Sunday, February 25, 2018

The Meaning of Ziff – Part I

Recently, we have had a handful of questions regarding the ore Ziff, as mentioned in Mosiah. Since there seems to be a plethora of ideas submitted by theorists regarding this unnamed ore from the scriptural record, perhaps some insight into it and its use might be helpful in better understanding its properties. 
   First of all, Ziff is mentioned twice, first in the middle of a list of metals that were taxed, “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” (Mosiah 11:3), and in the second instance, it is again mentioned in connection with ores: “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).
    John L. Sorenson claims Ziff is tumbaga, which was a term given by the Spanish conquistadors to metal composed of gold and copper. However, in the scriptural listing, Ziff is separated from precious metals in the first instance: “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,” it seems not to be a precious metal ore, i.e., gold, silver, platinum, or palladium, or in the platinum group metal alloys, such as ruthenium, rhodium, osmium, iridium—thus, it is unlikely to have been tumbaga, since that is what the Spanish called the alloy of gold and copper. Thus, since it was used in the grouping of other metals: copper, brass and iron,” it was likely a metal ore of that was not as rare as gold and silver, and on a par with copper and iron, and as valuable as brass (an alloy of copper and zinc).
    In the scriptural record among the Nephites, it was taxed by king Noah and is described as having been used as decoration on elegant and spacious buildings (Mosiah 11:8). Thus it would appear that we can assume three things about Ziff:
1) It was a semi-precious metal
2) It was valuable and
3) It was decoratively attractive, either in and of itself or in combination with other décor.
     First, let us deal about translation of the record. To begin with, the plates were not translated by Joseph Smith as so many drawings and pictures have shown over the years. In these numerous images that artists created to depict the translation, the plates were central to the event. However, despite the use of these images in Church literature, such as lesson manuals, primary pictures, and historical articles, it is not what took place.
Various artist renditions of how the plates were translated; however, each is in error as every scribe has testified, including Martin Harris, Oliver Cowdery and Emma Smith

Most LDS scholars today have become fairly well accepted that the Book of Mormon was not translated in the normal sense of the word. Joseph Smith read the text that was shown to him either by the interpreter stones provided to him or his own seer stone, at least in the case of proper names and non English terms. For the bulk of the translation he did not look at any of the characters or words on the plates to determine the meaning of a particular character or sets of characters—a point always known, but seldom considered in light of the many inaccurate artists renditions seen in various works. In fact, witnesses tell us the plates were not in the room when Joseph was translating, or if they were, they were covered and not used by him in the process.
Since the method was for Joseph to dictate the words to a scribe while looking into a darkened hat to block out the light so he could see the words appearing on the seer stone, it was dependent on the scribe to write the word correctly as dictated to him. For many personal and place names and perhaps for a few other words with which Joseph Smith or the scribe was unfamiliar, the word was spelled out letter by letter.
    When words like ziff appeared, or neas and sheum (Mosiah 9:9), or curelom and cumoms (Ether 9:19), which were unknown to Joseph Smith, he used the original Jaredite or Nephite word. Obviously, when proper names appeared that were not known, like Mormon, Abinadi, Kishcumen, Nephihah, Gidgiddoni, Ripliancum, Irreantum, etc., they were spelled out letter by letter from the writing appearing on the stone.
    As for “ziff,” the word appearing on the stone was obviously not known to Joseph Smith, and because it contained an “iff” ending, which sounds the same is “if” it might be concluded that the word was spelled out letter by letter. Yet, there is some scholarly opinion that since “iff” is a common spelling for similarly sounding English words (skiff, cliff, sniff, bailiff, tariff, etc.) it is possible that it was not dictated letter by letter, but was written down in the most common and consistent English form; however, since the scribe read back what he wrote, both Joseph and the Spirit would obviously be aware of the difference and correct it. Thus, we can conclude that the spelling is correct.
    Secondly, this brings us to the substance of the word and its meaning. As mentioned earlier, many scholars, including Sorenson, claim ziff is tumbaga, a beautiful gold alloy made with copper, the latter providing a particular redness because of its high copper content. However, it would not be tumbaga since that alloy, often confused with gold because of its similar color and properties, would undoubtedly not have been a product of taxation, not being a pure resource as the others mentioned and containing both gold and copper, already taxed items. By way of comparison, steel is an alloy of iron and more valuable and useful than iron, and though possessed by the Nephites, is not listed for taxation, though iron was taxed; and tumbaga would not be more valuable than gold.
    So what else might it have been?
    As we have reported other times elsewhere in our posts, it seems that “ziff” may well have been the metal known today as “bismuth,” a pentavalent post-transition metal (Bi 83), chemically resembling arsenic and antimony, which was used by the early Spanish in Andean Peru for decoration. And is a plentiful ore found in Peru.
    Earlier we suggested that Ziff would be both 1) semi-precous, 2) valuable, and 3) decoratively attractive, either in and of itself or in combination with other décor. Obviously, the ore bismuth and its end products meet all three of these criteria--it is certainly a semi-precious metal because of its rarity, it was also as valuable a copper and iron, and its lustrous natural or grown crystals were decoratively attractice. It ws also both non-toxic, posed no threat to humans or other materials. 
Bismuth crystals are brilliant colors of crystal and metal that can be grown through heating and cooling on most any fire source. A thin layer of Bismuth Oxide on the otherwise pure Bismuth crystal causes light of certain wavelengths to interfere constructively upon reflection giving rise to the color seen on the surface

We find in Mosiah that king Noah decorated his elaborate palaces with Ziff—as bismuth, it was a metal often confused anciently with other elements such as lead, tin, antimony, or even silver. The crystals have a complex and fascinating geometric hopper form and are rainbow-colored from the oxide layer that quickly forms on them and can be easily grown, and regrown, for very unusual crystalline forms, and used extensively in decoration along with gold, silver and copper.
    Pure bismuth is a silvery-white, crystalline, metallic metal with a slight pinkish tinge, and is usually mixed with other metals, such as lead, tin, iron or cadmium to form low-melting alloys. These alloys help create a colorful luster, or shine, that can be used to decorate other material.
(See the next post, “The Meaning of Ziff – Part II,” for more on how bismuth meets the criteria of Ziff as suggested in Mosiah)

No comments:

Post a Comment