Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Archaeology of Zion

One sentiment I've heard expressed claims that the value of the Book of Mormon is independent of the truthfulness of its historical narrative. Beyond helping literally minded people like me to maintain belief in Mormonism, it really doesn't serve any purpose to believe in the historicity of the Book of Mormon. In fact, believing in it is harmful, as evidenced, for example, by the pride members of the LDS church express in being the "one true church" and having the "most correct book". I'm going to push back a bit. I believe Mormons and Mormonism would be better served by reading history into the Book of Mormon more rigorously. What would this accomplish?
  • We could teach more strongly that Book of Mormon prophets were real people with real biases. We could explore in Sunday School--or at least in Seminary and Institute--how those biases shaped their messages, and how God interacted with real people instead of with glorified heroes.
  • We could acknowledge that Nephi's believing in a universal flood and in the parting of a huge sea are stories that were already exaggerated by the time Nephi learned them, and we wouldn't have to believe every word as literal truth. We could take it as obvious that there were lots of other people on the American continents when the Book of Mormon peoples arrived, and that the whole story is one of two small groups of rulers.
  • We could see how symbol and story and myth have been used throughout history and give greater place for symbolic readings without having to fight about whether every word is literal and inspired direct from the mind of God. We could apply our own modern history of the complexities of prophetic utterances to add nuance to our understanding of the Book of Mormon. If I understand it correctly, this is what many faithful (or would-be faithful) Latter-day Saints want--room to question and explore. Room to believe that not every word is literal truth. Room to read beyond the narrow and hurtful messages propagated by shallow, ethnocentric readings of the Book of Mormon. Recognizing that the Book of Mormon prophets were sometimes shallow and ethnocentric, but still good and inspired, could allow us to do this.
  • We could find greater understanding through recognizing the ancient (rather than 19th century) Biblical roots. For example, here is Daniel C. Peterson teaching about symbols of a Divine Feminine in the Book of Mormon. How many of you knew that was there? Of course you could draw the comparisons without believing Nephi was from the Middle East in 600 BC, but then you are just playing literary games rather than claiming that Nephi--a real prophet--believed in female representations of deity and was willing to talk about them and rhapsodize for his posterity and millions yet to be born over his visions of the female divine. Historicity allows us to read one more female presence into the intensely partriarchal Book of Mormon. That's harder to do if we lean toward 19th century origins, however miraculously inspired we want to make them.
  • Lastly, if the Book of Mormon is about a real, historical time and place, then archaeology and cultural history can teach us better how to understand and interpret the Book of Mormon. Maybe we can even learn something about building a real, future Zion society. I want to take a first pass at this, now.
The Book of Mormon reports a brief period--approximately 3-4 generations--when the Book of Mormon peoples achieved Zion:
. . . the people were all converted unto the Lord, upon all the face of the land, both Nephites and Lamanites, and there were no contentions and disputations among them, and every man did deal justly one with another. And they had all things common among them; therefore there were not rich and poor, bond and free, but they were all made free, and partakers of the heavenly gift. . .
. . .there was no contention in the land, because of the love of God which did dwell in the hearts of the people. And there were no envyings, nor strifes, nor tumults, nor whoredoms, nor lyings, nor murders, nor any manner of lasciviousness; and surely there could not be a happier people among all the people who had been created by the hand of God. There were no robbers, nor murderers, neither were there Lamanites, nor any manner of -ites; but they were in one. . . (4 Nephi 1:2-3,15-17)
There is our goal--to become a Zion people and be one with each other and with God--and we've got a handful of verses describing this most important event in completely generic terms.

How did they do it?!! Has that ever bothered anyone else? I don't think I'm unique in asking this question, but now maybe I can partially formulate an answer. Here are some quotes from Mormon's Codex in which John Sorenson describes some of what is known regarding the cultures in the most likely Book of Mormon lands in the period from 1-200 AD.
Dahlin et al. spoke of the "collapse of Terminal Preclassic civilization" (ca. AD 200-300), an event characterized by "severe population reductions, site abandonments, an increasing balkanization in material culture, and disruption of interregional communications networks." The total impact was catastrophic: "The effects of this collapse were almost as calamitous as those resulting from the Late Classic Maya civilization." Bauer refers to approximately the same period in the Maya area when he reports "profound historical, ideological, demographic and socio-political changes that occurred at the start of the Early Classic." To Braswell the area around Guatemala City exhibited "great disruption: population levels dropped, construction decreased, literacy and [the] carved-stone sculptural tradition disappeared," and so on. (pp. 636-7)
Precise dating on these events is very difficult, but natural disasters close to 50 AD have been proposed as significant causes of the collapse. To illustrate how serious the impact can be from a large volcanic erruption, Sorensen summarizes the effects of a later event on Mayan civilization:
". . . the more potent blow to the entire southern Maya realm" was that the system of trade collapsed. This resulted in "the political destabilization and decentralization" of societies over a wide area, entending even to a "weakened Kaminaljuyu" in the Valley of guatemala. . ." [a few hundred miles away].
Back to our Zion time period:
Population declines and cultural fluctuations such as those contributing to the sudden decline in level of civilization evident in the Santa Clara period at Kaminaljuyu [likely location of the city of Lehi-Nephi] plausibly could have resulted from one or a combination of natural disasters. (p. 646)
There is significant evidence of large scale volcanic activity in the middle of the 1st century AD--possibly multiple volcanic events. Lots of things changed around 50 AD in southern Mexico and the Guatemala highlands. Among them were the disappearance of evidences of certain cultic practices:
  • figurines (mainly female) of modeled clay
  • three-pronged incense burners (in several base forms)
  • flat-stemmed and roller stamps
  • effigy whistles
  • stelae (both plain basalt columns and sculpted pillars)
  • inscriptions
  • tombs
  • "mushroom stones" and, perhaps, cultic ingestion of mushrooms (p. 650)
While it's not possible to say what this means, it is further evidence of major cultural changes in the mid-1st century.

What else happened after the disasters?
. . . a period of retrenchment was ushered in throughout Mesoameric. Among the results was that in the second half of the first century AD and throughout the second century a process of cultural and political fragmentation prevailed. Each sizable community became more or less a center of power unto itself. No doubt the reduced population owing to the recent natural disasters forced remaining local leaders to focus more on internal problems than on external relations. The disasters would also have drastically disturbed previous patterns of commerce, rendering old intersociety tensions merely minor concerns. (p. 653)
Each political unit was based on a related-but-separate-and-equal status. (p. 654)
The exceptions to this rule were a few big nothern centers that eventually became great foci of power--Teotihuacan, Cholula, and perhaps Monte Alban [all north of the narrow neck of land, and not likely Book of Mormon cities]. But even those places offer little evidence that focused political power was involved in their growth during the period from AD 50 to 200. For example, Cowgill suggested that at Teotihuacan [in Mexico Valley] power may not have been concentrated in a few ruling hands but may have been dispersed in a council style of leadership, such as that which prevailed at Cholula at the time of the Spanish conquest. (p. 654)
This dispersal of power to small units may have been an important factor in the ability of the Book of Mormon peoples to build Zion. In addition,
. . . competition for (and conflict over) agrarian land would have decreased with a smaller population. This brief period shows no archaeological signs of intercommunity aggression. (p. 655)
Instead of constructing palaces and other major civic works,
Energy might instead have focused on rebuilding the population, settling the forms of damaged or modified social norms and institutions, and renewing the agricultural and craft infrastructure. There were apparently few or no upper social ranks demanding surplus energy and wealth for prestige projects. The limited trade, which had always aimed at providing goods of mainly elite concern, would have shrunk the "social overhead" of local societies considerably. Beyond AD 50, the bare bones of everyday social control--through kinship, tribal, and community-level structures--could have taken care of most of the tasks that government under an elite class had formerly carried out. (p. 656)
That's it. That's the total of relevant information I could glean from Sorenson's summary that was relevant to our understanding of Zion. It's hardly a drop, but it at least doubles what we knew before about building Zion. Apparently we need to:
  • Diffuse and decentralize power, ruling through councils and cultural influence rather than through social rank or military or political might
  • Eliminate the social distinctions resulting from wealth
  • Focus on growing agricultural and craft infrastructure
  • Eliminate competition for our means of livelihood
What did it take for this to happen?
  • Natural disasters resulting in severe depopulation and geographical fragmentation of societies
  • Enough resources for growth without competition
  • Enough pressing demands on time and energy that significant social distinctions and wealth were insupportable
I originally liked the idea that archaeology might teach me how to build Zion. I didn't expect this depressing message:

If you want to build Zion, you have to wait until natural disasters depopulate the earth, overthrow governments, and erase social distinctions.

Maybe there is another way. Maybe the Book of Mormon is a warning. Maybe it says, either you can build Zion the way they did in 50 AD in a small region of Mesoamerica, or you can figure out how to get there another way. These are the conditions you need to meet. If you don't want Me to make it happen through natural disasters (echoes of the apocalypse, anyone?) get to work and figure out how to do it on your own. It has to happen. Your choice.

Maybe a mythical and symbolic Book of Mormon can save us. Maybe a historical Book of Mormon can give us clues to save the world.

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