Book of Mormon Architecture in Baja California

FribergSamuelLamaniteLearning to understand a Baja model requires us to change the way we think about Book of Mormon architecture. A lot of us grew up seeing paintings of Christ appearing to Nephites with Mayan temples in the background and pictures of Samuel the Lamanite standing on massive brick walls, but no large stone temples or massive prehistoric stone walls have been found in Baja California.

If the Book of Mormon actually took place in Baja California and the North American Southwest like our model proposes, why can’t we point out large stone temples or massive brick walls like those seen in popular Book of Mormon paintings?

We can’t point them out because those popular paintings do not present the type of architecture described in the Book of Mormon.

Consider this for a moment: Lehi’s party arrived in the New World about 592 BC. Captain Moroni fortified the Nephite lands about 30 BC. This means that previous to Captain Moroni’s fortifications, the Nephites had been building cities, walls, buildings, temples, synagogues, sanctuaries, prisons, towers, and other types of architecture in the lands of the Book of Mormon for more than 560 years.

After those 560 years of Nephites in the New World, Captain Moroni started preparing to defend Nephite cities “in a manner which never had been known among the children of Lehi”(Alma 49:8) by creating defensive technologies that caused the chief captains of the Lamanites to be “astonished exceedingly, because of the wisdom of the Nephites in preparing their places of security” (Alma 49:5).

What kind of defensive technology caused the Lamanites to be so “exceedingly astonished”?

It was a pile of dirt.

They dug a ditch and piled up the dirt from the ditch, making a dirt ridge to protect their armies.

Moroni had stationed an army by the borders of the city, and they had cast up dirt round about to shield them from the arrows and the stones of the Lamanites; for behold, they fought with stones and with arrows.

…because the Lamanites had destroyed [Ammonihah] once…,they supposed that it would again become an easy prey for them. But behold, how great was their disappointment; for behold, the Nephites had dug up a ridge of earth round about them, which was so high that the Lamanites could not cast their stones and their arrows at them that they might take effect
(Alma 49:2-4)

Apparently, there was no significant gate or barrier at the one weak point in this dirt ridge because the Lamanites could “come upon them” at the entrance (see Alma 49:4).

The description of these defensive technologies is reiterated as the narrative continues and we read about the Lamanite attack on the city of Noah:

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. 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.
(Alma 49:18-19)

This ridge of dirt was made of soil that was loose enough for the Lamanites to try to tear it down:

they began to dig down their banks of earth that they might obtain a pass to their armies, that they might have an equal chance to fight; but behold, in these attempts they were swept off by the stones and arrows which were thrown at them
(Alma 49:22)

When we start to consider what these verses are telling us, we can begin to see the difference between the architectural technology that is actually described in the Book of Mormon compared to the architectural technology that is seen in popular Book of Mormon paintings.

But wait, how could Book of Mormon architecture be so primitive? Didn’t Nephi build a temple like Solomon’s temple? Shouldn’t we expect Book of Mormon architecture to resemble Jerusalem’s architecture?

“And I, Nephi, did build a temple; and I did construct it after the manner of the temple of Solomon save it were not built of so many precious things; for they were not to be found upon the land, wherefore, it could not be built like unto Solomon’s temple. But the manner of the construction was like unto the temple of Solomon; and the workmanship thereof was exceedingly fine.”
(2 Nephi 5:16)

What did Nephi mean when he said “the manner of the construction was like unto the temple of Solomon”? We were asked this question recently in response to an article about our model on the Millenial Star blog. I believe our answer is worth repeating here:

Is Nephi is describing the physical size of the temple when he uses the phrases “after the manner of the temple of Solomon” and “the manner of construction was like unto the temple of Solomon”? He could be, but such a strict interpretation of Nephi’s words may not be justified.

It’s hard to be certain about the size and scale of Nephi’s temple, but let’s explore three lines of thought and see where they lead us. The three hypothesis that we will discuss are:

  1. Nephi made a full-scale duplicate of Soloman’s temple and when he said “it were not built of so many precious things” he was only referring to decorative items that would require massive amounts of precious metal.
  2. Nephi’s statement “the manner of the construction was like unto the temple of Solomon” was only a reference to functional space, not architecture. In other words, Nephi built a temple that could function like Solomon’s, but the construction itself might have been minimal and might not have resembled the actual structure of Solomon’s temple in size or materials.
  3. Something in-between #’s 1 and 2 above, meaning that Nephi fulfilled the functional requirements mentioned in #2 and in addition, architected the actual structure so that it significantly mimicked the “manner of the construction” of Solomon’s temple.

The truth is that based on the evidence presented in the Book of Mormon, any of those three options could be true. One person’s opinion might favor one hypothesis over another, but I don’t think the information in the Book of Mormon is sufficient to completely rule out any of those three options.

I personally tend to think that option #3 is the most likely because I don’t think Nephi would have made the comparison to Solomon’s temple purely on functional grounds. On the other hand, it also sounds to me like Nephi is hedging a little to make sure we know that, although it was somewhat similar to Solomon’s temple, it was a version of it that fit the circumstances of the Nephites, not a complete duplication of Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem.

Another thing that I notice about Nephi’s words is that he is not keen on taking personal credit for work that was mostly done by others. He is constantly using the term “we” rather than “I” when he talks about the early Nephite settlements and culture. He didn’t even want to be a king or have his people be subject to kings. Why would he suddenly take personal credit for a full-scale version of Solomon’s temple by saying “I did construct it…”?

My opinion, and it’s only an opinion, is that while the Nephite culture was adapting to new settings and building a society from scratch, very few Nephites were learning the advanced skills required for massive carved-stone architecture. On the other hand, Nephi himself was one of the few people in his whole society that had probably ever seen a building that was much larger than a hut. Remember, Jacob and Joseph and everyone that came after them never laid eyes on Jerusalem. I think that Nephi spent a considerable portion of his time building a beautiful temple, probably based on the building instructions for Solomon’s temple that were written on the brass plates. I think he probably, but not definitely, made the exterior largely out of carved stone. I think it was probably significantly smaller than Solomon’s temple.

I also think that I am applying so much guess-work to come up with my opinion that it is unlikely that my mental picture of it is correct. We should not presume to know more than the text clearly says. To me this means that the text does not rule out massive, impressive architecture, but it doesn’t require it either.

Let’s say for a minute though that I’m wrong and Nephi led his people to build a full-scale replica of the temple of Solomon. Shouldn’t something like that stick out like a sore-thumb in Baja? In answer to this, please ask yourself this question: How many of the actual ruins of the temple of Solomon in Jerusalem stick out like a sore thumb in Jerusalem?

Remember, Nephi didn’t rebuild the whole city of Jerusalem, just the temple structure. Very little of that structure or the two subsequent temples built on the temple site in Jerusalem exists today. The Baja peninsula experiences tremendous natural forces including massive earthquakes, hurricanes, dust storms, sections of land falling of into the ocean, etc.. We haven’t identified where Nephi’s version of the temple mount existed, and we haven’t even begun to search the places where we’re guessing it could have been. Even a full-scale, massive copy of the temple of Solomon could have been there and we might not know about it.

If this sounds far-fetched, take a look at Smithsonian magazine last month. Stonehenge is one of the most studied archaeological areas on planet earth, but they just finished a study and found out how little they even knew about it. They now know that there are massive stone ruins that have been buried right under their noses there all along. We tend to underestimate mother nature’s ability to hide our big architecture once we stop caring for it.

All of this goes to show that we might not need to look for a full-scale temple, but even if there was one, it’s not evidence against the Baja model at this point.

What do we know about other Book of Mormon architecture?

The Book of Mormon describes the following types of architectural features:

  • Walls around Cities and Lands
  • Temples
  • Synagogues
  • Sanctuaries
  • Towers
  • Palaces
  • Defensive forts
  • Prisons
  • Highways
  • Houses and Buildings

Walls Around Cities and Lands

Many types of architecture have walls. For example, walls can be found in temples, synagogues, sanctuaries, palaces, defensive forts, and prisons in the Book of Mormon. Here we will focus on walls around cities and lands.

The following walls are described in the text of the Book of Mormon:

Location References Building Materials Notes
Walls around the city of Lehi-Nephi Mosiah 9:8, Mosiah 21:19, Mosiah 7:10 Unknown Walls needed repairing, King only outside walls with guards, Bold to approach king outside walls
Walls around the city of Shilom Mosiah 9:8 Unknown  
Walls around the city of Bountiful Alma 53:4 Timber, Earth Described as “Strong”
Walls around the city of Nephihah Alma 62:20-24 Unknown Was tall enough that Moroni’s men were “let down” from it in order to get inside
Walls around the city of Gid Alma 55:20 Unknown  
Walls around all the Nephite cities in the areas around Zarahemla Alma 50:5, Alma 52:6, Alma 48:8 Earth, Stone Were built in a way that Nephites could cast stones down at their enemies from the walls.

Given the information above, what kind of walls should we expect to find in Nephite lands?

The walls of Lehi-Nephi and Shilom appear to have been built in early Nephite times. We do not know what kind of materials were used in their construction. They could have been made of stone, of wood, of brick, of cement/adobe, or other materials. Other descriptions of architecture in the land of Lehi-Nephi mention wood specifically, but do not mention any stonework.

did teach my people to build buildings, and to work in all manner of wood, and of iron, and of copper, and of brass, and of steel, and of gold, and of silver, and of precious ores, which were in great abundance
(2 Nephi 5:15; see also Mosiah 11:9-11)

It is clear that those early walls fell into a state of disrepair before Zeniff’s group returned to Lehi-Nephi after an absence of roughly 40-50 years.

Regardless of whether the walls in the land of Lehi-Nephi were made of wood or stone, there is no further mention of stone walls during Nephite times until after Captain Moroni started getting inventive about defending the Nephites. Notice in the table above that all of the references to walls in the areas of Zarahemla and northward occur after Captain Moron starts fortifying the land. In Alma 48 we begin to hear about walls around cities, lands and fortifications. This doesn’t mean that there were no Nephite walls before that time, it makes sense that there would be, but they are not mentioned in the text. Alma 48 tells us that some of Captain Moroni’s walls were made of ridges of earth while others were made of stone.

throwing up banks of earth round about to enclose his armies, and also building walls of stone to encircle them about, round about their cities and the borders of their lands; yea, all round about the land.
(Alma 48:8)

It is curious that the “banks of earth” are mentioned in reference to protecting the armies while “walls of stone” were used about their cities and borders. It may be noteworthy that no walls of stone seemed to hinder the Lamanites as they advanced on Ammonihah and Noah (Alma 49). We might speculate that since there is never any mention of mortar or cement in the land of Zarahemla (cement is only mentioned in reference to the land northward several years later) that these walls were built of loose or carved stones. This fits well with our Baja model due to the probable scarcity of water to produce mortar in many parts of the land. If the stone walls were simply walls of loose stones then it makes sense that the ridges of earth would be a better choice for the defense of the armies like the text describes.

There is a clear progression in the technology of Nephite defensive walls after the Lamanite attack on Noah. Apparently Captain Moroni was not content with simply having ditches and ridges of earth protecting the Nephite cities after those attacks. We are given a detailed description of the next advance in the technology that Captain Moroni used to defend the Nephite armies:

Moroni…caused that his armies…should commence in digging up heaps of earth round about all the cities, throughout all the land which was possessed by the Nephites. 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. 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. 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. 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. Thus Moroni did prepare strongholds against the coming of their enemies, round about every city in all the land.
(Alma 15:1-6)

These new defenses were constructed of wood and earth and were a clear technological advancement over the ridges of earth which were used for defending Ammonihah and Noah.

A combination of timber and earth were also used to turn the city of Bountiful into an “exceeding stronghold ever after”. These walls of timber and earth were not some temporary military feature. The walls around Bountiful are the largest, most advanced architectural feature clearly described by the Book of Mormon (with the possible exception of Nephi’s temple mentioned above):

…Moroni, caused that they should commence laboring in digging a ditch round about the land, or the city, Bountiful. 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. And this city became an exceeding stronghold ever after…
(Alma 53:3-5)

Primitive Architecture

The architectural descriptions in the Book of Mormon describe relatively primitive structures, especially in regards to defensive technologies. We have no reason to think that cement or mortar was used in conjunction with stone walls, and nowhere in the text is an army hindered by a wall built of stone, brick, or other lithic material. On the other hand, ditches and ridges of simple earth were technologies that were “astonishing” to the people of the Book of Mormon.

Wood is clearly mentioned as an important building material for both structures and decorations. We have every reason to believe that the vast majority of Nephite architecture utilized wood as its primary building material.

If our model is right, how many Nephite ruins might be buried in the deserts and lands of the Baja peninsula?

Possibly very few, but we really don’t know yet. Baja California experiences many natural forces that could easily obscure the types of architecture described in the Book of Mormon. Loose stone walls are a common feature of the Baja landscape, but little or no effort has been made to see if any of the walls date to prehistoric times.

We hope that as archaeologists continue to take more and more interest in the peninsula that the picture will become more clear. In the meantime, don’t set aside the idea that the Book of Mormon couldn’t have happened in the peninsula just because we haven’t found that 100-foot-high wall that Samuel the Lamanite is commonly pictured on. The paintings and imagery that we have developed around the Book of Mormon are not accurate depictions of the technologies described in its pages.

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