Monday, June 1, 2020

Cheeseman, Artifacts and Andean Peru

Is there a connection between the ancient ruins in Central and South America and the stories told in the Book of Mormon, a volume of scripture sacred to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? A collection now on display at Brigham Young University lets viewers inspect pre-Columbian artifacts while ruminating over that question.
 
Housed in the Reading Room of the Joseph Smith Building on BYU campus, the exhibit features items from the collection of Paul R. Cheesman, an American archeologist and a former professor of religious education at BYU. He was also the president of the Foster Corporation, and heavily involved in Central and South America, where he developed a collection and strong interest in pre-Columbian archaeology, and director of Book of Mormon studies in BYU’s Religious Studies Center. Cheesman was known for research of correlations between the Book of Mormon and pre-Columbian American discoveries (Paul R. Cheesman and C. Wilfred Griggs, eds., Scriptures for the Modern World, Provo, UT, 1984, p.vi; Cheesman, Research and Perspectives: Recent Studies on the Book of Mormon, Ensign, Salt Lake City, LDS Church June 1989). 
    Cheesman, who died in 1991, was renowned for his research of ancient American archaeology and ancient Christian scripture. He was a sought-after Latter-day Saint scholar who taught religious studies at BYU for 23 years.  He spent much of his professional life collecting artifacts from Central and South American countries. He hoped to find evidence that would prove the veracity of the Book of Mormon, which Latter-day Saints believe was translated from ancient records by church.
    Since its publication in 1830, many have tried to discredit the historical accuracy of the Book of Mormon, while others, like Cheesman, have sought to prove the work's truthfulness. Over his lifetime, Cheesman gathered more than 800 artifacts and took thousands of photographic slides. His collection includes manuscripts, gallery prints, transparencies, photos, textiles, audio/visual materials, historical books and personal literary materials and reference files.
One of the gold plates found in Peru by Paul R. Cheesman with writing on it

After his death, Cheesman's widow, Millie, donated his collection of papers and artifacts to BYU's Museum of Peoples and Cultures in 1992. His work and the items do not necessarily prove whether the Book of Mormon is true or not, but according to Paul Stavast, director of the Museum of Peoples and Cultures, the collection's biggest role is to inspire people to learn more about the book of scripture.
    Officials chose a selection of approximately 200 pieces for display in the Reading Room. The artifacts include metal cups and rings, pottery, a Mayan stone and ceramic figurines. An interactive touch screen with headphones is also set up to allow visitors to view three film productions by Cheesman including, "Ancient America Speaks," "So Let it Be Written" and "Before Columbus."
    Also prominently featured in the exhibit is an ancient codex (a hand-written manuscript) acquired from the Vatican in Rome, Italy, which contains drawings and folds out like an accordion, and a replica of an original gold plate that Cheesman secured from the Gold Museum of Peru, unique because of the uncataloged symbols etched on its surface. 
Paul and Millie Cheesman on an archaeological trip in South America 

Millie Cheesman often accompanied her husband on excursions to Central and South America, and remembers the discovery of the gold plate as a highlight in her husband's career. "In his lifetime he had never seen an ancient American gold plate that had writing symbols on it," she said.
    The plate is too valuable to be publicly displayed, so an exact replica was created for the exhibit and formally presented to Alan Parrish, a professor of ancient scripture at BYU, on behalf of the University. He took over some of Cheesman's studies and oversaw the compilation of the current exhibit. His involvement with Cheesman's research and collection has allowed him an inside look at why Cheesman is considered a leader in bringing to public attention the possible connection between pre-Columbian inhabitants of the Americas and the stories told in the Book of Mormon.
    "We consider him a pioneer of popularizing evidences of Book of Mormon story," said Parrish. "He wanted to show that there was a very definite connection of what he found in these countries that supported Christian studies and the Book of Mormon, in particular. "He never claimed to be an archeologist. But he was a very avid Book of Mormon student and he wanted to do anything he could to increase the popularity of the Book of Mormon. He used archeology, geography and artifacts to increase people's interest."
A Sic├ín inverse-face beaker found on the La Leche River in Peru 

Cheesman's interest in the ancient Americas was first sparked in 1955 while serving as president of the Foster Corporation, a company influential in constructing the Pan-American Highway and widening the Panama Canal. It was on a visit to Costa Rica's rain forests that Cheesman found his first ancient American artifact. In the ensuing years he witnessed excavation destroy many ancient burial mounds and communities, and though much was destroyed, Cheesman did manage to save many important artifacts—some of which are now on display.
    Alan Parrish noted that though the artifacts contained in Cheesman's collection may not confirm the Book of Mormon, they offer the viewer food for thought.
    "I don't know that there's anything that could really prove anything, by way of artifact or writing, to clearly evidence the Book of Mormon," Parrish said. "But it certainly shows a lot of possibilities."
    Several examples of engraved plates have recently been discovered in Central and South America and are under investigation. Two are indicative of the treasures that may yet be discovered in America. According to Cheesman in a 1979 article on the LDS Church website, Ancient Writing on Metal Plates, a gold plate measuring 4 by 8 inches, is said to have been found in a tomb in the Lambayeque area of northern Peru; its eight symbols have not been translated, or even identified, now at the Hugo Cohen collection in Lima, as being similar to writing of ancient Cyprus (Pres. and Fellows of Harvard College 1979).
In his work, Cheesman says he literally saw hundreds of examples of messages engraved on metal. Not all of these messages have been translated; in some cases, the language is so ancient that translations are still uncertain. In other cases, the language can be read but there are simply so many examples of the same kind of writing that no one has gone to the work to make a translation. Most of the examples seem to be of treaties, laws, or religious texts.Akkadian writing around 2400 BC. The languages on metal plates found in the Old World range from Akkadian, dating from about 2450 B.C., to such comparatively “modern” dead languages as Greek and Latin. But in the New World, examples of writing on metal plates are only now beginning to emerge. Part of the reason is that archaeology in America has been important only since the turn of the century. Since less study has been applied, less is known about the languages of the pre-Columbian Indian. Also, fewer artifacts have been unearthed than in the richly storied lands of Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean
    However, as early as 1851, Mariano Eduardo de Rivero, director of Lima’s National Museum, and his associate, Juan Diego de Tschudi, asserted that there were two kinds of ancient Peruvian writing: “The one and surely the most ancient consisted of certain hieroglyphic characters; the other of knots made with strings of various colors. The hieroglyphs, very different from the Mexican ones, were sculpted in stone or engraved in metal.” (Antiquidades Peruanas, Vienna: Imprenta Imperial de la Corte y del Estado, 1851, vol.5, p101).
    The examples of ancient writing give us a glimpse into an ancient world of complex people and purposes. We learn much about a culture when we see writings that were considered so important that the scribes went to the labor of preserving them indefinitely—thus we learn of the ancient world that gave us the Book of Mormon.

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