, and Golden Plates, it is available at