Saturday, January 20, 2018

Who First Settled Here? – Part III

Continuing from the previous post regarding why there is no concrete evidence of the Nephite Land of Promise in terms of everyday archaeological findings. In answering the oft-asked question, “Why is there no archaeological evidence for the Book of Mormon?” 
    Critics, for example, sometimes deride the idea that Nephites were, for most of their written history, “Christians.” In their view there should be archaeological remains indicating a Christian presence in the ancient New World.
What does a Christian pot look like compared to a non-Christian pot of antiquity?

How, exactly, would an archaeologist distinguish a Christian-owned pot from that of a non-Christian pot? What would a Christian pot look like? Also keep in mind that according to the Book of Mormon the New World “Christians” were a persecuted minority who were wiped out over fifteen hundred years ago. How much archaeological evidence would we really expect to have survived the intervening centuries?
    For the archaeologist, the strongest contextual clues are in the form of writings or markings that are sometimes found on the physical evidence. These are of two general types: epigraphic and iconographic. Epigraphic evidence consists of a written record, such as the text you are reading, 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, gives a record of what people thought or did. Iconographic evidence is much more symbolic and its interpretation depends on the context in which the image is used. As an example, the only way archaeologists can determine the names of political kingdoms, people, ethnography, and religion of an ancient people is through written records. Iconography can be helpful, but must be understood in a particular cultural context which can only be fully understood through written records.
    Thus, the existence of swastikas on late medieval mosques in Central Asia or on Tibetan Buddhist temples in Tibet does not demonstrate that Muslims and Buddhists are Nazis, nor, for that matter, that Nazis are Buddhists or Muslims. Rather it demonstrates that the swastika has different symbolic meanings in early twentieth century Germany, Muslim Central Asia, and in Tibet.
Perishable material used for writing anciently tends to disintegrate over time and is only partially useful in determining information about the society that developed it. Often archaeologists insert their own understanding into the missing wordage to come up with information

A problem, however, known as the “epigraphic habit,” is that many ancient peoples wrote, but wrote on perishable materials which are destroyed over the course of centuries, or survive only under very specific environmental conditions. Hence, we have almost no written records for some ancient peoples, even though we know they wrote. Others had the “epigraphic habit” of writing on non-perishable materials–clay tablets, stone, metal plates–which can survive as archaeological data. Thus, 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. (Note, there is a different means of preservation of traditional texts which are copied and recopied by subsequent cultures.)
    This creates for archaeology a natural and unavoidable imbalance in understanding more about civilizations with the epigraphic habit, and much less about civilizations without the epigraphic habit. Egypt, for example, had the epigraphic habit—though actually not in all of its dynastic periods, only in some of them. Judah did not. 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.
    This raises the next issue. Methodologically speaking, 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?
Or, to state the principle more broadly, does absence of evidence equal evidence of absence?
    Understanding what archaeologists look for in historical evidence, and that a written record (epigraphic or iconographic) is necessary for building context, what do we find when we turn to the records of the ancient Americas? (Remember that the time period covered by the Book of Mormon ended in about 400 A.D., so we need to look at evidence from before that time).
    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 some basic structure of some of the other languages, but they cannot fully understand what the ancients were saying. In other words, there is a problem with deciphering the epigraphic record. According to the experts, “the pronunciation of the actual names of the earliest Maya kings and other name-glyphs from other writing systems is not known with certainty.”
    At the same time, we need to recognize that on Easter Island the script “rongorongo” has been discovered, with evidence from early settlers there that the language came from the mainland when they migrated from Peru. However, despite there being several samples of the language, and that numerous linguists have made the attempt, none have been able to translate the language to date.
    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. Even with these fragments, however, scholars are still uncertain from these inscriptions just how the ancients pronounced the proper names and place names (toponyms). Four of these readable inscriptions merely give dates or a king’s name–a very limited cultural context. Another five inscriptions contain historical information and proper names–the mention of the cities Tikal and Uaxactun (for which the ancient pronunciation remain uncertain) and five kings from these two cities (whom we know by iconographic symbols and whose ancient pronunciation remains uncertain).
    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 locations–and names are the only means by which we could archaeologically identify whether there were Nephites in ancient America.
    Now with that in mind, we need to recall the problems with the Nephite records that were always threatened to be destroyed if they were discovered or fell into Lamanite hands. Both Mormon and Moroni make this quite clear that anything that fell into Lamanite hands would be destroyed. This provides yet another problem to the archaeologist—if no record is found, does that mean a record never or once existed?
    Still another problem facing the Western World archaeologist is the fact that names have not continued. The Lamanite or American Indian seems not to have been in the habit of using names on a long term basis. This is even pointed out in the Book of Mormon when Lehi settled for a time along the River he named Laman, in the valley he named Lemuel. Once he moved on, it is unlikely these two areas retained those names unless others had remained in the area and used the same name; however, it was always the custom of the nomadic Hebrew or Arab to name what they found according to their own desires. Take, as an example, when Alma and his group of some 450 people moved into an area that they named Haran, after the first of the converts that was baptized. At a later date, they moved on, fleeing from the Lamanites. It would be unexpected to have that name “Haran” retained in the area.
    In another case, nowhere on the Small Plates do we have the name of the Land of First Inheritance where Lehi landed. Yet, in his record on the Large Plates, originally translated by Joseph Smith until the first 116 pages were lost, that area was called the Land of Lehi. And what of the City of Nephi, for no sooner had the Nephites moved out with Mosiah to resettled in Zarahemla than the Lamanites renamed the city Lehi, later called by Mormon Lehi-Nephi.
(See the next post, “Who First Settled Here? – Part IV,” for more information on why we don’t have archaeological information regarding the Land of Promise)

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