In 1 Nephi 17:9, Nephi begins his task of building a ship, according to instructions from the Lord, with a telling request: "Lord, whither shall I go that I may find ore to molten, that I may make tools to construct the ship?" This simple plea says much. Not only does it speak of Nephi's humility, obedience, and faith, it also implies that Nephi was skilled enough in metallurgy or metalworking that he knew he could make iron tools if he could just be pointed to some suitable ore. The Lord did in fact guide him and he did make tools, so we can also conclude that a suitable site for Bountiful in the Arabian Peninsula not only has the trees, fruit, and (implicitly) water required by the text, but also iron ore.
You may have noticed the exciting news about the discovery of iron ore in the vicinity of the excellent candidates for Bountiful. See the powerful article by Ron Harris, "Lord, Whither Shall I Go that I May Obtain ore?" at LDSMAG.org. Ron Harris describes the trip of a geological team to the Salalah Coast in Dhofar on the eastern coast of Oman, a region that could be reached by Nephi, in my opinion, from any of the THREE lading candidates for Bountiful: Wadi Sayq, Khor Rori, and most recently, Mughsayl. Haven't heard of Mughsayl yet? See Wm. Revell Phillips, "Mughsayl: Another Candidate for Land Bountiful" (that's a PDF file - the report is also available in HTML without the impressive figures) in Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, 2007, Vol. 16, No. 2, pp. 48-59.
The discovery of iron ore in the region was something of a miracle, in the opinion of Brother Harris, for Arabia has very little ore and in spite of previous geological surveys in the region, no iron ore had been found. Yet they were able to find some right away. More surprisingly, the ore was of an unusual nature that would allow smelting to be done at a lower than normal temperature, allowing Nephi to process it using a wood fire:
What seemed at first as an overwhelming task of trying to find a ‘needle in a haystack’ turned out to be a windfall of discovery. Why had the other geologists who had recently explored the region in detail missed these occurrences of mineralization? This is a question we still do not have an answer for. We carefully mapped and sampled the occurrences over the course of several days, then shared our observations with the Ministry of Mines of Oman. They confirmed that these ore bodies were new discoveries and are now planning to explore them further.
Geochemical analysis of samples of the veins indicate they mostly consist of minerals known as limonite and ferroan dolomite, which have many unique properties that make it possible, ‘to molten’ the ore as described by Nephi. These properties include a naturally occurring mixture of iron and carbonate. Carbonate acts as a natural flux that lowers the melting point of iron to temperatures that are most likely achievable with a wood fire and bellows. We tested the process to make certain it was possible by crushing samples and mixing them with carbon, then heating them to 1100° C (2012° F). After a few hours the samples were transformed into sponge-iron, which is a brittle form of iron that can be further refined by a combination of heating and pounding. The samples were essentially ‘molten’ and it would have been possible to forge them into tools. It appears from the scriptural text that Nephi already knew how to do this, which is consistent with his having a metal bow (I Nephi 16:18).
Yes, that's amazing and wonderful news. But I'd like to also call attention to one subtle implication of Nephi's request. While the Book of Mormon indicates that usable iron ore must be present in the region of Bountiful on the eastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula, Nephi's request also implies that it wasn't easy for him to find. He obviously hadn't spotted any as they came into the region, and he felt that he would need divine guidance to find it. As Wm. Revell Phillips observes in his thorough description of the region in "Mughsayl: Another Candidate for Land Bountiful," iron ore is genuinely scarce because the geology of the region is dominated by young limestone, but there are places where ore can be found:
Nephi made only one request of the Lord, so far as we know. Where could he find ore to make shipbuilding tools? Perhaps he could have purchased such tools at Khor Rori, or perhaps not, and surely Lehi had brought basic tools, like a hammer and axe, from Jerusalem. Whatever access he may have had, Nephi chose to make his own tools and, having the ore, seemed to know how to proceed. Perhaps only a geologist would understand the sincere need for divine help, as relatively young limestone layers (Tertiary and Cretaceous) are the surface rocks over nearly all the Dhofar province. Only where these limestone layers have been stripped away by erosion is there a real possibility of finding ore, and the only large area of such "basement" exposure is the Marbat Plain, east of Marbat between Jabal Samhan and the Arabian Sea. On a geologic map (figure 15), the "basement" rock stands out in bold colors, contrasting sharply with the monotonous color representing the youthful limestone, but Nephi had no such map. Only the Marbat Plain and a tiny exposure of basement rock at a small wadi between Raykut and Mughsayl are likely to yield ore, and iron ore is, indeed, present at both locations, not enough for an iron industry, but far more than adequate for Nephi's needs.
It's such a subtle detail, but the candidates for Bountiful on the eastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula fulfill the Book of Mormon requirement that useful iron ore not only be available but also be scarce enough to require divine direction to find.
It's amazing enough that places can be found that come anywhere close to matching the general requirements for the place Bountiful. "Common knowledge" in Joseph Smith's day might suggest that the Arabian Peninsula, as we've all see in the movies, is a place of endless desert but certainly no place that anyone could call Bountiful. As increasing evidence mounts for the bulls-eye nature of First Nephi's description of a journey through the Arabian Peninsula, critics, rather than ridiculing the account, can be increasingly expected to sift through mountains of text to find scattered bits and pieces to support a new hypothesis that the description of this journey was "obvious" and easily forged by Joseph Smith and his resourceful team, relying upon his vast frontier library and world-wide network of scholars.
That memo has gone out, but was sent a little too late to help some anti-Mormon authors. For example, last week as I was perusing the highly touted and allegedly scholarly treatise of Richard Abanes, One Nation Under Gods (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2002), I found this pithy statement (p. 74): "Consider, too, the problem in 1 Nephi 17:5, which describes Arabia as being 'bountiful' because of its fruit and wild honey. The fact is that Arabia has never had bountiful supplies of either fruit or honey. The BOM also speaks of a river in Arabia named Laman continually flowing to the Red Sea (1 Nephi 2:6-9), yet there has never been such river in Arabia. [sic]" (Memo to Richard: Fruit and honey in Salalah must have been common knowledge. A simple-minded extrapolation from Felix Arabia, no doubt. Country folks in Joseph's day surely knew about the river with year-long flow into the Red Sea a few days' south of Jerusalem - don't let George Potter get away with claiming it as a big discovery [PDF]. Didn't Herodotus or Homer or someone hint at that? Too easy for our plagiarist! Please revise your 2nd edition accordingly. Oh, and regarding iron ore: duh, iron is what the core of the earth is made from. Iron must be everywhere. Trivial. Get the word out.)
Such discoveries, interesting as they may seem, don't prove that Joseph Smith was a prophet or that the Book of Mormon was true. However, they do suggest that whoever wrote First Nephi had knowledge of the Arabian Peninsula that appears to have transcended what scholars accessible to Joseph Smith could have known in that day - not to mention transcending what highly educated people could have known until recently in ours. This makes First Nephi more interesting than ever, and less easy to explain as a pious fraud by a silly con-man drawing upon common knowledge and local books and newspapers of his day. That's all. Don't get too excited - it's just a little piece of data to include in your ponderings.