From glass-looking to social science

In episode 24 of the Mysterious Cities of Gold, an ancient Mesoamerican manuscript is discovered inside a stone box underground. As explained during the mini-documentary that follows each episode, the real story adapted for the cartoon is that the find spot was an Indian burial at Palenque (and no manuscript was found; but you can virtually enter the tomb here).

Now the discovery of the gold plates has always been my favorite Book of Mormon story. That the angel Moroni was also understood as a guardian of treasure, be it Indian, Spanish, or pirate, (and whose body was buried with what he was to guard,) makes the story even better.

So I was a little crestfallen when John Sorenson says is his recent FAIR presentation: “How that record reached New York state and Smith’s hands, and how he translated it, are questions nobody is able to answer objectively at this time, but they pale in comparison to the one of how the original work came to be.”

All the same, I am excited to see the publication of Sorenson’s larger project, a life’s pursuit really. According to his presentation, the forthcoming tome offers hundreds of “’correspondences’ between the archaeological record for Mesoamerica and the text of the Book of Mormon.”

Mormon’s Codex, as the title suggests, appears to be about more than establishing historicity so as to support faith among Latter-day Saints. As Sorenson concludes his presentation: “Supposing it [the Book of Mormon] is authentic, it constitutes the oldest and most extensive Mesoamerican codex known. Scholars engaged in the study of that civilization have the possibility, and even the responsibility, of studying this unique document as such a codex.”

This is a bold and intriguing proposition. Mormons are to take the text as seriously historical but so are anthropologists and archaeologists in their understanding of Mesoamerican civilization/s. Alongside of other codices, such as the Maya codices, scholars are to use the Book of Mormon in their professional work. I can only wonder how that might go, being neither an anthropologist nor archaeologist.

My guess is that such scholars would be keen to know something about the discovery that led to the Book of Mormon. Since the artifacts of that discovery were repatriated, this guessing game has to be played without much physical evidence.

But based on reports of the discovery and descriptions of the artifacts, I would suppose something like the following as a hypothetical scenario that an anthropologist or archaeologist might entertain. A European breastplate and perhaps a sword as well were found along with what eyewitnesses described as a manuscript of gold-ish metallic leaves.

Other European breastplates and swords have been found in North America, though perhaps not as far north as upstate New York. For instance, in Georgia in 1982, three treasure hunters found a sword at an Indian burial site. Apparently the sword was carried to the Americas from Europe, perhaps by a member of Hernando de Soto’s exploration of North America after his involvement with Pizarro in the conquest of Peru. Then a Native American of what would become Georgia acquired the sword and was buried with it.

The gold plates themselves, of course, remain a mystery. Not only would they be “the oldest and most extensive Mesoamerican codex,” as Sorenson states, they would be the one bona fide metal codex found anywhere in the western hemisphere, I think.

At any rate, what is perhaps most fascinating about this hypothetical scenario is that within Nephite narrative, the breastplate and sword, these emblems of European invasion, become sacred relics of divine history, as if the Gentiles who came to the Americas were inspired. In a later post I’ll consider how the Book of Mormon itself is situated in relation to their crossing of the many waters.

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