The Book of Mormon contains several textual references about metallurgy being practiced by the cultures it describes. Although there is one intriguing archaeological discovery of some significant metallurgy in the area of the Baja peninsula before European contact, that discovery on its own is not sufficient to prove that metallurgy was practiced in our model areas as described in the Book of Mormon. This lack of evidence does not prove that metallurgy was not practiced in ancient Baja and Southern California, but we acknowledge that there is a void between what has been found archaeologically and what the Book of Mormon describes.
What metallic artifacts have been found in Baja?
Regarding the one significant archaeological find related to metallurgy in the peninsula, on Espíritu Santo Island, which lies off the coast of Baja California Sur, iron and copper artifacts were discovered associated with an ancient burial. The burial was excavated by one of Baja’s most prominent modern archaeologists who describes it as follows:
“A discovery that was unprecedented in the prehistory of Baja California was made in this rock shelter; it consisted of a human male adult burial in a flexed position with associated metal objects, specifically iron knives, iron shafts called “regatón,” iron nails, and a copper ring attached to the iron knife. The bone sample dated to 800 ± 40 RCYBP and was calibrated between A.D. 1180 and 1280” -Harumi Fujita, Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology, Vol. 30, No. 1, 2010, p. 27
In order to better understand the dating of the burial it should be noted that because of an effect called the “marine reservoir effect“, carbon dating of human remains in Baja can produce results that appear to be significantly younger than they actually are depending on the amount of seafood consumed by the individual whose bones are being dated. This is well-known to professional archaeologists in Baja and methods exist to correct for it. Even with no correction factor applied to the bones in question here, they still predate the voyage of Columbus to the Americas. In addition, the author quoted above points out that test results show that the dietary intake of the interred individual in this case consisted of a significant amount of plant material rather than ocean resources, meaning that the correction factor should be very small in this case.
We recognize that the coarse identification of one of the metal artifacts as a “regatón” (labelled “b” above) is not helpful for establishing a pre-contact date for the burial since a regatón is a metal balance used at the base of spears carried by the Spanish elite.
There are several reasonable explanations for how these artifacts could have appeared in the burial. The dating might somehow be wrong, they might have come as trade items from the Purepecha in what is now western Mexico, they could have been left by voyagers from the far east, etc., etc.. Ultimately, this archaeological find is exciting for our model but it is not yet a completely convincing case for pre-contact metallurgy in or near the peninsula.
Another metal artifact mentioned in Baja archaeology circles is a knife blade found in Gardner cave. Although it’s not impossible that it represents pre-contact metallurgy, it is far more likely that this artifact does not predate Spanish contact with the natives in the peninsula.
What are the implications of not finding metallurgy in our model areas?
It seems quite possible to us that metallurgy hasn’t been found in the Baja peninsula itself simply because the peninsula did not received enough attention from the archaeological community for far too long and relatively few sites have been excavated compared to other regions of North and Central America.
Unfortunately for our model, this same statement does not apply as well for the archaeology of Southern California, which includes some primary areas where we would expect to find metallurgy practiced based on the model we present. We hope the picture of the cultures in those areas continues to develop and that we can find information that will be helpful in addressing this weakness of the model.
One place where the text might suggest that metallic artifacts should be found is around the Hill Cumorah (known as the hill Ramah to the Jaredites). It is near this area where both the Jaredite and Nephite cultures came to an end after large battles and it seems reasonable that this is also the place where Limhi’s search party found metallic artifacts. When describing this search party Limhi said “they have brought breastplates, which are large, and they are of brass and of copper, and are perfectly sound. And again, they have brought swords, the hilts thereof have perished, and the blades thereof were cankered with rust”.
Artifacts might not have been found in the same location today for several reasons. One reason in particular might relate to the peculiarly corrosive properties of the air in our model’s location for Cumorah. It is located next to what today is a large geothermal power plant which was built over what used to be an extensive field of mud volcanoes and other geothermal features.
To understand what the area was like before the modern geothermal plant was built over the large, sulfuric water body known as “volcano lake” and the fumerols and mud features near it, the following excerpts from a 1876 government surveying expedition are helpful:
These mounds vary in height from 3 to 6 feet, and in diameter, at the base, from 5 to 20 feet. Some have large open craters, within which the hot mud can be seen constantly boiling and bubbling. At short intervals columns of mud are thrown up to the height of 4 to 6 feet…The center of this area was occupied by a lake of boiling mud, all parts of whose surface were constantly agitated, and from which the mud was occasionally thrown up several feet in height. A large mound situated some 200 yards to the southeast of the mud lake appears to have been thrown up by this volcanic action. The crust is composed principally of sulphur, much of which occurs as pure crystals…The liquid mud is black, but on drying it becomes gray. . .The surface of the ground between Mount Purdy (Cerro Prieto) and the mud volcanoes is dotted over with extinct solfataras, with here and there one from which hot vapor issues. A few were also observed east of Mount Purdy (Cerro Prieto). Indians living in the vicinity and old white settlers say that at night flame is seen issuing from these volcanoes, and sometimes high columns of steam. This usually occurs during an overflow of the river –reference
This area has naturally high concentrations of hydrogen sulfide in the air, in fact it has so much of it that it was used in one paper to demonstrate what happens to electronic components exposed to air in its harsh environment. Here is an easy-to-understand visual example of what happens to metals in the area:
Annual flooding of the Colorado River might have made this phenomenon apply to all areas of the Colorado River Delta and high stands of ancient lake Cahuilla.
Although we know that cities existed and battles were fought in proximity to Cumorah, the text does not give us exact locations. For example, for the Jaredites’ final battle they “did march forth” which might or might not indicate that they traveled away from their encampment around Cumorah. In the end this is all speculation with no concrete evidence for the practice of metallurgy that we hope is someday found in the model areas.