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Friday, December 02, 2005

Mesoamerican Fortifications and the Book of Mormon

For decades, scholars thought ancient Mesoamerica was a peaceful place, especially in the Classic era of 300 AD to 800 AD. In contrast, the Book of Mormon describes many times of war, especially in its concluding pages around 300-400 AD. It wasn't until the 1970s that a paradigm shift began among scholars. Today, scholars recognize that warfare was a common part of life during that era. An important discovery helped bring about the change in understanding. In 1970, researchers from Tulane University discovered a huge defensive fortification at Becan in the Yucatan Peninsula. The center of the site is surrounded by a fortification - a ditch - that is nearly 2 kilometers long and roughly 16 meters wide. (Aerial photos of Becan sites are available at http://mayaruins.com/becan/aerial1.html and http://mayaruins.com/becan/aerial2.html.) Dirt had been piled to make a ridge on the inner side of the ditch. This fortification dates to 150 AD to 450 AD, which fits into Book of Mormon times. David Webster of Tulane describes how he thinks the fortification worked: "To throw 'uphill' from the outside is almost impossible. Defenders, possibly screened by a palisade, could have rained long-distance missiles on approaching enemies using spearthrowers and slings." (David L. Webster, Defensive Earthworks at Becan, Campeche, Mexico: Implications for Mayan Warfare , Tulane University, Middle American Research Institute, Publication 41, 1976, p. 108, as cited by John L. Sorensen, Ensign, Sept. 1984, p. 33.

Compare a Book of Mormon account (Alma 49:18-20) from around 70 B.C. with the description of Dr. Webster above:
18 Now behold, the Lamanites could not get into their forts of security by any other way save by the entrance, because of the highness of the bank which had been thrown up, and the depth of the ditch which had been dug round about, save it were by the entrance.

19 And thus were the Nephites prepared to destroy all such as should attempt to climb up to enter the fort by any other way, by casting over stones and arrows at them.

20 Thus they were prepared, yea, a body of their strongest men, with their swords and their slings, to smite down all who should attempt to come into their place of security by the place of entrance; and thus were they prepared to defend themselves against the Lamanites.
Captain Moroni in the Book of Mormon used such fortifications throughout Nephite lands, as explained in Alma 50:1-4 (ca. 72 to 60 B.C.):
1 And now it came to pass that Moroni did not stop making preparations for war, or to defend his people against the Lamanites; for he caused that his armies should commence in the commencement of the twentieth year of the reign of the judges, that they should commence in digging up heaps of earth round about all the cities, throughout all the land which was possessed by the Nephites.

2 And upon the top of these ridges of earth he caused that there should be timbers, yea, works of timbers built up to the height of a man, round about the cities.

3 And he caused that upon those works of timbers there should be a frame of pickets built upon the timbers round about; and they were strong and high.

4 And he caused towers to be erected that overlooked those works of pickets, and he caused places of security to be built upon those towers, that the stones and the arrows of the Lamanites could not hurt them.

5 And they were prepared that they could cast stones from the top thereof, according to their pleasure and their strength, and slay him who should attempt to approach near the walls of the city.

6 Thus Moroni did prepare strongholds against the coming of their enemies, round about every city in all the land.
A related description is in Alma 533-5:
3 And it came to pass that after the Lamanites had finished burying their dead and also the dead of the Nephites, they were marched back into the land Bountiful; and Teancum, by the orders of Moroni, caused that they should commence laboring in digging a ditch round about the land, or the city, Bountiful.

4 And he caused that they should build a breastwork of timbers upon the inner bank of the ditch; and they cast up dirt out of the ditch against the breastwork of timbers; and thus they did cause the Lamanites to labor until they had encircled the city of Bountiful round about with a strong wall of timbers and earth, to an exceeding height.

5 And this city became an exceeding stronghold ever after; and in this city they did guard the prisoners of the Lamanites; yea, even within a wall which they had caused them to build with their own hands. Now Moroni was compelled to cause the Lamanites to labor, because it was easy to guard them while at their labor; and he desired all his forces when he should make an attack upon the Lamanites.
The breakthrough discoveries of Webster and others at Tulane University were soon followed by related findings which fueled a paradigm shift in our understanding of the prevalence of warfare in ancient Mesoamerica. Other findings have confirmed the use of palisaded fortifications (palisade = fence of "pales" or pointed sticks made as a defensive barrier, according to the American Heritage Dictionary), ditches, and earthen walls. John Sorenson summarizes these Mesoamerican findings as of 1984:
More than one hundred fortified sites are now known. Ray Matheny's work at Edzna revealed a large, moated fortress dating to around the time of Christ [1]. Loma Torremote in the Valley of Mexico was a palisaded hilltop settlement by about 400 B.C. [2] Part of the three kilometers of defensive walls at famous Monte Alban dates before 200 B.C. [3] The core of Los Naranjos in western Honduras was entirely surrounded by a big ditch sometime between 1000 and 500 B.C. [4] Besides the actual sites, graphic art, remains of weapons, and warrior figurines have been found for many periods. So have stone walls. (Compare Alma 48:8) [5] And the public skull-rack (Aztec tzompantli), used at the time of the Conquest by the Aztecs to strike fear into the hearts of potential rebels against their military control, has now been found in Cuicatlan Valley of Oaxaca dating from before the time of Christ. [6]

"Increasingly, it is apparent that war practices in use when the Europeans arrived go back to the very early history of Mesoamerica. Yet as late as ten years ago, most of the published descriptions of early life in the area directly contradicted this view."(Ensign, Sept. 1984, p. 33.)

References cited by Sorenson:
1. Ray T. Matheny, D. L. Gurr, D. W. Forsyth, F. R. Hauck, Investigations at Edzna, Campeche, Mexico, Vol. 1, Part 1: The Hydraulic System (Brigham Young University, New World Archaeological Foundation, Paper 46, 1983), pp. 169-191.
2. "Current Research," American Antiquity, 45 (1980), p. 622.
3. Richard E. Blanton and S. A. Kowalewski, "Monte Alban and after in the Valley of Oaxaca," in J.A. Sabloff, ed., Supplement to the Handbook of Middle American Indians, Vol. 1, Archaeology (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), p. 100.
4. Claude F. Baudez and Pierre Becquelin, Etudes Mesoameriques, Vol. 2, Archaeologie de los Naranjos, (Mexico: Mission Archaeologique et Ethnologique Francaise au Mexique, 1973), pp. 3-4.
5. Angel Palerm, "notas sobras las Construcciones Militares u la Guerra en Mesoamerica," Anales del Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia, (Mexico), 7 (1956), p. 129; and Webster, op. cit., p. 98.
6. Charles S. Spencer and Else M. Redmond, "Formative and Classic Developments in the Cuicatlan Canada: A Preliminary Report," in Robert D. Drennan, ed., Prehistoric Social, Political, and Economic Development in the Area of the Tehuacan Valley: Some Results of the Palo Blanco Project, University of Michigan, Museum of Anthropology Technical Reports, no. 11 (Research Reports in Archaeology, Contribution 6), 1979, p. 211.
Further support comes from other recent discoveries about palisade-like structures. Richard Hauck, who is LDS, describes a finding in a Guatemalan valley near Coban which he tentatively correlates to a Book of Mormon location ("Ancient Fortifications and the Land of Manti," This People, Summer 1994, pp. 46-55). He describes how easy it has been for researchers to overlook the remnants of dirt and timber structures, but discusses the trenches, the soil changes, the growth of aligned trees, and other clues that point to their previous existence. The site he discovered, in addition to extensive arrays of palisades, also had an identifiable long and narrow pass, consistent with Book of Mormon descriptions, lined with palisades for a long distance, apparently presenting the only way into the fortified area. Attacking armies entering the pass would be prey to defenders along the palisades. Although the identification of Hauck's site with the land or city of Manti is debatable, there continues to be strong evidence that the military fortifications described in the Book of Mormon are consistent with the most recent discoveries in Mesoamerica - and inconsistent with long-held "expert" opinion prior to the radical paradigm shift that began in the 1970s.

Joseph Smith had no military experience when the Book of Mormon was published (apart from being threatened by mobs and thugs). Certainly forts of timber were built by armies in the early days of the United States, but I am unaware of anything quite like the trench and palisade systems described in the Book of Mormon that Joseph would have known about and could have borrowed from his own experience to fabricate the Book of Mormon. Indeed, even a cursory reading of the war chapters in the Book of Mormon reveals that the battles there are quite foreign to anything a farm boy in New York would have experienced. The accuracy of realistic detail, problems with logistics, rebellion, prisoners of war, morale, spies, etc., reflect authorship by someone intimately familiar with real ancient battle. Accurately describing ancient fortifications in Mesoamerica is just one tiny part of the military mosaic that reflects ancient authorship of the Book of Mormon. And again, recall that the whole idea of significant warfare in ancient Mesoamerica was dismissed by the experts until about 20 years ago.


Daylan said...

16 Meters wide??? About 50 feet?

I've always imagined the width to be about 10 (maybe 20) feet wide, just enough to prevent a reasonable ladder or a log from being laid across it.

Any clues as to why it was so wide?

MT said...

The ditch-digging that you refer to in Meso-America bears uncanny resemblance to other earth depressions found in the Arabian peninsula. In fact, ancient semites perfected the use of special tools that efficiently displaced sand and dirt granules, leaving an area devoid of earth.
This practice, called "chasmus", was virtually unknown to 18th century Americans, who relied on various animals to drag forged metals through the ground to "till" or plow.
The similarities between Nahom-area soil vaccuums, and pre-Columbian "ditches", suggests a pattern of migration reminiscent of the ancient semitic migration noted in the BofM.

And to think that "scientists" only a few years ago had not drawn the connection between old world chasmus and meso-American ditches.

MT said...

note: This practice was also unknown to 19th century american farmboys...

Mormanity said...

Ha ha! Your chasmus insight certainly fills an important void in Book of Mormon scholarship. Thanks for digging so deeply to unearth this ground-breaking issue, MT.

ltbugaf said...

Wow. Now the B of M has both chasmus and chiasmus on its side. I can't wait to see the confusion this will cause among careless readers.

Radicalfeministpoet said...

For decades, scholars thought ancient Mesoamerica was a peaceful place, especially in the Classic era of 300 AD to 800 AD.

This unsubstantiated premise, on which the rest of the article is based, is deeply flawed. When I first studied Mesoamerican archaeology at Harvard over20 years ago, it was taken for granted that the period in question was a tumultuous one, racked by war among the elites and violence throughout the population. "Disproving" the straw man of a "peaceful classical period" accomplishes nothing.

As for the supposed "pattern of migration reminiscent of the ancient semitic migration noted in the BofM" alluded to by a commentator, how about a little genetic evidence?

MT said...


-As for the supposed "pattern of migration reminiscent of the ancient semitic migration noted in the BofM" alluded to by a commentator, how about a little genetic evidence?-

uh, I think we're making the same point...

Walker said...

Amusing, MT. While I can certainly see where you stand on the BOM (frontier fiction) and I also agree with the crux of Jeff's post (then again, Joseph Smith and Michael Coe might have colluded like in the movie Frequency--freaky), your joke is well taken. I've known some members who were a LITTLE too willing to spout off spurious pieces of evidence w/o academic support. Mormons are some funny folks sometimes.

Mormanity said...

Hello, Radicalfeminist poet. Please note that I wasn't saying that scholars just learned about warfare among the Mayans in the past 20 years - when you took your course, the prominent role of warfare in Mesoamerica had already become recognized. But before about 1950, as I recall, the myth of a peaceful ancient Mayan culture was pretty widespread. I don't have time to dig up the old references now, but you can see that this was a myth that was debunked by modern scholarship if you look at American Indian Heritage Foundation page at http://www.indians.org/welker/maya.htm and search for "debunked" or "peaceful."

Mormanity said...

See also http://www.ambergriscaye.com/earlyhistory/glyphs.html to learn something about the role of Eric Thompson, the scholar who dominated thinking about the Mayans in the first half of this century. That article makes reference to his paradigm of the Mayan priests being peaceful men.

Mormanity said...

One of the great names in Mayan studies, along with Michael Coe, is Linda Schele, the woman who did so much to advance understanding of the Mayan script and thus of the Mayan people. In the review of her book, The Blood of Kings, at Amazon.com, you can read this statement from the Library Journal from their 1986 review: "Though Maya script, symbolism, and mythology are not yet fully understood, research from the last 25 years is showing that the Maya, once seen as 'simple' peaceful people, are now thought to have lived in rival city-states waging war to capture prisoners who were often sacrificed to enhance the power of rulers."

Anonymous said...


Mormanity said...

One more from http://www.ancientscripts.com/maya.html: "As for the content of the texts, Thompson strongly argued for esoteric knowledge like astrology and pointless mathematics. This view was derived from his opinion that the Maya were peaceful astronomy priests. However, evidence soon emerged that the texts recorded something other than Maya science."