Jun 6, 2011

Proving Book Of Mormon Geography

Using modern technology it should be a fairly simple process to identify the ancient sites of Nephite cities which were located in the Book of Mormon land of Zarahemla. Recently NASA has developed infrared remote sensing techniques that identify linear or curvilinear features that resulted from human disturbance. As all the major Nephite cities in Zarahemla were surrounded by trenched fortifications, these should now be relatively easy to identify using this method.
Looking beyond the mark in searching for Book of Mormon origins.
Ever since the restoration of the gospel, and the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, it has been the fervent desire of believers to find the actual sites of the Book of Mormon lands. This has led to a number of theories being proposed, but to date very little corroborating evidence has come forth.
Following the discovery of the monumental ruins in Mexico and Guatemala, many pinned their hopes on those sites, expecting positive evidence to be forthcoming at any time. But this "looking beyond the mark" has misdirected the search for many years. By "looking beyond the mark" I mean the supposition that those ruins would have been Nephite structures, channeling our hopes and expectations in that direction, and spending vast amounts of time, energy and money in trying to prove it. 
But as has been pointed out previously, those ruins are the remains of the ancient and magnificent Jaredite civilization, and their descendants.  Trying to make them fit the Nephite mold will only result in frustration and failure.
However, there is now a solution in sight. Recent developments in remote sensing technology (the ability to view the earth from satellites, airplanes, etc. in different wave lengths of light) have made it possible to detect even very faint traces of human activity. Operating at various altitudes above the earth, it is possible to detect traces of human habitation which would be impossible to detect from the ground. One such study in Costa Rica has identified ancient, narrow footpaths which were worn into the surface through years of repeated use. The remarkable thing about this find was that these paths are buried beneath 5-10 feet of volcanic ash–yet the technology still detects them by means of minor differences in heat radiation. (For more information about this study refer to http://wwwghcc.msfc.nasa.gov/archeology/arenal.html) (This link is broken).
Now how does this relate to Book of Mormon geography? If you will recall the Nephite history during the reign of the Judges, Moroni and Moronihah were defending the Nephite lands against repeated attacks from their enemies.  They fortified all the cities in the Nephite lands, and these fortifications provide us with the key to their identity. The cities were protected by an encircling trench (or moat), and the dirt from this trench was mounded on the inside to form a high sloping wall above the trench. This wall in turn was topped with a palisade of wooden poles with periodic towers from which the Nephites could easily defend themselves (Alma 48:8; 49:2-4, 13, 18-24; 53:3-5).  (I would like to note that these were not high stone walls as is so often depicted in contemporary paintings of Book of Mormon cities.)
In the intervening 1700 years, these cities would have all decayed and returned to their natural state, or perhaps been covered by human habitation or activity. But the trenches and mounds are still there, either as a surface irregularity, or a subsurface anomaly. They should be detectable by modern remote sensing techniques, even if they have been covered by volcanic ash, or other natural or man made alterations. They can even be detected when overprinted by agricultural activity, and, possibly, even under urban development. 
The task now at hand would be to identify possible sites.  Then these sites could be surveyed for evidence of the mounds and trenches. If none were present, the site would be ruled out. If they are present, then the site is a possible fit into the Nephite jigsaw puzzle. With an increasing number of fits, the puzzle would come together. Once a pattern of cities with the encircling trenches is identified with the proper spatial relationship, then we can with certainty proclaim that we are in the right location and proceed with more detailed archaeological examination.
Such studies should not be prohibitively expensive. The data is fairly easy to obtain with standard aircraft, and in some cases is already available. A very rough estimate would be that it would cost $50,000 for the instrumentation, procurement, and interpretation of data for each site. If a major donor could be located, or a university were involved, it would be a fairly straight forward process.
It should be noted that we should expect to find other ancient cities which were protected in a similar manner using Moroni's inspired pattern.  Sites such as Becan in Mexico have already been found to have such fortifications, and at the time of the conquest, the Boruca Indians in southwestern Costa Rica were living in small villages fortified in this manner.  It is also likely that some of the cities in the Book of Mormon "land northward," which were fortified by Mormon at the time of the last battles prior to Cumorah, were fortified in this way.  However, it should still be possible to identify a pattern of fortified cities which would match the description of the cities in the Nephite lands which would be unique to that geography.
I have earlier suggested this approach to an archaeologist at BYU however he dismissed it saying that they already routinely do such surveys.  However I have yet to read one of their reports that mentions such a survey or gives the specific results.