“Ancient News: Symposium on Archaeology of the Scriptures,” Ensign, Mar. 1978, 76–77
America isolated? That’s what archaeologists used to think—but the evidence is now pouring in to show that Japanese, Indonesians, Phoenicians, Indochinese, and Vikings all made stopovers in the western hemisphere, and stayed long enough to leave evidence of their visits.
The Symposium on Archaeology of the Scriptures, held at BYU, was sponsored by the Society for Early Historic Archaeology (SEHA). Some of the latest information on archaeological findings pertinent to Latter-day Saints was presented.
Dr. Paul R. Cheesman, BYU professor of ancient scriptures and director of the Book of Mormon Institute, provided the overview of recent findings on the many “discoveries” of America. The Book of Mormon has often been criticized because it seemed unlikely that there were any migrations to America before Columbus. But now scientists are finding evidence that many groups have had some kind of contact with the American continent.
The old theory that all the inhabitants of the Americas crossed over into Alaska from the Bering Strait has given way to a multiple origins theory, Dr. Cheesman pointed out. Evidence points to colonies from Europe and northwest Africa three thousand years ago; oriental ships visiting the Americas a thousand years ago; and one group even claims that the Vietnamese sailed in rafts to the coast of Ecuador two thousand years ago. Also, a Harvard scholar, Dr. Barry Fell, has related the languages of several early North American Indian tribes to European and Mediterranean languages, though evidence is not conclusive. (See Barry Fell, America B.C.: Ancient Settlers in the New World, New York Times Book Company, 1977.)
What does this mean to Mormons? Nothing, if we are looking for proof that a certain group of Israelites traveled to America about 600 B.C. But it does mean that the scientific community, which long insisted that America was utterly isolated from the rest of the world, is now revising its view to recognize the strong possibility of influences from many different Old World cultures—a position in harmony with the Book of Mormon account.
Other reports at the symposium included an update on research into the life of Italian explorer-merchant Giovanni Pietro Antonio Lebolo, who was claimed to be the discoverer of the mummies and papyri that found their way to Kirtland, Ohio, and that led to the publication of the Book of Abraham by the Prophet Joseph Smith. Dan C. Jorgensen, Regional Representative to Switzerland, East Germany, and Poland, presented the results of research he did while working in Italy as representative of a New York bank and later as president of the Italy North Mission.
The records Brother Jorgensen discovered show the dates of Lebolo’s birth, two marriages, and his death, as well as vital statistics of his children. The records also prove that Lebolo had connections with Egypt in the early 1800s. Particularly interesting was the final word on Lebolo’s death date and place. Formerly it had been claimed he died in 1832 in Trieste, Italy—or in 1823. But the records show that he died 19 February 1830 in his home town, Castellamonte, Italy.
And on one of the records, Jorgensen found an example of Lebolo’s own signature—the only one known to exist.
Diane E. Wirth discussed the growing evidence for the possibility of horses and wheels in America before Columbus, yet in historic times. One of the chief objections non-Mormon scholars have had to the Book of Mormon is its references to horses and chariots, when for many years there seemed to be no archaeological evidence for either.
However, more recent findings may indicate that the wheel was known in ancient America, and Sister Wirth speculates that the wheel may have fallen out of use among the general populace because it was taken over by priests as a religious symbol. And other evidence might be interpreted to indicate that horses were known, even if they were not widely used.
Book of Mormon names are virtually the only samples we have of the language the Nephites were using—and as Hugh Nibley has long since pointed out, names tend to be the most archaic, out-of-date words in any language. For instance, how many people remember the meanings of such common English language names as William, Steven, Sandra, or Anne? Yet investigation can show English cultural links with diverse cultures through those names—and many scholars have tried to link Book of Mormon names with Old World cultures, to show the relationship.
Benjamin Urrutia, a BYU graduate student, investigated the names of two of Alma the Younger’s sons, Shiblon and Corianton, and found that both names are related to Semitic language words meaning lion cub, shibl- being an Arabic root with that meaning, and corian- perhaps being related to the Hebrew gurrion, which also means lion cub. Further speculations arose out of the fact that shiblon was also the name of a unit of money among the Nephites. (See Alma 11:15–16, 19.)
Other papers dealt with Quetzalcoatl, a Mesoamerica god often compared to Christ; a historical setting for Jonah’s visit to Nineveh that links well with the dates in the biblical account, showing that at the required time, Nineveh was in turmoil, ripe for destruction—or repentance; and a report on the work at an archaeological site in Israel, a few miles north of Tel Aviv, which BYU students have taken part in for the last two summers.
Though archaeologists are far from “proving” the scriptures through external evidence, much is being done toward illuminating our understanding of the world in which the records were written.