Metals and Weapons in the Book of Mormon:
Mormon Answers to Frequently Asked Questions
Critics have complained about Book of Mormon references to metals and weapons, arguing that they are out of place and evidence of a sloppy fraud. But for those interested in understanding the text, there are some answers that should be considered. Even some cool evidence in favor of the Book of Mormon, supporting its plausibility. This is one of several pages in a suite of "Frequently Asked Questions about Latter-day Saint Beliefs." This page is solely the responsibility of Jeff Lindsay and has not been officially endorsed by the Church.
In 2017 and 2018, an old 2011 interview of Michael Coe by John Dehlin for Mormon Stories has been making the rounds again on Facebook and elsewhere, as if it were a meaningful discussion of Book of Mormon issues. As a reminder, see the analysis by Gregory L. Smith in "Mormon Stories, the Book of Mormon and Dr. Michael Coe" at bmaf.org/node/457. In that interview, Dehlin and Coe criticize the Book of Mormon for several things it does not say, including coins and metal shields. On the issue of metals and the Book of Mormon, Dr. John Sorenson has published a response to Michael Coe that Dehlin continues to ignore, in my opinion. See John L. Sorenson, "An Open Letter to Dr. Michael Coe," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 1 (2012): 91-109. It's an important response, and I'll quote part of it below.
A new 2015 publication from Dr. Lopez-Ruiz at Ohio State University looks at some of the many gold tablets from the Mediterranean and Near East regions, and explores connections to the Egyptian Book of the Dead and Phoenicia. The article is Carolina Lopez-Ruiz, "Near Eastern Precedents of the 'Orphic' Gold Tablets: The Phoenician Missing Link," Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Religions, 15 (2015): 52-91, available at Academia.edu. It also mentions the 600 B.C. silver scroll (a tiny piece of silver with a couple of Old Testament verses) from Ketef Hinnom near Jerusalem. While the tablets discussed tend to be short and generally serve as amulets, they do illustrate ancient writing on thin metal for religious purposes.
Some exciting new evidence related to ancient writing on gold comes from Harvard's Peabody Museum. The evidence has been there for a while, but has been largely overlooked. As far as I know, the first Latter-day Saint source to discuss and portray this evidence is a book I just read and reviewed, An LDS Guide to the Yucatan by Daniel Johnson, Jared Cooper, and Derek Gasser (Springville, Utah: Cedar Fort, 2012). The book is available at Amazon (Kindle edition). My review of An LDS Guide to the Yucatan is on the Mormanity blog, dated Nov. 25, 2012. The book takes you step-by-step through a trip into the Yucatan. The sites covered are Ek Balam, Chichen Itza, Uxmal, Loltun Cave (an amazing site where pre-Columbian horse remains were found), Kabah, Xpujil, Calakmul, Becan, Cancuén and Coba. For each site, the primary text discusses the history and significance of the site, accompanied with some great photography, while sidebars provide information on how they traveled there and on some specific Book of Mormon topics such as horses, metals, elephants, fortifications, warfare, the honeybee, Quetzlacoatl, and gold plates. Gold plates? Yes, the section on metals has some interesting material not widely known to Latter-day Saints. Here is an excerpt from page 49:
Notwithstanding the popular belief that the Maya did not have metal, most museums will have a small display of copper and bronze objects in their Mesoamerican section. We were fortunate enough to have been granted a research visit at the Peabody Museum at Harvard in April of 2007. During this visit, we saw and handled blades and knives of various sizes and configurations from their collections in storage. Some are rough and green with age, but some are still smooth and without copper's green corrosion, indicative of an alloy like bronze. We also saw large copper spearheads, something we had not known of before and did not expect. Surprisingly, included in this collection are some iron blades and implements, which we saw as well. They are pre-Columbian and were found in mounds in Costa Rica. See the chapter on Kabah for more information.
Those who still assert that the Maya had no metal implements must not have visited many museums or read Landa's description of metal blades and tools. [Landa, Yucatan Before and After the Conquest, pp. 50, 90, 94.] While they did primarily use stone and obsidian as cutting blades, it is certain that they had weapons and tools of metal as well. Just how common these were will probably remain unanswered, as the damp climate of Mesoamerica is not conducive to the preservation of metals.
Later some highly interesting material is presented under the header, "Plates of Gold?" They discuss the dredging of an ancient Mayan cenote (water hole) by Edward Thompson, who roughly a century ago found numerous artifacts that he shipped to the Peabody Museum at Harvard, unbeknownst to Mexican authorities.
Because of Thompson's work, the Peabody Museum has perhaps the best collection of Mesoamerican artifacts outside of the region. However, because of space and financial issues, most of these objects are not on display, but rather archived in the museum's immense storage facilities. Thompson found carved jade, wooden objects, tools, gold ornaments, copper axes, other obscure metal items, and of course, human remains. Many people know about some of these artifacts, but very few know about the gold plates and sheets he found. Many of them are decorated with images of warfare and sacrifice, showing bearded Toltecs.71 Some have Mayan hieroglyphics carved around the edges. The gold came from as far away as Panama, and it is possible that it was brought to Chichén as blank plates to be engraved by the local Maya.72 They date to the ninth century AD.73
These gold plates are quite remarkable. The detail is astounding, with precise and tiny designs. After inspecting them up close, it is our opinion that very precise and delicate metal tools would be necessary to do such work. The gold itself is very thin, but quite strong and stiff. Most had been crumpled up into balls, either on purpose or by the action of centuries of mud and water, so they have been carefully opened and flattened out as much as possible. Scholars refer to them as disks and believe they are pictured worn or carried by the Toltecs on the murals of the Temple of the Jaguar. For them, they were important symbols of authority and represented portals into the next world and a means of obtaining revelation and prophecy.74 Other gold objects we saw at the museum are small, rectangular sheets, some flat and some curved. Most of these are plain, but some have designs carved into them....
Are these plates directly linked to the Book of Mormon? Obviously not, but they do show that such technology and skills existed by around 400 years after the end of the record. Needless to say, the existence of such artifacts was not even imagined in Joseph Smith's time. Now, as then, people scoff at the idea of writings on plates of gold in ancient America. However, we suspect that if more people knew of what has been kept in the Peabody for almost a century, the laughter would be less loud.
Provocative as these aforementioned metal items are, it is obvious that they are not old enough to be directly related to Book of Mormon events. We must admit that metallurgy does not appear to have been an integral part of the Maya culture until late in their history, and then, perhaps only to a limited extent. The Yucatan Peninsula does not even have the necessary ores for metalworking, so these weapons, tools, and ceremonial items had to be brought in from other lands, probably through trade. (pages 51-53)
The authors not only provide photos of some of these finds, but identify the item numbers at the Peabody Museum and give a URL for the museum. The most interesting gold plate is item number 10-71-20/C10049. At the Peabody Museum Collections Online site at https://pmem.unix.fas.harvard.edu:8080/peabody/, simply enter the item number in the search box and you will be presented with the following photo of a pre-Columbian gold plate from Chichen Itza in the Yucatan Peninsula, with a small amount of additional information:
This delicate gold plate contains Mayan glyphs and, though dated too late to directly fit into Book of Mormon timelines, still should be of some interest to Book of Mormon enthusiasts, especially in light of increasingly antiquated objections made to the Book of Mormon based on questions involving metals and writing on gold plates.
With this background, let's now dig into some of the common questions that people ask about metals and the Book of Mormon.
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The Book of Mormon mentions a steel sword owned by a military leader named Laban in Jerusalem near 600 B.C., a time when many people believe steel had not yet been discovered. Laban's sword had a hilt of pure gold, a blade "of the most precious steel," and exhibited "exceedingly fine" workmanship (1 Nephi 4:9). An excellent discussion of Laban's sword of steel is offered by Matthew Roper in his article "On Cynics and Swords" in FARMS Review of Books, Vol. 9, No. 1, 1997, pp. 146-158. On pages 148-149, he notes that many critics point to Nephi's description of Laban's sword as evidence against the historicity of the Book of Mormon:
"Steel," it is argued, "was not known to man in those days" [Stuart Martin, The Mystery of Mormonism (London: Odhams, 1920) p. 44]. Today, however, it is increasingly apparent that the practice of "steeling" iron through deliberate carburization was well-known in the Near Eastern world from which the Lehi colony emerged. "It seems evident that by the beginning of the tenth century B.C. blacksmiths were intentionally steeling iron" [Robert Maddin, James D. Muhly, and Tamara S. Wheeler, "How the Iron Age Began," Scientific American 237/4 (October 1977): 127]. A carburized iron knife dating to the twelfth century B.C. is known from Cyprus [Ibid. The knife shows evidence of quenching. See Tamara S. Wheeler and Robert Maddin, "Metallurgy and Ancient Man," in The Coming Age of Iron (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980), 121]. In addition to this,A site on Mt. Adir in northern Israel has yielded an iron pick in association with 12th-century pottery. One would hesitate to remove a sample from the pick for analysis, but it has been possible to test the tip of it for hardness. The readings averaged 38 on the Rockwell "C" scale of hardness. This is a reading characteristic of modern hardened steel [Maddin, Muhly, and Wheeler, "How the Iron Age Began," p. 127].
The importance of this find is echoed by Amihai Mazar, Archaeology of the Land of the Bible: 10,000 - 586 B.C.E., New York: Doubleday, 1990, p. 361:A pick found in the eleventh century B.C.E. fortress at Har Adir in the Upper Galilee is the earliest known iron implement made of real steel produced by carbonizing, quenching, and tempering. This technological revolution opened the way for the widespread use of iron.
Quenching, another method of steeling iron, was also known to Mediterranean blacksmiths during this period. "By the beginning of the seventh century B.C. at the latest the blacksmiths of the eastern Mediterranean had mastered the processes that make iron a useful material for tools and weapons: carburizing and quenching" [Maddin, Muhly, and Wheeler, 131]. Archaeologists recently discovered a carburized iron sword near Jericho. The sword, which had a bronze haft, was one meter long and dates to the time of King Josiah, who would likely have been a contemporary of Lehi [Hershel Shanks, "Antiquities Director Confronts Problems and Controversies," Biblical Archaeology Review 12/4 (July-August 1986): 33,35]. Hershel Shanks recently described the find as "spectacular" since it is the only complete sword of its size and type from this period yet discovered in Israel [Ibid., 33]. Such discoveries lend a greater sense of historicity to Nephi's passing comments in the Book of Mormon.
As we learn from Matthew Roper in "Laban's Sword of 'Most Precious Steel' (Howlers #5) on the FAIR Blog (2013), the sword found near Jericho mentioned above is now displayed at Jerusalem's Israel Museum, and the sign on the display reads:
This rare and exceptionally long sword, which was discovered on the floor of a building next to the skeleton of a man, dates to the end of the First Temple period. The sword is 1.05 m. long (!) and has a double edged blade, with a prominent central ridge running along its entire length.
The hilt was originally inlaid with a material that has not survived, most probably wood. Only the nails that once secured the inlays to the hilt can still be seen. The sword's sheath was also made of wood, and all that remains of it is its bronze tip. Owing to the length and weight of the sword, it was probably necessary to hold it with two hands. The sword is made of iron hardened into steel, attesting to substantial metallurgical know-how. Over the years, it has become cracked, due to corrosion.
While some critics continue to regurgitate old misunderstandings about the development of ancient metallurgical technology, recent research has made things much more interesting and made the mention of steel by Nephi much less problematic and actually more indicative of the ancient setting of the Book of Mormon.
On the other hard, Book of Mormon defenders have sometimes erred in describing iron artifacts as steel, as BYU Professor Jeffrey Chadwick explains with an important case study. See "All That Glitters Is Not ... Steel."
For further general information on ancient steel, at Google Books, you can preview Iron and Steel in Ancient Times by Vagn Fabritius Buchwald (Volume 29 of Historisk-filosofiske Skrifter, Det Kongelige Danske Videnskabernes Selskab, Copenhagen, Denmark, 2005) to find interesting information. For example, on page 72, we read:
In the Homerian epic the Odyssey we have an exceptional hint at the blacksmith's cunning treatment of steel, when Odysseus with his men blinded the one-eyed Cyclops Polythemus. "And as when a smith dips a great adze in cold water amid loud hissing to temper it--for therefrom comes the strength of iron--even so did his eye his around the stake of olive-wood" (Odyssey, 9. song: 391. translated by A.T. Murray, Loeb Classical Library).
The archaic period described in the Odyssean narrative is difficult to fit in time, since the Odyssey is a conglomerate of tales, first edited and issues as a total of 24 songs in the 4th century B.C. However, the general scarcity of iron and the common references to weapons of bronze point to the 8th or 7th centuries. No doubt, quench-hardening of steel as described in the epic had been well known for centuries before the poem was conceived. Hardening was, however, restricted to tools, particularly to knives, files, and chisels, only occasionally including a dagger, a sword or an axe.
Thus, the ancient book, The Odyssey, apparently refers to steel manufacturing that was known in the Mediterranean region well before the time of Lehi. Hardened steel was not common, though, and was used for only a few objects, including an occasional sword. A steel sword in Nephi's day may indeed have been rare, but known, and thus it is entirely plausible for the Book of Mormon to mention a sword of a significant and wealthy military leaders that was made of "the most precious steel" (1 Nephi 4:9). Not the whole sword, but the blade, where hard steel would be especially desirable.
2012 update: Also see "The Heart of Steel: A Metallurgical Interpretation of Iron In Homer" (PDF file) by Ruth Russo, Whitman College which gets into the details of the different forms of iron and apparently steel mentioned by Homer. This is a beautifully written scholarly examination of some intriguing details in Homer that illustrates the importance of steel in the ancient world, and points to the plausibility of a precious steel sword in Laban's day. Here is an important excerpt:
These iron treasures are so valuable that it is possible they depict not wrought iron, but carburized iron. In the case of the grizzled, gray objects, it seems unlikely, for another type of iron appears in the Homeric texts: aithŰn sidÍros--the gleaming or shining iron more resembling flashing steel. Athena adopts the guise of a sailor trading copper for "gleaming iron" (Od. 1:182). In the Iliad, Telemonian Ajax cuts down Simoisius with shining iron (4:485). "Gleaming iron" is brought to a feast, along with bronze, cattle, and slaves (7:472). Finally, Hector vows to fight Achilles, even if Achilles' rage be "burnished iron" (20:371). AithŰn sidÍros has the appearance of steel and could be what is referred to by the formula "polukmÍtos te sidÍros" (hard wrought iron), since steel, while toilsome to produce, makes a far superior weapon than simple wrought iron. Archaeological evidence indicates that the advent of consistent, deliberate steeling of iron occurred by 1000 B.C.E., and that production of carburized iron objects increased rapidly after 900 B.C.E. (22). Thus it is likely that audiences hearing the Homeric poems at any time after the 9th C B.C.E. would be able to distinguish the three principal types of iron as well as, or better than, modern readers (23)....
Archaeological sites in the Mediterranean show evidence of centuries of experimentation with iron during the era of merging of the Homeric texts, resulting eventually in a "broadly based iron economy" (30) with highly skilled artisans. The high regard given to such artisans is implied in two Homeric scenes in which royal or divine metal workers bring the tools of ironworking to fashion precious metals (7). In Odyssey 3:432-435, Nestor's goldsmith assembles hammer, anvil, and tongs to gild the horns of a sacrificial ox, when simply wrapping the horns with gold leaf would do. In Iliad 18:468-477, Hephaestus fashions Achilles' arms and armor out of gold, bronze, and tin, using impressive but superfluous ironworking tools. If the association of ironworking with royal sacrifice and divine artistry is intentional, the honor given to ironworking in these passages is due to recognition of the exceedingly useful nature of steel, the wondrous technology of its production, or both. Certainly, the association of ironworking with religious ritual is not confined to the Homeric poems. The location of 10th C B.C.E. iron artifacts from Taanach, in Palestine, suggests that smithing or repair of iron objects had a sacred dimension (12), resulting perhaps from some mystical understanding of the metal or from the simple desire of those in power to control a lucrative product.
The ancients in Nephi's day had the ability to carburize iron, but that does not mean that iron or steel was commonly available. The steel of Laban's sword was "most precious," clearly not a commodity item. In fact, subsequent appearances of iron in the Book of Mormon rate it with precious metals and riches rather than treating it as an ordinary material, as if metallurgical skills were largely lost in Nephite culture sometime after Nephi's era.
Indeed, the mystical and sacred aspects of iron working and steel, discussed by Ruth Russo in more detail in her article cited above, and its rare and precious nature in Nephi's day, are consistent with the sword of Laban being a sacred artifact and with the precious nature of iron in the Book of Mormon. It seems that this would not be something Joseph Smith would have derived from his environment in the 1800s.
Ancient iron often had carbon levels around 0.05% to 1%, especially when it was in contact with charcoal during manufacturing. That is consistent with typical definitions of carbon steel (an iron-carbon alloy with about 0.05 to 2% carbon), so it may be appropriate to call such iron "steel"--especially if it has been carburized or otherwise treated to increase its strength. But iron or low-carbon steel rusts easily and is rarely preserved for archeologists to find. And for a long time, it was known but rare or precious, and thus unlikely to be left lying around for easy discovery centuries later. This contributes to the many gaps in our understanding of metals in the ancient world. Nevertheless, there is enough evidence now of steel making before Laban's time that his ownership of a sword with a blade of "the most precious steel" should no longer be a sticking point for those exploring the Book of Mormon. In light of what we know now, it's a subtle statement of great plausibility--the kind of thing that now has to be discounted as just a lucky guess.
Another excellent work on the history of iron and steel in ancient times comes from Cleyton Cramer in the essay, "What Caused The Iron Age?." He reviews the precious nature of iron during the Bronze Age and shows that it was used largely for precious ornamentation, including ceremonial tools and weapons, before the rise of the Iron Age, and later became more utilitarian while bronze still dominated. Here is one excerpt:
The development of steel, of course, made iron production essential. Indeed, 1200 BC is a commonly accepted date not only for the start of the Iron Age, but also for the discovery of carburization of iron. While the location of this discovery remains uncertain, it appears that in the Hittite kingdom, a blacksmith discovered how to make steel by heating iron in contact with carbon. But the production of steel was probably quite random at first. Throughout the eastern Mediterranean area in the first two centuries of the Iron Age, iron weapons appear alongside bronze weapons, with no evidence that iron provided any military advantage over bronze weapons.
Cramer interprets evidence from archaeological finds to point to a copper shortage as the driving force that led to the iron age and the need for further development of steel as a metal equivalent or superior to bronze for utilitarian purposes. But there should be no question that carburized iron or steel, perhaps accidentally discovered, not well understood, and thus particularly valuable when it turned out well, was known in Laban's day and was used ir precious artifacts such as ceremonial weapons.
Incidentally, a photo of a gold-hilted sword with a blade made of meteoric iron is available in Volume 3 of the Encyclopedia of Mormonism under the article, "Sword of Laban." The sword comes from the tomb of Tutankhamun, who died in 1325 B.C., over 700 years before Nephi saw the sword of Laban. For more information on the ancient use of iron and steel prior to Nephi's time, see Oleg D. Sherby and Jeffrey Wadsworth, "Damascus Steels," Scientific American 252 (February 1985): 112-20; J. P. Lepre, The Egyptian Pyramids: A Comprehensive Illustrated Reference (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1990), 245; Immanuel Velikovsky, Ramses II and His Time (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1978), 222-37.
Another useful paper on ancient steel is "Steel in Ancient Greece and Rome" by E.A. Ginzel, 1995 (also available online at https://www.tf.uni-kiel.de/matwis/amat/def_en/articles/steel_greece_rome/steel_in_ancient_greece_an.html). Ginzel argues that early forms of steel were known and made by the ancients, though not well understood.
While most ancient works of iron or steel are not likely to survive because of corrosion, one recent well-preserved find of an ancient iron sword from the Middle East is reported by Avraham Eitan, "BAR Interviews Avraham Eitan: Antiquities Director Confronts Problems and Controversies," interview by Hershel Shanks, Biblical Archaeology Review 12/4 (1986): 30-38, as discussed in the new book, Pressing Forward with the Book of Mormon, edited by John W. Welch and Melvin J. Thorne, Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1999. A large iron sword, three feet long and about three inches wide was excavated at Vered Jericho (a place near Jericho in Israel). It has a bronze haft with a wooden grip. The strata from which the sword was excavated dates to the late seventh century BC. This sword is unlike the shorter daggers that are normally depicted in art from this part of the world. It provides evidence that iron (steel?) swords of large size were known in Nephi's day. (See also William J. Adams Jr., "Nephi's Jerusalem and Laban's Sword," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 2, No. 2, 1993, pp. 194-195.)
On the related issue of Nephi's steel bow, a quote from Hugh Nibley is relevant here (Lehi in the Desert, p. 57):
The Arab forager is everlastingly prowling, scouting, tracking, and spying; in fact, some believe that the original root of the names Arab and Hebrew is a combination of sounds meaning "to lie in ambush." "Every Bedawin is a sportsman both from taste and necessity," writes one observer, who explains how in large families some of the young men are detailed to spend all their time hunting. Nephi and his brethren took over the business of full-time hunters and in that office betray the desert tradition of the family, for Nephi had brought a fine steel bow from home with him. Though we shall consider steel again in dealing with the sword of Laban, it should be noted here that a steel bow was not necessarily a solid piece of metal, any more than the Canaanites' "chariots of iron" (Joshua 17:16-18; Judges 1:19; 4:3) were solid iron, or than various implements mentioned in the Old Testament as being "of iron," e.g., carpenter's tools, pens, threshing instruments, were iron and only iron. It was in all probability a steel-ribbed bow, since it broke at about the same time that the wooden bows of his brothers "lost their springs" (1 Nephi 16:21). Only composite bows were used in Palestine, that is, bows of more than one piece, and a steel-backed bow would be called a steel bow just as an iron-trimmed chariot was called a "chariot of iron." Incidentally the founder of the Turkish Seljuk Dynasty of Iran was called Yaqaq, which means in Turkish, says our Arab informant, "a bow made out of iron."
Update: Bronze Arrowheads Inscribed with Steel
I recently encountered the article, "Bronze Arrowheads and the Name Aha" in Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, 8/2 (1999): 83. It reviews a find reported in the May/June 1999 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review by P. Kyle McCarter, Jr. of Johns Hopkins University. This find provides evidence for the use of steel around 1000 B.C. in Israel. McCarter reports on the discovery of three bronze arrowheads from the eleventh century B.C. bearing Hebrew inscriptions, one of which was inscribed with a steel instrument, according to Dr. R. Thomas Chase of the Freer Gallery of Art, a division of the Smithsonian Institution and an authority on ancient bronze artifacts. He discovered that "the inscription had been incised with a steel [emphasized in the original] engraving tool" (P. Kyle McCarter, Jr., "Over the Transom: Three more Arrowheads," Biblical Archaeology Review (May/June 1999, pp. 42-43). This is further evidence for the use of steel in Israel prior to Lehi's time. Also of interest is the name "Aha" that occurs in one of the inscriptions, which McCarter translates as "The arrowhead of 'Aha' son of 'Ashtart.'" This appears to be the same as the name mentioned in the Book of Mormon in Alma 16:5, where we read of two sons of Zoram, chief captain of the Nephite army, whose names were Lehi and Aha. Thus we have evidence authenticating another ancient Hebrew name found in the Book of Mormon but not the Bible, simultaneously providing further support for the use of steel prior to Nephi's day. The case for the plausibility of the Book of Mormon just keeps stronger and stronger - which is no surprise to those of us who know by the power of God that it's true.
Finally, see John Sorenson's article, "Steel in Early Metallurgy" in Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, vol. 15, no. 2 (2006), pp. 108-199.
Anti-Mormon writers who condemn the Book of Mormon for its mention of steel rarely point out that the Bible mentions steel in equally ancient times (the same is true of brass). Examples of "steel" being mentioned in the Old Testament include 2 Sam. 22:35 (which refers to a steel bow, perhaps similar to the one Nephi had), Psalms 18:34, Job 20:24, and Jeremiah 15:12. Was "steel" in the King James Version really steel? Hugh Nibley has pointed out that scholars are uncertain about the meaning of "steel" in several ancient texts from the Old World. Steel is mentioned in the Old Testament under conditions where it seems out of place - perhaps the King James translators should have used the word "bronze" instead of "steel" in those places. Job 20:24, however, also clearly refers to iron weapons at the same time in one of the most ancient parts of the Bible: "He shall flee from the iron weapon, and the bow of steel shall strike him through." Jeremiah 15:12 also mentions steel in the context of iron. The New English Bible, a 20th century translation which incorporates several modern advances in learning, uses bronze in all those passages except for Jeremiah 15:12: "Can iron break steel from the north?" - a passage dating from the time of Lehi.
John Sorenson writes of the difficulty in understanding apparent references to steel in ancient texts (An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Comp., 1985, p. 286):
Even experts have a problem, as suggested by a recent technical article entitled "Steel in Antiquity: A Problem in Terminology" [by Lenore O. Keene Congdon in Studies Presented to George M. A. Hanfmann, ed. David G. Mitten et al., Harvard University, Fogg Art Museum Monographs in Art and Archaeology, vol. 2 (Mainz, West Germany: Verlag Philipp Von Zabern, 1971), pp. 17-27]. In Mexico we face similar obscurity. The native chronicler Tezozomoc reported that the Tarascans (Mesoamerica's most noted metallurgists at the time of the Spanish conquest) wore "steel" helmets [Bancroft, The Native Races, vol. 2, p. 407]. Since we know so little about either our Nephite text or the materials and processes in use in prehispanic Mesoamerica, we all would do well not to jump to conclusions about the accuracy or inaccuracy of such a statement. In a recent dispute about the use of tin in the early Near East, J. D. Muhly and T. E. Wertime emphasized that documents that refer to the unexpected use of a metal are more persuasive as positive evidence than the failure of archaeologists to come up with specimens is acceptable as negative evidence ["Evidence for the Sources and Use of Tin During the Bronze Age of the Near East: A Reply to J. E. Dayton," World Archaeology, vol. 5 (1973): 116]. Caley and Easby make the identical argument regarding pre-Columbian tin in Mexico. After demonstrating that specimens of the metal were there all the time despite the doubts of archaeologists, who had failed to examine the evidence, they end by observing, "The results also show that it is not prudent always to discount or ignore historical accounts as possible sources of technical information; some of the 16th century chroniclers apparently were wiser and more observant in such matters than many of their critics" [Caley and Easby, "New Evidence of Tin," p. 515]. Perhaps the Jaredite historian who talked of steel (Ether 7:9) and Tezozomoc with his steel helmets on the Tarascans both knew something that archaeologists will yet document.
Actually, a material that could be called steel was available in Mesoamerica, namely meteoric nickel-iron alloys. Robert J. Forbes in Metallurgy in Antiquity: A Notebook for Archaeologists and Technologists (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1950, p. 402, as cited by John L. Sorenson, "A New Evaluation of the Smithsonian Institution 'Statement Regarding the Book of Mormon,'" FARMS Paper SOR-93, Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies [now the Maxwell Institute], 1993, p. 17) lists it as "a type of steel" and its presence in Mesoamerica is well known (3 references given by Sorenson, 1993, p. 18). I verified this recently while at the Georgia Tech library, where I found the Handbook of Iron Meteorites (2 vols.) by Dr. Vagn F. Buchwald, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1975. Nickel-iron alloys appear very common in meteorites. Further, I found several examples of meteoric metals that the author compared to man-made steel listed in Volume 2, including haxonite from Canyon Diablo in Arizona (p. 393), a face-centered cubic carbide related to tool steels and stainless steels; kamacite from Tucson, with similarities to hypo-eutectoid steels (p. 1243); and metal from the Kamkas mass (South Africa, I believe) whose structure "is reminiscent of commercial ferritic stainless steel" (p. 1387).
A mechanical engineering dictionary offers this information on "nickel steel":
NICKEL STEEL-Harveyized steel-iron-nickel alloys-structural nickel steel NICKEL STEEL. Steel containing nickel as the predominant alloying element. The first nickel steel produced in the United States was made in 1890 by adding 3% nickel in a Bessemer converter. The first nickel-steel armor plate, with 3.5% nickel, was known as Harveyized steel. Small amounts of nickel steel, however, had been used since ancient times, coming from meteoric iron. The nickel iron of meteorites, known in mineralogy as taenite, contains about 26% nickel. Nickel added to carbon steel increases the strength, elastic limit, hardness, and toughness. It narrows the hardening range but lowers the critical range of steel, reducing danger of warpage and cracking, and balances the intensive deep-hardening effect of chromium. The nickel steels are also of finer structure than ordinary steels, and the nickel retards grain growth. When the percentage of nickel is high, the steel is very resistant to corrosion.
The point is that at least some meteoric metals can be called steel with technical accuracy, and could certainly be called steel by ancient peoples or modern translators, who might easily call a broad range of iron alloys "steel."
Thus, the word "steel" may refer to meteoric alloys, to naturally or accidentally carbonized iron, or to other metals altogether than the "steel" we think of in the 20th century (and don't forget that the anachronistic word "steel" occurs in the King James version of the Old Testament - but probably refers to bronze or copper).
Many say that it is. Certainly swords were known in the ancient Old World, but the Book of Mormon speaks of swords used for centuries in the New World, where it is "common knowledge" that swords as we know them were not in use prior to the time of Columbus. But the ancient peoples in Book of Mormon lands, especially in Central American lands, definitely did use weapons that qualify as swords and were even called "swords" by Europeans who later saw them in use. These New World swords were non-metallic, incorporating obsidian blades. Examples of such swords from the Aztecs are discussed in the online article at the Corning Museum of Glass, "Pre-Columbian Use of Obsidian" by Terry Stocker (originally "A Technological Mystery Resolved").
A well known form of these pre-Columbian New World swords is the macuahuitl or the macana. Though the macuahuitl has been described as a "war club with sharp rocks embedded in it" by a Book of Mormon critic, the Spaniards that came to Central America consistently described it as a sword, not a club, as is shown by Matthew Roper in the article, "Eyewitness Descriptions of Mesoamerican Swords," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 5, No. 1, 1996, pp. 150-158. Roper notes that the early Chroniclers of Mesoamerica, Durán and Clavijero, regularly called that weapon a sword [Diego Durán, The History of the Indies of New Spain, trans. Doris Heyden (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994), pp. 66, 76, 109, 135, 139, 150, 152-53, 171, 198, 279, 294, 323, 375, 378, 412, 428, 437, 441, 451, 519, 552-53; Diego Durán, Book of the Gods and Rites and the Ancient Calendar, trans. Doris Heyden and Fernando Horcasitas (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971), pp. 124, 178-80, 234, 236; Clavijero said the macuahuitl "was equivalent to the sword of the Old Continent"; Francesco S. Clavijero, The History of Mexico, trans. Charles Cullen, 3 vols. (Philadelphia: Budd and Bartram, 1804), 2:165; all as cited by Roper, p. 151]. Many modern Mesoamerican historians also agree that the macuahuitl can be described as a sword [Hubert H. Bancroft, Native Races (of the Pacific States), 5 vols. (San Francisco: Bancroft, 1883), 2:409-10; Philip Drucker, La Venta, Tabasco: A Study of Olmec Ceramics and Art (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1952): 202; Maurice Collis, Cort.és and Montezuma (New York: Avon Books, 1954), pp. 41, 91, 94, 97, 202; Jon M. White, Cortes and the Downfall of the Aztec Empire (New York: Caroll & Graf, 1971), p. 115; Ross Hassig, Aztec Warfare: Imperial Expansion and Political Control (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988), pp. 33, 45, 50, 75, 80-86, 90, 92, 96, 101-2, 111, 116, 121, 143, 172, 290 n. 67; Ross Hassig, War and Society in Ancient Mesoamerica (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), pp. 7, 112-14, 122-23, 126-27, 137-39, 150-51, 153, 160, 162, 172-73, 177; Hugh Thomas, Conquest: Montezuma, Cortes and the Fall of Old Mexico (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993), p. 237; all as cited by Roper, p. 151].
Among the many eyewitness descriptions of Mesoamerican swords, I'll cite only a few from Roper's lengthy list, following Roper's use of added italics:
The Admiral thanked God for having shown him in a moment samples of all the goods of that country without exertion or exposing his men to any danger. He ordered such things to be taken as he judged most handsome and valuable, such as . . . long wooden swords with a groove on each side where the edge should be, in which the cutting edges of flint were fixed with thread and bitumen (these swords cut naked men as if they were of steel).
[Samuel E. Morison, Journals and Other Documents on the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (New York: Heritage Press, 1963), p. 327.]
Many bands of Indians came along the coast from the town of Champoton, as it is called, wearing cotton armour to the knees, and carrying bows and arrows, lances and shields, swords which appeared to be two-handed, slings and stones. . . .
Then they attacked us hand to hand, some with lances and some shooting arrows, and others with their two-handed cutting swords. . . .
They were carrying their usual weapons: bows, arrows, lances of various sizes, some of which were as large as ours; shields, swords single and double handed, and slings and stones. . . .
They carried two-handed swords, shields, lances, and feather plumes. Their swords, which were as long as broadswords, were made of flint which cut worse than a knife, and the blades were so set than one could neither break them nor pull them out.
Montezuma had two houses stocked with every sort of weapon; many of them were richly adorned with gold and precious stones. There were shields large and small, and a sort of broadsword, and two-handed swords set with flint blades that cut much better than our swords.
[Bernal Diaz, The Conquest of New Spain, trans. J. M. Cohen (New York: Penguin Books, 1963), pp. 22,23,29,142-143,228.]
(The above quotations are from a lengthy list in Matthew Roper, "Eyewitness Descriptions of Mesoamerican Swords," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 5, No. 1, 1996, pp. 150-158.)
If the swords commonly used in the Book of Mormon were not metal swords but wooden instruments with flint blades, then a once puzzling discussion of such swords in the Book of Mormon would make sense, as noted by Matthew Roper in "Swords and Cimeters in the Book of Mormon," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 8, No. 1, 1999, pp. 34-43. The passage is in Alma 24:12-15, where a group of converted Lamanites make an oath to bury their swords and "stain" them no more with blood:
Now, my best beloved brethren, since God hath taken away our stains, and our swords have become bright, then let us stain our swords no more with the blood of our brethren.
Behold, I say unto you, Nay, let us retain our swords that they be not stained with the blood of our brethren; for perhaps, if we should stain our swords again they can no more be washed bright through the blood of the Son of our great God, which shall be shed for the atonement of our sins.
Oh, how merciful is our God! And now behold, since it has been as much as we could do to get our stains taken away from us, and our swords are made bright, let us hide them away that they may be kept bright, as a testimony to our God at the last day, or at the day that we shall be brought to stand before him to be judged, that we have not stained our swords in the blood of our brethren since he imparted his word unto us and has made us clean thereby.
Metal swords are easily cleaned and do not stain with blood, but the wooden handles of a macuahuitl could absorb blood and become stained. They would be difficult to clean - and would almost take a miracle to remove the stains, much as the converted Lamanites understood that it was the miracle of Christ's grace that had removed the stain of blood from their souls. I think the reference to the swords being made "bright" could be a metaphor referring to a lighter color or bleaching of the cleansed swords as a whole or to the shiny brightness of the cleaned obsidian blades.
Some have wondered why the Book of Mormon refers to sword blades "cankered with rust" if wooden swords were meant. The verse in question is Mos. 8:11, referring to the Nephites' discovery of remnants of a destroyed Jaredite civilization (apparently at the scene of one of their large battles). I suspect that metal swords may have been used at least among some of the Jaredites, possibly made from the meteoric iron (which can be a alloy like steel) that the Olmecs mined - Ether 7:9 provides an instance where an army made swords of "steel" from some kind of deposits in a hill. This rare metal may have been used for Jaredite weapons. On the other hand, most of their swords may have used wood handles and obsidian, but even in that case, the phrase "canker with rust" may be applicable, as John Tvedtnes explained in e-mail I received in 2004:
Most metals oxidize, forming rust or patina. Gold is an exception. It is therefore interesting that James 5:3 reads, "Your gold and silver is cankered; and the rust of them shall be a witness against you." If there's a problem with the Book of Mormon on this issue, the Bible has the same problem. In addition to reference of oxidized metals, Webster's 1828 dictionary attributes these meanings to the term "rust": "any foul matter contracted; as rust on corn or salted meat," "foul extraneous matter," "a disease in grain, a kind of dust which gathers on the stalks and leaves."
The point is that "rust" need not refer to oxidized iron, but could describe other forms of decay. But I don't have trouble with the reference being to metallic weapons from meteoric iron that at least some of the Jaredites may have had. At the moment, though, I am unaware of evidence for metallic weapons among the Olmecs or others in Mesoamerica at the time of the Jaredites, even though we do know that the Olmecs used meteoric iron.
A related objection raised by critics is against the alleged presence of iron or steel swords among Book of Mormon peoples in the New World. 2 Nephi 5:14 reports that Nephi made swords in the New World "after the manner" of the sword of Laban. Does "after the manner" mean that the same materials were used? Not necessarily. He may have made similar swords (two-bladed weapons with a hilt) using other materials. The following verse, 2 Nephi 5:15, informs us that Nephi taught his people how to work with ores and metals, as if that was an additional aspect of Nephite technology, not the basis for making swords. However, as I noted above, a verse in the Book of Ether (Ether 7:9) from the earlier Jaredite civilization does refer specifically to swords of steel:
Wherefore, he came to the hill Ephraim, and he did molten out of the hill, and made swords out of steel for those whom he had drawn away with him; and after he had armed them with swords he returned to the city Nehor and gave battle unto his brother Corihor, by which means he obtained the kingdom and restored it unto his father Kib.
Regardless of what the original writer meant by the term steel (this was Joseph Smith's translation of a Nephite translation of Jaredite records) or whatever metal was actually used, this incident of making "steel" swords is presented in the text as if it were unusual and there are no further references to steel swords. In fact, among New World Book of Mormon peoples, later references to iron place it as a precious metal (at least after 400 B.C.), not as a common utilitarian material.
John Sorenson is careful to note that we do not have archaeological evidence of metal swords being used in ancient Mesoamerica (Review of Books on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 6, No. 1, p.331):
Matheny is correct that "no case has been made that metal swords existed in Mesoamerica before the Spanish conquest" . . . . Neither I nor anyone else has seriously attempted to do so, yet. This does not mean it might not be possible. I wish Matheny had tried it by delving exhaustively into the recondite sources on Aztec-period warfare that ought to be known to her instead of pointing to another "problem" that may be only an uninvestigated bogey-man. The bow and arrow provides a parallel case. It has commonly been said that this device arrived or developed in central Mexico "late" [So Hassig, War and Society, 137-38]. This is an error based on inadequate examination of the archaeological record, as Paul Tolstoy has shown. He has found "prima facie evidence of the limited use of the bow and arrow in central Mexico since early agricultural times" [See "Utilitarian artifacts of Central Mexico," Handbook of Middle American Indians, vol. 10, Archaeology of Northern Mesoamerica, 1, eds. G. F. Ekholm and I. Bernal (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971), 281, 283. Compare what I said about the weapon in "Digging into the Book of Mormon," 33-34].
Interestingly, some Spaniards who came to Mesoamerica reported encountering native warriors with iron-studded clubs [H. H. Bancroft, The Native Races (of the Pacific States), vol. 2 (San Francisco: A. L. Bancroft and Co., 1882), pp. 407-8, as cited by J. Sorenson, p. 284]. Could these be called metal swords?
A good online article about evidence for swords in the Book of Mormon is the review by Matthew Roper of James White's publication, "Of Cities and Swords: The Impossible Task of Mormon Apologetics" (Christian Research Journal, Summer 1996, pp. 28-35). That review is provided by FARMS (Matthew Roper, FARMS Review of Books,, Vol. 9, No. 1, 1997).
Another allegation raised by some anti-Mormon is that Mesoamerican swords lack some of the details implied by Book of Mormon descriptions, such as the presence of points or the presence of a hilt (but a hilt is simply a handle, and the Mesoamerican swords clearly qualify). Regarding pointed swords, Matthew Roper (ibid.) responds:
White cites two Book of Mormon references which suggest that at least some Nephite swords were pointed (p. 34-5).40 In Alma 44:12-3 Mormon describes Zerahemnah's unsuccessful attempt to kill Moroni in which a Nephite soldier wounds the Zoramite, taking off part of his scalp. White correctly notes that the soldier's weapon in this case definitely has a "point," yet it may be significant that the scalp is apparently not spitted as one might expect, but picked up and "laid" on the point of the soldier's sword. The second passage cited by White (Alma 57:33) may suggest that some Nephites had pointed swords, but it is more ambiguous. . . .
Be that as it may, some pre-Columbian "swords" were clearly pointed, as several Mesoamerican codices clearly show. According to Hassig, "Drawings indicate rectangular, ovoid, and pointed designs.41 The Mendoza Codex, for example, shows Aztec and Tlaxcalan warriors with pointed, wood-bladed swords.42 One of the most impressive battle scenes portrayed in Maya art can be found at the three-room palace of Bonampak in Chiapas, Mexico. On the west wall of room 2, "A large leaf-shaped blade with a short handle is brandished by a warrior at the top center left of the battle." This weapon is clearly pointed.43 Some Mesoamerican stone-bladed swords were definitely pointed as well. According to Solis, when marching to battle, the Tlaxcalans "carried their Macanas, or two-handed Swords, under the Left Arm, with their Points upward."44 White ignores evidence for this in Hamblin's original article, which shows an early representation of a pointed macuahuitl in the right hand of the warrior figure at the Loltun Cave.45 The structure of this weapon is very similar to the obsidian-pointed macuahuitl held in the hand of a Tlaxcalan noble during Aztec times.46 Examples of the curved Mesoamerican blade, which Hassig calls a "short sword,"47 are also known to have had points of obsidian. Clearly, Book of Mormon references to pointed swords can be easily explained in terms of the macuahuitl.
References cited by Roper:
42 Kurt Ross, ed., Codex Mendoza: Aztec Manuscript (Barcelona, Spain: Miller Graphics, 1978), 97-8.
43 Karl Ruppert, J. Eric S. Thompson, Tatiana Proskouriakoff, "Bonampak, Chiapas, Mexico," Carnegie Institution of Washington Publication 602 (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1955), 62.
44 Antonio de Solis, The History of the Conquest of Mexico by the Spaniards, trans. Thomas Townsend (London: Woodward, 1724), book V, chap. 9, emphasis added.
45 William J. Hamblin and A. Brent Merrill, "Swords in the Book of Mormon," in Warfare in the Book of Mormon, ed. Stephen D. Ricks and William J. Hamblin (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1990), 339, fig. 3.
46 Ross Hassig, Aztec Warfare: Imperial Expansion and Political Control (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988), 84, fig. 11.
47 Ross Hassig, War and Society in Ancient Mesoamerica (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 243 n. 121.
2004 Update: Wooden Swords in Ancient North America?
As an update, this year I also learned about related club-like weapons used north of Mesoamerica. For example, the New Georgia Encyclopedia has an article about the archaeology of the ancient Indians in the Georgia area entitled "Indian Warfare." This article discusses weapons and describes "the atassa, which was actually a wooden sword shaped like a pirate's cutlass." A helpful drawing is also provided. The word "sword" in this article is not Mormon spin.
A related article is "Warclubs and Falcon Warriors: Martial Arts, Status, and the Belief System in Southeastern Mississippian Chiefdoms" by Wayne W. Van Horne, Kennesaw State College, paper presented at the annual meeting of the Central States Anthropological Society, Beloit, Wisconsin, March 20, 1993. This scholarly overview has the following passage:
During the Mississippian and early historic periods Southeastern warriors used the warclub as their primary weapon, and they were experts in using it. The wide variety of warclub types that existed is part of the evidence of their importance in warfare. Warclub types included utilitarian types that were constructed for use as actual weapons, and ceremonial types, which were clearly non-functional and were used for culturally symbolic purposes. Utilitarian warclubs can be categorized into several general types based on construction. The first type is a stick that is one to two feet in length with an inset projection at the striking end made from a flint blade, animal tooth, or bone or antler fragment. The second type is a globe-headed warclub one to two feet in length with a thin handle and a ball shaped head that sometimes has an inset projection on the striking surface. The third type is the atassa, a wooden broadsword that is one to three feet in length and is shaped like a European broadsword, or falchion, without a hilt. The atassa was the most prevalent form of warclub in use in the protohistoric period. [emphasis mine]
Again we encounter the theme of wooden swords among the ancient Americans.
While some questions remain, much of what the Book of Mormon says appears plausible. Bows and arrows were once thought to be recent innovations, but are now known to have been in use anciently. As for the many types of weapons mentioned in the Book of Mormon, please examine the quotes above from European eyewitnesses who saw "swords" in use among the Mesoamericans they encountered. Even more weapons are mentioned in the full list of quotes compiled by Matthew Roper.
Though the quotations were selected to emphasize the use of swords, other weapons are also mentioned (Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 5, No. 1, 1996, pp. 150-158). After translation to English, these terms include: single-handed swords, doubled-handed swords, broadswords, lances, spears, knives, cudgels, bows and arrows, slings, stones, darts, clubs, and bucklers. Defensive shields and cotton armor are also mentioned. This variety of weapons corresponds well with those mentioned in the Book of Mormon, which includes swords, cimeters (presumably a sword-like weapon), slings, stones, clubs, bows, arrows, and shields:
And it came to pass that I did arm them with bows, and with arrows, with swords, and with cimeters, and with clubs, and with slings, and with all manner of weapons which we could invent, and I and my people did go forth against the Lamanites to battle.
Therefore the people of the Nephites were aware of the intent of the Amlicites, and therefore they did prepare to meet them; yea, they did arm themselves with swords, and with cimeters, and with bows, and with arrows, and with stones, and with slings, and with all manner of weapons of war, of every kind.
18 And it came to pass that he met the Lamanites in the borders of Jershon, and his people were armed with swords, and with cimeters, and all manner of weapons of war.
19 And when the armies of the Lamanites saw that the people of Nephi, or that Moroni, had prepared his people with breastplates and with arm-shields, yea, and also shields to defend their heads, and also they were dressed with thick clothing--
20 Now the army of Zerahemnah was not prepared with any such thing; they had only their swords and their cimeters, their bows and their arrows, their stones and their slings; and they were naked, save it were a skin which was girded about their loins; yea, all were naked, save it were the Zoramites and the Amalekites;
21 But they were not armed with breastplates, nor shields--therefore, they were exceedingly afraid of the armies of the Nephites because of their armor, notwithstanding their number being so much greater than the Nephites.
The weapons and armor mentioned above are quite plausible, based on what the Spaniards encountered and what we known from pre-Columbian culture, though some problems remain. The thick clothing of Alma 43:19 may be reflected in the cotton armor encountered by the Spaniards. The Book of Mormon also mentions breastplates and headplates as defensive armor, which may be reflected in the elaborate clothing and headgear shown in Mayan carvings of warriors and in pre-Columbian artwork featuring breastplates of gold. The ax is also mentioned in the Book of Mormon, which could have been a form of a Mesoamerican broadsword. An ancient Jaredite battle involving swords having metal is still a puzzle, though it is known that the ancient Olmec culture (dating to Jaredite times) mined iron in the form of magnetite and that meteoric iron was available.
Regarding "cimeters" or scimitars, some anti-Mormon publications have alleged that scimitars were unknown in Book of Mormon times, and were not invented until the rise of Islam in the 7th century. This is another argument based on inadequate research. If the term "cimeter" refers to a curved sword, such weapons were in use in the Middle East well before 600 B.C. For example, the Metropolitan Museum of New York (a fabulous reason to visit New York!) has a curved Egyptian sword from the 23rd Dynasty, 893-870 B.C. This and a large body of additional evidence on the use of scimitars in ancient times is given by Dr. Paul Y. Hoskisson in "Scimitars, Cimeters! We Have Scimitars! Do We Need Another Cimeter?" in Warfare in the Book of Mormon, ed. Stephen D. Ricks and William J. Hamblin (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1990), pp. 352-359. In light of the abundant evidence, Hoskisson says, "There can be no question that scimitars, or sickle swords, were known in the ancient Near East during the Late Bronze Period, that is, about six hundred years prior to Lehi's departure from Jerusalem." Evidence of scimitar-like weapons in Mesoamerica is presented by William J. Hamblin and A. Brent Merrill in "Notes on the Cimeter (Scimitar) in the Book of Mormon," in Warfare in the Book of Mormon, pp. 360-364. Also see "Swords and Cimeters in the Book of Mormon" by Matthew Roper, Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 8, No. 1, 1999, pp. 34-43.
Wikipedia's article on scimitars states the following, as of June 30, 2007:
Scimitars in history In the form of the khopesh, the scimitar started playing a sometimes significant role in Middle Eastern warfare more than two millennia before the advent of Islam. Famed scholar and Egyptologist, Zahi Hawass asserts that the Egyptians of the 18th Dynasty (circa 1600 B.C.) used new weapons technologies borrowed from the Hyksos, including "the scimitar" as important tools in fostering Egypt's regional domination which characterized much of the New Kingdom period [Zahi Hawass, Tutankhamun And the Golden Age of the Pharoahs, Washington DC: National Geographic Society, 2005, p. 21-22]. Some might judge the Hawass' use of the term anachronistic but nonetheless this provides evidence for the use of something akin to the scimitar in well before the development of the Persian shamshir.
In general, the nature of the weapons described in the Book of Mormon poses no problems for the authenticity of that text.
(My answer is derived largely from "The Golden Plates," Chapter 81 in Reexploring the Book of Mormon, edited by John Welch, Deseret Book, SLC, UT, 1992, pp. 275-277; this source provides detailed documentation on most of the following points.)
Two factors make the expected weight of the gold plates fit into the range of reported weight (those who hefted them estimated the weight between 50 and 100 lbs, with 60 seeming like a reasonable number based on the ability of Emma, Joseph's wife, to move them herself a time or two). Thin metal plates, when stacked, are not perfectly flat. There is some space in between them due to imperfections in manufacture, the effect of engraving and handling, etc. Even for carefully made sheets of thin metal, it is easy to have air space occupying 20% or more of the volume - with 50% void volume being a reasonable value. (Try this with a heavy grade of aluminum foil: even without engravings on the sheets, see if you can stack the foil sheets by hand into a stack that weighs anything close to the weight of a solid chunk of aluminum of equal thickness.) Further, the metal itself is described as gold in appearance, but is most likely to have been the Mesoamerican alloy tumbaga, which is gold alloyed with copper. It is much lighter than pure gold (about half the density). Tumbaga washed with acid (simple citric acid will do) leaches out some of the copper on the surface, making it appear much more like gold and providing a surface well suited for engraving. Using the reported dimensions of the plates (6 by 8 by 6 inches, or 0.188 cubic feet), assuming the use of tumbaga, and allowing typical air content (due to small gaps between parts of the plates) for thin metal plates, the weight estimate of 60 lbs or so is entirely reasonable. An LDS metallurgist, Reed Putnam, made this point in a paper presented to the Society for Early Historic Archaeology in 1964, reprinted in the Improvement Era, Vol. 69, pp. 788-89, 828-831, Sept. 1966 (now available online at https://www.shields-research.org/Scriptures/BoM/Tumbaga.htm). He did not know at the time that William Smith, Joseph's brother, had handled the plates and had estimated on several occasions that the weight was about 60 pounds. (William also said that the plates were a mixture of copper and gold - Saints' Herald, 31: 644, 1884.) Had it been a block of pure, solid gold, it would have weighed nearly 200 pounds (0.188 cubic feet * 1200 lbs/cubic foot = 200 pounds, not 800 pounds as one e-mail inquirer guessed), which is too heavy for most people to lift.
I find it surprising that the objection about the weight of the plates is one of the most common issues raised in modern anti-Mormon literature. The difference in mass between a stack of many thin sheets and solid metal of the same dimensions does not require advanced research and degrees to grasp.
(As with the previous question, I have used information from Welch, op cit., pp. 275-277 for the following reply.)
Joseph and others said the plates were thinner than common tin, which was typically around 0.02 inches thick at the time. Others said the plates were as thick as parchment or thick paper. An estimate of 0.015 inches per plate thus seems reasonable. Adding 50% air space (see the discussion of the density of the plates for the previous question), we can estimate that each plate occupied 0.03 inches. A stack 6 inches thick would hold roughly 200 plates, two-thirds of which was sealed, leaving about 67 plates and 134 surfaces from which our modern 500-page Book of Mormon was obtained. If the characters were compact and fine, as some accounts describe them to be, there is no difficulty in fitting the Book of Mormon onto the available plates - a collection that could have easily weighed around 60 pounds. In fact, efforts to write Book of Mormon passages in small Hebrew characters shows that roughly a dozen pages of modern text could be fit onto one surface of a single plate, so there is no problem in terms of space. For details, see my more detailed discussion of the alleged space problem on my page, "Alleged Book of Mormon Problems."
A good question. Brass (an alloy of copper and zinc) was long thought to have been invented quite recently, many centuries after Nephi's time. For example, the article on brass in Funk and Wagnalls' encyclopedia (1990) states that it did not come into use until the 16th century.
You may be interested to know that "brass" is also mentioned many times in the Old Testament and New Testament (e.g., the brass serpent made by Moses in Numbers 21:9; see also Gen. 4:22; Exo. 30:18; Isaiah 60:17; Dan. 2:32; 1 Cor. 13:1; among others). Bible scholars dealt with that problem not by rashly condemning the Bible but by assuming that "bronze" (an alloy of copper and tin) was actually meant, for bronze and other alloys of copper were known anciently (though I understand that a different Hebrew word was used to designate what has been translated as "brass" than the word for bronze and copper). However, it has long been known that the ancients made and used brass, though it was a rare and precious metal. The eminent scholar of antiquities, Robert J. Forbes, wrote a lengthy and rather technical article in 1942 discussing the evidence for the use and manufacture of brass in ancient times: "Technologie in de Oudheid: Zinc and Brass in Antiquity," Jaarbericht Ex. Oriente Lux, No. 8, 1942, pp. 747-757 (I have a copy of this article). Here are some relevant excerpts:
As brass seems to have been discovered in the first millennium B.C., there is a difference of more than 2500 years between the manufacture of the copper-zinc alloy, brass, and its metallic constituent, zinc [noting that the metal zinc was discovered only in the modern era]. (p. 747)
But we need not speculate as to the manufacture of brass in Antiquity for all our texts agree on this point and state that brass was always made from calamine [a naturally occurring zinc compound] and copper (Festus iii, 36). Either the "earthy" natural calamine or the artificially prepared zinc oxyde or cadmeia (and all its varieties) were used. Even as late an author as Isidore had no idea of the zinc content of the calamine and thought it was simply a drug for purifying copper (Etym., XVI, 20, 3). This method of preparing brass remained the only practical one until methods were devised to distill zinc from its ores. The correct term for this process would be the cementation of copper with zinc. (p. 750)
An exception [to the idea that brass in ancient Africa came from European or Arab trade] must be made for the true brass objects from Gezer of the Semitic III period (1400 - 1000 B.C.) which contain as much as 23.4% of zinc (Macalister, Gezer 1912, ii, p. 265). These isolated examples must be due either to the accidental working of a special ore or to imports from the north, as brass remains a rarity until Roman times, when Josephus could tell that the Outer Gates of the Temple were made of brass. (p. 751)
We have a most interesting text in Pseudo-Aristotle (De mirab. ausc., cap. 62) referring to the discovery of brass: "They say that the bronze of the Mossynoeci excels because of its gloss and its extraordinary whiteness. They do not add tin but a special kind of earth, that is smelted with the copper. They say that the inventor did not disclose his secret to anyone, therefore the old bronzes of this region are remarkable for their excellent qualities and the latter ones do not show them." This clearly refers to the cementation of copper with "earthy" calamine, which therefore was the original process. We are inclined on account of evidence mentioned above to date this discovery in the beginning of the first millennium B.C., somewhat earlier that Przeworski suggested. (p. 751)
We can not point out an Hebrew term for brass, as nechoseth just like aes or chalkos may mean brass in late texts, but usually should be translated copper or bronze. The "fine copper" mentioned in Ezra 8:27 may well be brass, which alloy was certainly used for cymbals in Hellenistic times. (p. 756)
Thus, a prominent scholar of antiquity, R.J. Forbes, is convinced by a wide range of evidence that brass was known to the ancients by 1000 B.C. or earlier, though it may have long been viewed as a precious and even mysterious metal. Nothing in the Book of Mormon suggests that brass was anything but a precious metal, one suitable for preserving a most precious and sacred text.
(Incidentally, Forbes (ibid., p. 754) discusses brass production in Persia, which began as a large-scale operation in the sixth century. Forbes mentions two ancient Persian scientists from around the ninth century who refer to both brass and bronze as sifr or sufr. Could this term for a metal be related to the term "ziff" in the Book of Mormon, introduced in the context of Nephite precious metals? Mosiah 11:8 gives a list of materials used by king Noah, who "built many elegant and spacious buildings; and he ornamented them with fine work of wood, and of all manner of precious things, of gold, and of silver, and of iron, and of brass, and of ziff, and of copper." Listed between brass and copper, "ziff" could make sense as a copper-based alloy related to the Persian term "sifr." John Sorenson has noted that "ziff" may be derived from the Hebrew word for "bright" or "shining," or from the Hebrew word for "plated," both possibly suggestive of a copper-alloy such as tumbaga that may have been the material used to make the "golden" plates (John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Comp., 1985, p. 284).)
Regarding the antiquity of brass, true brass - copper alloyed with zinc - was in use among the ancient Etruscans in a time frame that lends plausibility to the Book of Mormon account (see P.T. Craddock, "Europe's Earliest Brasses," MASCA Journal, 1:4-5 [Philadelphia, Dec. 1978], as cited by John L. Sorenson in An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, Deseret Book Comp., SLC, UT (1985), pp. 283-284). Also interesting is the Book of Mormon's metallurgically correct description of brass being manufactured from copper ore (Ether 10:23) instead of talking about "brass ore."
The issue of metals in antiquity raises many interesting questions. Dates for the existence of iron, steel, brass, and other metals in the Old and New Worlds have been the subject of some uncertainty and debate, with dates that seem to have been progressively pushed back in recent years. And while Nephi seems to have been skilled in metallurgy, the Nephite records become relatively silent about metals after Nephi's time, typically describing them as precious materials (including iron). Metallurgical skills or abundant sources of ore may have declined with time among the Nephites (though skills in gold and a gold-copper alloy, tumbaga, apparently persisted).
There are ancient examples of smelted iron in Mesoamerica (mentioned as a precious metal in the Book of Mormon), but it seems to have become a lost technology. Sorenson (op. cit., chapter 7) provides a good discussion on this topic. Recently, pre-Columbian smelting technology in Mesoamerica has become the subject of research by a team from MIT working at Guerrero in southern Mexico, with updated information in their archived report at FAMSI.org. Though pre-Columbian, the dating mentioned at the bottom of the FAMSI.org report looks like it is around 1300 A.D., too late to be directly relevant to Book of Mormon issues.
Apart from several findings of metal and other limited evidences of ancient metal working, three separate linguistic analyses by non-LDS scholars suggests that words for "metal" were in regular use no later than 1000 B.C. to 2000 B.C. in Mesoamerica - a time when metal working was "not supposed" to be going on based on the limited knowledge we have of this (the American) continent. See R.E. Longacre and Rene Millon, Anthropological Linguistics, 3:22 (1961); T. Kaufman, Univ. Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, Centro de Estudios Mayas, Caudernas 5: 188 (1972); see also American Antiquity, 41: 80-89 (1976); and other references as cited by Sorenson, op. cit., pp. 279-280, 391.
Sorenson also cites recent evidence showing metals were being worked in Peru as early as 1900 B.C. and were being traded in Ecuador around 1000 B.C. On the related issue of ancient iron and steel, I encountered an interesting news item about the Haya tribe of Western Tanzania, who apparently derived their ancient but sophisticated ironworking skills from Mediterranean technology, coupled with their own experimentation. The news item is "How Hayas Fired Iron" in Science, Vol. 270, Dec. 8, 1995, p. 1571. The advanced iron smelting technology of the ancient Haya people has challenged many previous assumptions about iron technology and illustrates that advanced metallurgical technology can be lost and evidence for it long overlooked by subsequent archaeologists. See Peter R. Schmidt and D. H. Avery, "More Evidence for an Advanced Prehistoric Iron Technology in Africa," Journal of Field Archaeology, Vol. 10, No. 4 (Winter, 1983), pp. 421-434 (the previous link is to a PDF from tanzaniaheritage.org; the stable URL is https://www.jstor.org/stable/529465). See also Peter Schmidt and S. Terry Childs, "Ancient African Iron Production," American Scientist, vol. 83 (6) 1995, pp. 524-533.
An interesting but only slightly related topic is the use of copper metal by Native Americans anciently in the northern United States. See S. Terry Childs, "Native Copper Technology and Society in Eastern North America" in Archaeometry of Pre-Columbian Sites and Artifacts, Proceedings of a Symposium organized by the UCLA Institute of Archaeology and the Getty Conservation Institute Los Angeles, California, March 23-27, 1992, ed. by David A. Scott and Pieter Meyers, pp. 229-253. Childs' conclusion reminds us that:
While in 1992 many people celebrated the quincentenary of Columbus's arrival in the Americas, the recent efforts to investigate native copper production and use as a dynamic aspect of many Native American cultures for some 6,000 years should also be applauded. It is clear that native copper was significant to the economic, social, political, and ideological systems of many societies in eastern North America for millennia. Various manufacturing techniques were in use and many native copper products were skillfully made. Much later, not only did the copper technology survive Contact, it flourished as Native Americans actively sought out newly available raw materials. Indigenous peoples used traditional fabrication techniques to work European smelted copper and brass in order to create ancient forms with traditional meamngs. (pp. 246-247)
Also in Archaeometry of Pre-Columbian Sites and Artifacts is "Pre-Hispanic Platinum Alloys: Their Composition and Use in Ecuador and Colombia" by David A. Scott and Warwick Bray, pp. 285-322. They discuss artifacts from the platinum metals group (platinum, rhodium, palladium, etc.). They speak of the La Tolita site in Ecuador which has yielded many pre-Columbian platinum-containing artifacts: "The oldest documented metalwork [at La Tolita] comes from Bouchard's excavation in the Cancha sector of the site, where he found items of platiniferous gold, tumbaga, and gold-platinum alloy. The radiocarbon date for Cancha is 90 Ī60 C.E." (p. 310). Definitely pre-Columbian. Say, could the precious "ziff" mentioned in the Book of Mormon be related to platinum? Just a question.
Now we know that New World pre-Columbian metallurgy was especially vibrant in ancient Peru, and scholars now commonly assumed that metalworking technologies in the New World have their roots their and gradually spread by diffusion. But the reality may be more diverse and complex, as explained by Salvador Rovira (also known as Prof. Dr. Salvador Rovira Llorens), "Pre-Hispanic Goldwork from the Museo de America, Madrid: A New Set of Analyses" also in Archaeometry of Pre-Columbian Sites and Artifacts, 1992, ed. by David A. Scott and Pieter Meyers, pp. 323-350. In his conclusion, he makes these observations (pp. 340-341):
A few years ago I sought an explanatory model applied to Pre-Columbian metallurgy that went beyond the commonly accepted theories of diffusion (Rovira 1990:921-37). I did not believe ancient Peru to be the sole region where one must search to find the origin of metallurgy in America. Like the Old World, where evidence of several invention points is growing stronger, the New World seems to be moving in the same direction.
American metallurgy, like archaeology to a great extent, seems to constitute a series of nonlinked cells. Punctual (the item itself) or microregional research has produced unbalanced knowledge because archaeometallurgy always follows field archaeology, and the latter has developed with unequal fortune.
From a metallurgical standpoint, the best-studied region is, without a doubt, Peru. Although absolute chronology of Peruvian finds related to gold work and metallurgy in general seems to be the earliest, the commonly accepted theory says: Metallurgy is a technological phenomenon that originated in Peru and spread slowly north. This theory has simplicity as its one great virtue, but it is ambiguous and does not define which components of metallurgy spread away (metals, alloys, technology?) and, therefore, does not explain why some components spread and others did not spread at all.
Gold metallurgy appears to verify the theory. The earliest gold work in Peru (Waywaka site) is much more ancient than the gold work in Colombia (Tumaco-Tolita, San Agustin). But when one analyzes acutely the attributes of these metallurgies (alloying practice is one among many other attributes), one observes such irreconcilable differences that there is no way to support the notion that gold metallurgy in Colombia must be understood as a consequence of a diffusion process from Peru. This is one of several reasons that led me to think of a theory of cultural blocks with semipervious borders as an alternative to diffusion (Rovira 1990:928-37).
Gold work in the Peruvian Block is characterized by: (a) invention of a gold proto-metallurgy before 1500 B.C.E.; (b) essay of Au-Ag alloy at the middle of the first millennium B.C.E. (the use of this alloy grew to become the preferred method of goldsmiths); (c) detection of a few objects made of a Cu-Au alloy, probably starting in Mochica time, and application of depletion gilding methods (both technologies, which probably arrived from the Colombian Block via Ecuador, were rooted in Peru as a secondary activity of gold working); and (d) clear predominance of sheet-metal objects over castings, even in Inca times.
The Colombian Block is characterized by: (a) invention of a gold proto-metallurgy in a nondated moment but anterior to 500 B.C.E., in La Tolita-Tumaco, if the existence of gold sheets within the Chorreroid Horizon can be confirmed; (b) essay of Au-Cu alloy early in Christian time and becoming a frequently used alloy (several surface coloring techniques, mainly depletion gilding, were developed at the same time); (c) invention of lost-wax casting process about 100-300 C.E., which would become the basic method utilized to cast the beautiful and very complicated designs of the Intermediate area jewelry (this method reaches the north of Peru after 1000 C.E.; and (d) since 500 C.E. cast items predominate over sheet-made ones, though some regional differences have been reported.
Metal working was definitely underway on the continent on Book of Mormon times. Much of the precious metals known to Book of Mormon peoples may have been imported and could have had origins in Peru and neighboring regions through trade. Some local production may have occurred as well, though we lack clear evidence for that.
Some recent critics have suggested that Mesoamerica lacks sources of metals, based on the paucity of modern metal mines in the region. John L. Sorenson responds (Review of Books on the Book of Mormon, Volume 6, No. 1, 1994, pp.325-326):
Matheny discusses Mesoamerican ore sources but inexplicably refers to "mineralogical maps of Mexico" based on present-day commercial exploitation of minerals (pp. 287-88). I would have thought she would follow her training in the documents from the period around the Spanish Conquest to find out where the peoples of Mesoamerica then obtained metals. The location of modern mines is irrelevant. Contrary to the geographical picture she offers, placering, the commonest pre-Columbian method employed, was used in Veracruz, Oaxaca, Tabasco, and Chiapas states in Mexico and in Belize, El Salvador, and Guatemala. [See literature indexed under "mining" in Sorenson, "Metals and Metallurgy," 56; and the map in Robert C. West and John P. Augelli, Middle America: Its Lands and Peoples, 2d ed. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1976), 283.] Furthermore, Clair Patterson argues that ores in ancient times were easier to locate and exploit than in late pre-Spanish times, by which time many surface sources were likely to have been exhausted [Clair C. Patterson, "Native Copper, Silver, and Gold Accessible to Early Metallurgists," American Antiquity 36 (1971): 286-321]. Hence even the ore locations known to the Indians at the time of the Conquest might not reflect fully the wider sources accessible in the Book of Mormon era.
Incidentally, in an authentic metallurgical touch, Ether 10:23 refers to the Jaredites "did make" brass, using copper ore to do so (the parallel structure of that verse links copper ore to the making of brass). Had someone without metallurgical knowledge written this - such as the young farmboy, Joseph Smith - it might have been easy to mention "brass" ore, not recognizing that brass is a copper alloy.
The number of known tombs of that age [Olmec era] is very limited, and those that have been dug typically contain few artifacts, for whatever reason. If we are going to speculate, and we are all forced to do so at present for lack of concrete information, it is at least as reasonable that valuable metal objects would have been passed carefully down to heirs rather than being stuck into tombs where, experience would have shown, they would in short order "canker with rust" like the sword blades of the Jaredites did after less than 400 years. Anyway, the linguistic data going back to the Olmec period assures that metal was in use, whatever the tombs show.
(Review of Books on the Book of Mormon, Vol. 6, No. 1, 1994, p.326)
A historically popular anti-LDS question, "Who ever heard of ancient peoples writing on metal plates?!" is now gradually being superseded by the more up-to-date anti-LDS question, "Didn't Joseph Smith just make up the story of the plates based on the well known fact that many ancient peoples wrote on metal plates?" Both questions are addressed on a separate Web page, Metal Plates and the Book of Mormon. Also see "Ancient Metal Plates" by Daniel Johnson (Book of Mormon Archaeological Foundation, BMAF.org, 2011). As with many other attacks on the Book of Mormon, something that seemed silly in 1830 is strong evidence of authenticity today.An Open Letter to Dr. Michael Coe," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 1 (2012): 91-109. Here is an excerpt on the issue of metals:
[According to Michael Coe,] "These things don't disappear forever. They leave traces.... If you had iron or steel, you would expect to find these things, even if they were all rusted.... You'd find chemical remains." [Michael Coe, "Dr. Michael Coe--An Outsider's View of Book of Mormon Archaeology," podcast interview by John Dehlin, parts 1–3, at https://mormonstories.org/?p=1880, Part 1, 24:27]
It is interesting to see your loyalty to the ideals of archaeology, but surely you know that the realities are quite different. The first place where the two collide is in sampling. Probably no more than two hundred ancient Mesoamerican sites have been seriously excavated, and those excavations have rarely dug into more than a small portion of the inhabited area of those sites. It would be surprising if as much as one ten-thousandth of the information potentially obtainable by studying the material remains has so far been disclosed. Sure, much of the rest would no doubt yield data mainly duplicative of what is already known, but some would not. And a large proportion of what has already been excavated has not been studied by contemporary methods or is not accessible for study.
So ancient remains of metals may "leave traces." But can anybody name even a single site where "chemical remains" have been widely sought by modern methods? I doubt it.
An example of the sampling problem is evident at the site of Utatlan (in Guatemala, dated AD 1300–1500). Fox, Wallace, and Brown reported finding by chance a location "just outside" the site proper where two hundred molds for the manufacture of copper at an industrial level came to light. The facility would have been far larger than what was needed for the city's requirements. What is the chance that such an isolated facility outside the central ceremonial centers where excavation usually goes on would ever be discovered at other places?
Then there is the problem of accessing the information that does exist. I have spent considerable time searching site reports for mentions of metal objects that have been found that apparently date before the "metal curtain" of about AD 900 in Mesoamerica in the area but are conventionally ignored in discussions of the history of metallurgy. There have proved to be several hundred such specimens dating from 400 BC to AD 900, 153 of which were excavated by professional archaeologists. (Why bother to seek "chemical traces" of metal when actual specimens are totally ignored?) This incidence of metal objects would be even more surprising were it not for the fact that terms have been reconstructed in five major Mesoamerican language families that mean "metal" or "(metal) bell," all the words thought to refer to times prior to 1000 BC.
Obviously, excavational archaeology still has a long way to go in reconstructing a complete history of Mesoamerican metallurgy, including both terrestrial and meteoric iron among more than a dozen known metals and alloys. Eminent metallurgical expert Dudley Easby commented regarding this history, "The relative [apparent] absence of metals in the early Americas constitutes one of the most infuriatingly enigmatic subjects in the history of technology." [footnotes omitted]
Coe's criticism is poorly considered and widely missed the mark.
Metals were used in Book of Mormon lands during Book of Mormon times. Sorenson also mentions some of the evidence in An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, p. 278-280:
The most compelling sort [of evidence for metals in ancient Mesoamerica] consists of actual specimens found where an early date is positively indicated. Over a dozen of these significantly precede A.D. 900 [Sorenson, "A Reconsideration of Early Metal in Mesoamerica," Katunob 9 (March 1976):1-18]. The earliest piece so far probably dates back to around the first century B.C. It is a bit of copper sheathing found on top of an altar at Cuicuilco in the Valley of Mexico [Byron Cummings, "Cuicuilco and the Archaic of Mexico," University of Arizona, Bulletin IV, no. 8, Social Science Bulletin, 4 (Tucson, 1933), pp. 38-39; Robert F. Heizer and James A. Bennyhoff, "Archaeological Investigation of Cuicuilco, Valley of Mexico, 1957," Science 127, no. 3292 (1958):232-33]. In addition to surely early specimens, other finds, not firmly dated, could be pre-A.D. 900; a late date has been inferred for some of them mainly because metal was found and "everybody knows" that metal occurs only in late sites. When all current information is considered, it appears that archaeologists should now be asking a new question. The old query was, why was there no metal in early Mesoamerica? Now it ought to become, why do we recover so little evidence of the metallurgical skill that was surely there?
A non-LDS author, Celia Heil, writes this of metallurgy in the New World:
South American metallurgical technology ... seems to have moved northward with the coastal maritime trade, and this knowledge apparently included the skills of smelting, hot and cold hammering, and casting by both lost wax ... and open molds. The Chavin of Peru appear to have been the innovators in metallurgy, probably before 500 BC, followed by artisans of Colombia and Ecuador. It could have been even earlier, however, as some samples have been dated to about 1500 BC in the high Andes, where hammering was the method, and there was particular interest in color.
(Celia Heil, "The Significance of Metallurgy in the Purhepecha Religion," in Across Before Columbus?, ed. by Donald Y. Gilmore and Linda S. McElroy, New England Antiquities Research Association (NEARA), Laconia, NH, 1998, pp. 43-51)
Heil also notes that sophisticated copper artifacts associated with metalworking have been found in Wisconsin dating to ages of over 5000 years (p. 44). Heil also notes that the Olmec conducted underground mining of cinnabar and quicksilver in the period of 1250 BC to 400 BC, and that other Mesoamericans mined lead, tin, copper, and gold during the era of 100 BC to 700 AD (p. 49).
The paucity of evidence for metal use in ancient Mesoamerica may be related to the factors that made it so hard for scholars to recognize the widespread ancient use of metals in the North American Arctic. A 1997 news article in the journal Science (Heather Pringle, "New Respect for Metal's Role in Ancient Arctic Cultures," Vol. 277, No. 5327, Aug. 8, 1997, pp. 766-768) discusses the recent discovery by several groups that iron (presumably meteoric iron) and copper were widely used by ancient inhabitants of northern Canada and Greenland and were involved in trade over large distances. The significance and scope of the use of metals was only recognized in the past couple of years, for intact metal specimens have been extremely rare. Since metal was rare and precious in those cultures and was easily reused and recycled, it appears that metal parts were not wasted or buried with the dead but were continually reused. Thus, very few metal specimens were left to be found centuries later. But once scholars accepted the possibility that metals may have been used anciently, they could then look for other signs of use, such as rust deposits in ancient settlements, rust stains on wooden handles, wooden parts with slots to receive metal parts, etc. Once they knew what to look for, scientists found extensive evidence of ancient metal use in Arctic regions (though Arctic use appears to postdate Book of Mormon times). Since the metals mentioned in the Book of Mormon are also described as precious, at least by 200 B.C., they were probably not casually discarded but may have been used and recycled frequently, resulting in few ancient specimens to be found.
Sorenson also notes that linguistic evidence points to the presence of metals in ancient Mesoamerican societies (An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, p. 279-280):
Traditional Mesoamerica accounts from various groups have reported use of metals that dirt archaeologists have failed to document. Evidence from language also indicates knowledge in the metallurgical arts beyond the supposed A.D. 900 barrier. Longacre and Millon reconstructed part of the Proto-Mixtecan language of the state of Oaxaca and thereabouts on the basis of words found in its daughter languages. In identifying terms that must have been in use before the descendant tongues split apart, the researchers were puzzled by the fact that a word for "metal" seemed to have existed in the proto-language at about 1000 B.C. [R. E. Longacre and Rene Millon, "Proto-Mixtecan and Proto-Amuzgo-Mixtecan Vocabularies: A Preliminary Cultural Analysis," Anthropological Linguistics 3 (1961):22] Of course, metalworking is not supposed to have been going on then.
The same linguistic procedure has been applied to Mayan languages. Proto-Tzeltal-Tzotzil dating to perhaps A.D. 500 had a term for metal. But a related term occurs in Huastecan, considered to be the language that first split off the basic Maya stem, supposedly around 2200 B.C. [Terrence Kaufman, "El Proto-Tzeltal-Tzotzil: Fonologia Comparada y Diccionario Reconstruido," Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, Centro de Estudios Mayas, Cuadernos 5 (1972), p. 118; Marcelo Alejandre, Cartilla Huasteca con su Gramatica, Diccionario y Varias Reglas para Aprender el Idioma (Mexico: Secretaria de Fomento, 1899), pp. 84, 88; Hyacinthe de Charency, "Les Norns des Metaux chez Differents Peuples de la Nouvelle Espagne," Compte-Rendu, Congres International des Americanistes, Paris, 1890 (Paris, 1892), pp. 539-41]. Even if we arbitrarily reduced this figure to around 1500 B.C., this linguistic evidence indicates that metal was known to Mayan people at a startlingly early date. Yet Kaufman and Campbell, in an influential study of the Mixe-Zoquean language group, added further support. They concluded that Proto-Mixe-Zoquean was likely the language of the Olmecs known to the archaeologists. That early tongue too had its word for metal by around 1500 B.C. ["A Linguistic Look at the Olmecs," American Antiquity, 41 (1976):80-89]. So work in comparative linguistics shows that metals must have been known, and presumably used, at least as early as 1500 B.C. That date extends back to the time of the Jaredites, for which so far we have not a single specimen of actual metal. Does it not seem likely that specimens are going to be found someday?
Arguments from comparative studies support the idea that metals were long known in Mesoamerica. Archaeologists only recently learned that metal was being worked in Peru as early as 1900 B.C., and it was being traded in Ecuador before 1000 B.C. [J. W. Grossman, "An Ancient Gold Worker's Tool Kit: The Earliest Metal Technology in Peru," Archaeology 25 (1972):270-75; A. C. Paulsen, "Prehistoric Trade between South Coastal Ecuador and other Parts of the Andes" (Paper read at 1972 Annual Meeting, Society for American Archaeology). Dates given in these papers need to be corrected backward to accord with bristle-cone pine corrections.] At the same time, all Mesoamerican scholars agree that intercommunication with Peru and Ecuador occurred over a period of thousands of years. Some definitely believe that it was via these voyages that metalworking reached Mexico and Guatemala. At the same time, we are asked to suppose that something as valuable as metal waited to be carried north until A.D. 900; then, suddenly, the metal connection finally "took." Such a strange idea of the culture contact process is now impossible to accept.
David Palmer comments on the knowledge of metals among the ancient Olmec culture in Central America, predating the Mayans (David A. Palmer, In Search of Cumorah, Horizon Publishers, Bountiful, Utah, 1981, p. 114):
A particularly remarkable find is the discovery of iron mirrors used by the Olmecs. Small flat mirrors were manufactured in Oaxaca at the town of San José Mogote from about 1000-850 B.C. Some of these flat mirrors, found in the workshops there, are on display in the town museum. . . . The metal worked at San José Mogote was magnetite, a form of iron. It was extracted from one of the score of ancient iron mines in the Oaxaca valley. Four mines in the valley of Oaxaca have been identified as the source of ores used at that time. [Jane W. Ferreira, "Shell and Iron Ore Exchange in Formative Mesoamerica, with Comments on Other Commodities," The Early American Village, ed. K.V. Flanner, Academic Press, New York, 1976, p. 317.]
The iron mines of the Olmecs may be related to the mining of the Jaredites, who during at least era "did cast up mighty heaps of earth to get ore, of gold, and of silver, and of iron, and of copper" (Ether 10:23). Indeed, several tons of iron ore have been found in southern Mexico at an Olmec site (Professor Ann Cyphers Guillén, personal communication with Daniel C. Peterson, cited in FARMS REview of Books, Vol. 9, No. 1, 1997, pp. 76-77).
Palmer also notes that several conical lumps of iron oxide were discovered in a Tomb in Kaminaljuyu, near present Guatemala City, possibly the site of the ancient City of Nephi, which could be evidence for the use of ancient iron in that area (the original iron in the humid environment there would corrode, leaving iron oxide). The mound is dated at 200 B.C. to 1 B.C. [E.M. Shook and A.V. Kidder, "Mound E-III-3, Kaminaljuyu, Guatemala," Carnegie Institution of Washington, Publication 596, Contribution 53, 1952, as cited by Palmer, p. 114.]
For an good review of the excellent optical properties of Olmec metallic mirrors, see "Olmec Mirrors: An Example of Archaeological American Mirrors."
Recent finds further strengthen the case for ancient metalworking. For example, I read an article on a Pervian discovery posted at ABCNews.Go.com [archived version]. Based on the discovery and analysis of ancient hammered copper and gold foils near Lima, Peru, skilled working with metals in the Americas occurred long before the commonly quoted date of 1000 A.D. In fact, this discovery pushes the date back as far as 1400 B.C. Here is an excerpt from the online article:
The full story is found in Richard L. Burger and Robert B. Gordon, "Early Central Andean Metalworking from Mina Perdida, Peru," Science, Vol. 282, No. 5391 (6 Nov. 1998), pp. 1108-1111. The online abstract of the Science article states:
Early Metal Use Found in Peru
By Kenneth Chang, ABCNews.com
Much to the surprise of archaeologists, one of the earliest civilizations in the Americas already knew how to hammer metals by 1000 B.C., centuries earlier than had been thought.
Found at a site south of modern-day Lima, Peru, the delicate gold and copper foils--some thinner than a piece of a paper--may have been decorations used in rituals. The metalwork dates to roughly the same time as the pharaohs of Egypt.
"We were shocked. I was shocked," says Richard Burger, director of Yale University's Peabody Museum of Natural History. "It gives some of the earliest evidence of experimentation with naturally occurring metals" in the Americas.
Burger, along with Yale geologist Robert B. Gordon report their discovery in Friday's issue of the journal Science.
The Yale researchers found the foils while excavating Mina Perdida, the largest of six ceremonial centers of the era in the lower Lurin Valley along the central coast of Peru. Previous excavations found no metalwork.
Mina Perdida translates as "Lost Mine" and local residents had asked the researchers if they were looking for the area's legendary hidden treasures of gold. Burger told them no, they were just studying the ancient cultures.
They were confident the people of the area hadn't done any metalworking back then.
Thinner Than Paper
Then they found the bits of foils: copper and gold hammered to a tenth of a millimeter or less. "To be able to hammer it to that level of thinness requires an incredible amount of technique," Burger says. "You've got to be able to control your blows so it doesn't begin to tear. It shows a certain degree of metallurgical knowledge."
Some foils were gold gilded onto copper and some show signs of annealing--heating to make them more malleable--but not smelting. That technique of melting metals to separate them from ore didn't appear until about 100 B.C. [Jeff's note: this is the primary challenge for the Book of Mormon, for there is evidence of metallurgy in the ancient Americas, current scholarship places it too late for the early Nephites. ]
Based on the dating of carbon atoms attached to the foils, they appear to have been created between 1410 and 1090 B.C., roughly the period when Moses led the Jews from Egypt and the era of such pharaohs as Amenhotep III, Tutankhamen and Ramses. 'It shows once again how little we know about the past and how there are surprises under every rock,' comments Jeffrey Quilter, director of Pre-Columbian Studies at Dumbarton Oaks, a Harvard University research institute in Washington, D.C.
Copper and gold artifacts in contexts dated to ~3120 to 3020 carbon-14 years before the present (~1410 to 1090 calendar years B.C.) recovered in excavations at Mina Perdida, LurŪn Valley, Peru, show that artisans hammered native metals into thin foils, in some cases with intermediate anneals. They gilded copper artifacts by attaching gold foil. The artifacts show that fundamental elements of the Andean metallurgical tradition were developed before the ChavŪn horizon, and that on the Peruvian coast the working of native copper preceded the production of smelted copper objects.
Thus it appears that metals were known in the Americas during Book of Mormon times.
A pre-Columbian Mesoamerican smelting site was discovered recently, though it is tentatively dated after 1000 A.D. Information is on the MIT Web page at https://www.mit.edu/afs/athena/course/3/3.983/www/, with this passage:
In November 2000, a team of archaeologists led by Professor Dorothy Hosler from the Center for Materials Research in Archaeology and Ethnology (CMRAE) at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, began excavation of a pre-Columbian site in the remote mountains of northern Guerrero, Mexico.
This site is possibly the first pre-Columbian metal smelting site ever found in Mesoamerica. Therefore it is of distinct interest to Prof. Hosler . . . who studies ancient technologies and how civilizations of the past have been affected by them. In particular interest is metallurgy, a technology rare enough to only have been invented two or three times in human history (once in the Americas).
The smelting site in Guerrero is in southern Mexico (see the location on a map). Photos of the artifacts and the excavation site are also given. However, the final report from that site published at FAMSI.org mentions the area has a tentative date around 1300 A.D., too late to establish smelting as a technology practiced by Book of Mormon peoples. On the other hand, the Book of Mormon actually never mentions smelting per se in the New World, so other less advanced technologies may have been used for the limited quantities of metals mentioned.
A news article from the Reuters news service dated Sept. 17, 1997 is "1000 B.C. Relics Found In Unearthed Tomb" (link is to the Chicago Tribune version of the story):
LIMA (Reuter) - Archeologists have uncovered an ancient tomb in Peru, probably belonging to a tribal ruler and containing 1000 B.C. gold ornaments they believe are the oldest in the Americas.
Japanese archeologist Yoshio Onuki and a team of Peruvian experts discovered the tomb, with seven perfectly-preserved gold pieces used mainly as ear-ornaments, at a pyramid buried in the ground in the northern highland zone of Cajamarca.Alvaro Puga, of the government's National Culture Institute, said Wednesday it was not clear which of Peru's various B.C. cultures had dug the tomb, one of eight uncovered during excavation work in Cajamarca. Experts in Peru have compared the find to the 1987 uncovering of the famous "Lord of Sipan" tomb, also in northern Peru.
A related news story from 2012 involves a tomb found in the same region: Archaeologists find 2,800-year-old tombs in Pacopampa, Cajamarca:
A team led by Japanese archaeologist Yuji Seki has uncovered five tombs dating to 700-800 B.C. at the site of Pacopampa, in Cajamarca.
The five tombs are believed to be linked to those five members of the Pacopampa culture who managed an ancient temple on the site. One of those tombs was of a young member of the site's elite, though the gender of the remains has not yet been determined.
Among the artifacts recovered in the 2,800-year-old tombs are gold lockets, pottery and stone beads, website Peruthisweek.com reported.
Certainly there was abundant gold in Central America, as we know from the Spanish Conquest, and silver is also well known. Copper and some of its alloys have also been found. Some examples of iron, tin, and mercury in ancient Mesoamerica have also been found. As for general metals and metallurgical skills, the Book of Mormon does not indicate that we should find such material and knowledge to be widespread. Indeed, after 400 B.C., references to all metals are in terms of precious substances, not everyday utilitarian items. John Sorenson explains (An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, p. 281):
Upon arriving in the promised land, Nephi made a set of plates on which he kept his record (1 Nephi 19:1). Approximately twenty years later he manufactured more plates ("the small plates of Nephi," 2 Nephi 5:28-30). By that time he and his followers had left the Lamanites behind in the Pacific coastal lowlands and settled up in the land of Nephi. There he undertook to pass on what knowledge he did have in these matters. He taught his people "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." (2 Nephi 5:15). This is an impressive list. Unfortunately, the language leaves us uncertain what the Nephites did with these substances. We could infer that practical as well as decorative use was made of some of these (see 2 Nephi 5:16 regarding "precious things"). If so, utility soon took second place. Nephite concern with ores and metals a bit later had come to be with their "precious" quality (Jacob 1:16; 2:12). Only once thereafter, about 400 B.C., was utilitarian metalworking suggested (Jarom 1:8: tillage tools and weapons are mentioned). From that point on in the Nephite history, every reference to metals states or implies that they were strictly precious - a source of wealth. In fact, during the final 400 years of the Nephite account even gold and silver, the only metals mentioned at all, are noted but four times. Perhaps by that period the labor-cheap surface deposits had been exhausted, making ore harder to obtain. One discussion of American metals has suggested that such a difficulty probably arose generally, for it is a geological likelihood [Clair C. Patterson, "Native Copper, Silver, and Gold Accessible to Early Metallurgists," American Antiquity, 36 (1971):292-94].
Thus it may be that easily accessible and processable surface deposits of metals or metal ores that Nephi may have been able to use were long depleted by the time the Spaniards arrived.
Sorenson goes on to document details of evidence for various Mesoamerican metals, including molten iron and other metals. I strongly recommend examining his book to gain further information about the issue of metals in the Book of Mormon. While some questions remain, recent evidence has given much more plausibility to the Book of Mormon account than there seemed to be 50 years ago.
In terms of Nephite use of iron, certainly meteoric iron was known to ancient Americans. After the early years of the Nephite colonists, references to iron are in terms of a precious metal, which would be consistent with use of meteoric iron. But smelted iron was found by archaeologist Sigvald Linne in a tomb at Mitla, Oaxaca ("Zapotecan antiquities," Ethnographical Museum of Sweden, Stockholm, Publication 4 [n.s., 1938]: 75, cited by Sorenson, FARMS Paper SOR-93, 1993, p. 18). A Teotihuacan find also provides evidence of copper and iron being having been melted in a pottery vessel ("Mexican highland cultures," Ethnographical Museum of Sweden, Stockholm, Publication 7 (n.s., 1942): 132, cited by Sorenson, 1993, p. 18). Many other iron artifacts have appeared in museum collections from Mesoamerica, with John Sorenson having compiled a listing of over 100 ancient Mesoamerican iron specimens reported in the literature but consistently ignored by the keepers of old paradigms (see Metals and Metallurgy Relating to the Book of Mormon Text, Provo: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1992).
Ah, you refer to a rather silly article on the Internet where some writer points out that steel mills are huge structures that are hard to miss, and then argues that the Book of Mormon must be false because no evidence of steel mills has been found in ancient America. But the Book of Mormon makes no reference to steel mills or large scale production of any iron-based alloy. It appears to have been a rare material and may have been obtained from meteoric "steel" or made with technology that was quickly lost after Nephi's time.
Even when ancient peoples worked with metals extensively, the evidence is often hard to find and would never be found if we demanded to find massive processing facilities like modern steel mills. As an example, Dafydd Griffiths and Ann Feurbach describe ancient steel production in Turkmenistan in their article, "Thermal Processing in the Last Millennium," Materials World, Vol. 7, No. 8, Aug. 1999, pp. 472-474. Over 1000 years ago, steel making was an important art for the Islamic people in the ancient city of Gyaur Kala in the Merv oasis of Turkmenistan. Their process for making steel in crucibles "uses a sophisticated furnace design and incorporates a fully integrated system for recycling the spent refractory ceramic crucibles." But, as may have been the case for Nephi's descendants, "Much of this knowledge of processing technology was subsequently lost for centuries." So what is the evidence for this sophisticated ancient production of steel with "integrated systems" and sophisticated designs? Ten acres of towering processing equipment? Massive tanks and furnaces that people can see from miles away and easily recognize as steel-making equipment? Not at all. Griffiths and Feurbach explain: "The basic clues that allow us to reconstruct ... the ancient process are the hundreds of fragments of broken crucibles of a distinctive design... and the excavated remains of three circular furnaces about 80 cm in internal diameter. No crucibles were found whole...." Prior to being broken, the crucibles had a diameter of about 8 cm. Thus, the evidence for a highly sophisticated, large-scale production of ancient steel in Turkmenistan is based on remnants of three small furnaces and lots of tiny crucible fragments. I suspect that if those who found these remnants "knew" that steel was not produced in the ancient world, the evidence could have been entirely overlooked.
The authors are impressed with technology that was used anciently. They note that "despite the passage of time, many of the basic technological concerns remain remarkably similar today. It is fascinating to compare ancient and modern practice and realise that the artisans of times past can still teach us a few things that may inspire improvements in modern processing technology." They also suspect that the technology was capable of producing prized Damascus steel, a beautiful steel with a fine, swirly pattern on the surface, another art that was lost for centuries (only recently in this century have metallurgists developed methods for producing something close to Damascus steel, and only on a small scale).
Another recent example of lost technology and fragmentary evidence for ancient metallurgical arts is provided in Stephanie Pain's article, "Pot of Gold," in the Aug. 15, 2000 issue of New Scientist, which discusses the gold refining operations of the ancient Lydians at Sardis, now part of modern Turkey. Discovery of an ancient gold refinery belonging to the Lydians, who were famous for their gold work and the introduction of gold coins in the early 7th century BC, did not occur until the late-1960s, when an archaeologist picked up a piece of a broken pot used in the refining operations. Many small hearths, scorched bricks, and globules of melted gold indicated that a refinery had been located. The Lydians had found a way to make gold very pure, with less than 2% silver. Their methods have been something of a mystery. The only written account of their process was written 500 years after the gold refining at Sardis came to a halt, and the written description did not work. But chemical analysis of the pots allowed scientists to come up with a hypothesis for the Lydian process, wherein pots were filled with alternating layers of gold and salt and placed in a furnace. It was a complex process based on ancient knowledge, reminding us that the ancients may have known more about metals that we have realized, and that careful work is needed to even begin to understand the nature of ancient metallurgy. The pottery fragments, hearths, and bricks at Sardis could easily have been overlooked.
Compared to what little we know of metal making in the ancient Old World, much less is known in the New World. Those who demand easy-to-find evidence like steel mills from the ancient world will remain in blissful ignorance of all things metallurgical. If ancient Americans worked with iron alloys to any degree, the evidence may be extremely difficult to find - but may already have been found without being properly recognized. If an explorer finds a pile of rusty powder and some pottery fragments and charcoal remnants in the jungle, will a connection to iron working be made? Not if he's looking for a steel mill, and not if he "knows" that iron was not used in ancient America.
The Book of Mormon does not require extensive metallurgical operations throughout the Americas, but may describe a carefully guarded craft that was preserved by only a few for a limited period of time.
Some critics claim that there should be abundant evidence of metal working "industries" in the Americas if the Book of Mormon were true. Their use of the word "industries" is unjustified. In the modern era, this word has connotations far outside what the Book of Mormon suggests. Nephi's possible knowledge of metal smithing and a few a references to metal in the Book of Mormon hardly points to some kind of large scale metal industry in the Old or New World. Regarding comments about metal "industries" from one critic, John Tvedtnes made the following comments (e-mail, 2003):
He also makes it sound like once such an industry takes hold in a society, many people get involved in it. He is obviously unaware of research in metallurgy of the ancient Near East, where it is clear that metal-working tended (until quite recently, actually) to be a family secret, passed down in certain clans. Even the Bible attests to the fact that, in the days of King Saul, the Israelites had to go to their Philistine neighbors to get metal implements for farming, and that only Saul and his son Jonathan even had armor. Even into medieval times, metalworking was controlled by kings in some parts of the world. In the Book of Mormon, the Jaredite king Riplakish kept goldsmiths imprisoned (Ether 10:7). King Zeniff, too, may have had a royal monopoly on certain "industries" (Mosiah 10:4-5).
Dr. Tvedtnes also notes that metal objects such as armor were obviously rare in Old Testament times, as is inferred by stories in the text (e.g., 1 Samuel 13:19-22; and stories about stripping of armor suggesting that it was rare, including 1 Samuel 17:54; 1 Samuel 31:9-10; and 2 Samuel 2:21). The ancient Hebrews had metal, but we should not expect to find large ferrous "industries" from ancient Israel either.
Update: For a point-by-point discussion of Frank Zindler's rather outlandish article, see ""Critique of Book of Mormon Critique Article: 'HOW DO YOU LOSE A STEEL MILL?' by Frank R. Zindler."
Critics commonly ask how Nephi's metallurgical knowledge could have been lost from the Americas if he and his people were practicing it. Isn't metal working and especially working with iron so useful that it would have been preserved no matter what if it really made it here in Nephi's day? It's a fair question, but the evidence of technologies around the world shows that significant advances can readily be lost, including metallurgical knowledge that many ancients had. Several examples have already been cited above. In addition, consider the case of the Vikings who came to the Americas and settle here for a period of time, bringing iron working skills with them. None of this technology was successfully transferred to other populations in the Americas. John Tvedtnes in "Vikings, Iron, and the Book of Mormon" points out how this is relevant to the issue of iron in the Book of Mormon and the lack of such knowledge here when the Spaniards came.
Evidence for iron has been presented in several of the answers previously given on this page. However, an excellent brief answer has also been given by Daniel Peterson in his article, "Yet More Abuse of B.H. Roberts," FARMS Review of Books, Vol. 9, No. 1, 1997, pp. 69-86:
Iron was, evidently, relatively rare in the ancient New World, as the Book of Mormon itself attests.  But iron of one origin or another was indisputably present and used in pre-Columbian America, and the question of whether or not iron was ever smelted in Mesoamerica is by no means closed.  Several tons (tons!) of worked iron ores were very recently found at the Olmec site of San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán, in southern Mexico. 
Amusingly, one piece of carefully fashioned iron ore recovered from ancient Mesoamerica appears to function as a compass needle, from what Professors Michael D. Coe and Richard A. Diehl identify as perhaps the "world's first compass."  I call this discovery amusing because critics of the Book of Mormon have misguidedly mocked Lehi's Liahona for many decades, on the unexamined assumption that compasses originated in China and only emerged from that ancient nation during the period of the European Middle Ages. (Latayne Colvett Scott's The Mormon Mirage will serve to illustrate the argument, with her complacent allusion to "the fact that compasses weren't used in the western world until the twelfth century A.D. according to history books.")  But the apparent Olmec compass needle, like the Olmecs themselves, dates to a period several centuries before Christ.
13 See Welch, Reexploring the Book of Mormon, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1992), 133-4, and John Welch, John W. Welch, "Finding Answers to B. H. Roberts's Questions" (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1985), 3-5, 10.
14 Consult Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1985), 284-6. That iron ores were available in the Olmec region is explained in Michael D. Coe and Richard A. Diehl, In the Land of the Olmec: The Archaeology of San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1980), 1:16-7. See also John B. Carlson, "Olmec Concave Iron-Ore Mirrors: The Aesthetics of a Lithic Technology and the Lord of the Mirror," in The Olmec and Their Neighbors: Essays in Memory of Matthew W. Stirling, ed. Elizabeth P. Benson (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collections, 1981), 117-47 (including illustrations). More on the mirrors is to be found at Coe and Diehl, In the Land of the Olmec, 243-4, 394; Jacques Soustelle, The Olmecs: The Oldest Civilization in Mexico (Garden City: Doubleday, 1984), 37-8, 40, 73, 105, 147. Iron beadwork is discussed at Coe and Diehl, In the Land of the Olmec, 242, 324. Elizabeth P. Benson and Beatriz de la Fuente, eds., Olmec Art of Ancient Mexico (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1996), 222, feature a photograph of a small statue made of hematite, an iron ore. For other information on Olmec iron work, see Robert J. Sharer and David C. Grove, eds., Regional Perspectives on the Olmec (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 5, 44, 51, 53, 79-80, 118, 146, 177, 185, 209, 214, 221, 275, 292, 295, 305. I thank my colleague Professor John E. Clark for helping me to locate these references, which, he assures me, could be multiplied considerably.
15 Professor Ann Cyphers Guillén, of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, shared information on the San Lorenzo find during an October 1996 visit to Brigham Young University. Her site report is forthcoming, but preliminary information on the discovery is available in her article on "San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan," in Los olmecas en Mesoamérica, ed. John E. Clark (Mexico City: El Equilibrista, 1994), 43-67 (see especially fig. 4.26, on p. 63). I am grateful to Dr. William J. Hamblin for initially bringing Professor Cyphers Guillén's work to my attention.
16 Coe and Diehl, In the Land of the Olmec, 245, 394.
17 Latayne C. Scott, The Mormon Mirage (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979), 65. Of course, it isn't entirely clear that the Liahona was a compass at all, in the usual understanding of the term. For it worked according to the faith, diligence, and obedience of those to whom it was given (1 Nephi 16:28-9; Mosiah 1:16; Alma 37:40); it ceased to function when they were unrighteous (1 Nephi 18:12-3; Alma 37:41-2); and it resumed functioning when they repented (1 Nephi 18:21). I am grateful that my Boy Scout compass didn't behave that way. (Otherwise, our troop would certainly have perished miserably in the wilderness.)
18 See the brief discussion entitled "Challenging Conventional Views of Metal Use in Mesoamerica," FARMS Update, Insights, (May 1992): 2; see also the annotated bibliography compiled by John L. Sorenson, "Metals and Metallurgy relating to the Book of Mormon Text" (Provo, Utah: FARMS, 1992), 9-57.
In summary, the references to iron in the Book of Mormon may be compatible with is now known about metals in ancient Mesoamerica, the only plausible candidate for the location of the events in the Book of Mormon. Stay tuned for further discoveries.
The Book of Mormon does not indicate that writing on metal was a widespread, traditional activity of peoples in the Americas, but was a practice brought from the Old World and maintained by a few prophets and leaders seeking to preserve rare and precious records. The Book of Mormon is the ultimate evidence for the reality of writing on metal in the Americas, with the text itself being remarkable evidence as well as the many witnesses of the gold plates who saw and even handled the inscribed plates delivered to Joseph by the Angel Moroni, the last author of the text that was buried in a stone box in New York State.
There may be other examples of writing on metal in the New World that will yet be discovered, as our knowledge of the ancient Americans and state of archaeological exploration there is still in its infancy compared to the Bible lands. However, there may be some further hints about ancient writing on metal plates. One example, called to my attention in an excellent unpublished essay by Mark Treter, was a sacred copper relic that was observed in 1842 by William W. Warren. His History of the Ojibways, Based upon Traditions and Oral Statements (St. Paul : Minnesota Historical Society, 1885, available online at https://imp.lss.wisc.edu/~jrvalent/old_nlip/NLIP_Institute_2006_bu/attachments/WarrenHistory.pdf, a PDF file with over 300 pages) provides the following excerpt (this begins at page 63 of the PDF file, which is apparently page 89 of the original book):
To support their pretensions, this family hold in their possession a circular plate of virgin copper, on which is rudely marked indentations and hieroglyphics denoting the number of generations of the family who have passed away since they first pitched their lodges at Shaug-a-waum-ik-ong and took possession of the adjacent country, including the Island of La Pointe or Mo-ningwun- a-kaun-ing.
When I witnessed this curious family register in 1842, it was exhibited by Tug-waug-aun-ay to my father. The old chief kept it carefully buried in the ground, and seldom displayed it. On this occasion he only brought it to view at the entreaty of my mother, whose maternal uncle he was. Father, mother, and the old chief, have all since gone to the land of spirits, and I am the only one still living who witnessed, on that occasion, this sacred relic of former days. On this plate of copper was marked eight deep indentations, denoting the number of his ancestors who had passed away since they first lighted their fire at Shaug-a-waum-ik-ong. They had all lived to a good old age. By the rude figure of a man with a hat on its head, placed opposite one of these indentations, was denoted the [page 90] period when the white race first made his appearance among them. This mark occurred in the third generation, leaving five generations which had passed away since that important era in their history.
Tug-waug-aun-ay was about sixty years of age at the time he showed this plate of copper, which he said had descended to him direct through a long line of ancestors. He died two years since, and his death has added the ninth indentation thereon; making, at this period, nine generations since the Ojibways first resided at La Pointe, and six generations since their first intercourse with the whites.
From the manner in which they estimate their generations, they may be counted as comprising a little over half the full term of years allotted to mankind, which will materially exceed the white man's generation. The Ojibways never count a generation as passed away till the oldest man in the family has died, and the writer assumes from these, and other facts obtained through observation and inquiry, forty years as the term of an Indian generation. It is necessary to state, however, for the benefit of those who may consider this as an over-estimate, that, since the introduction of intoxicating drinks and diseases of the whites, the former well-authenticated longevity of the Indians has been materially lessened. According to this estimate, it is now three hundred and sixty years since the Ojibways first collected in one grand central town on the Island of La Pointe, and two hundred and forty years since they were first discovered by the white race.
There are some interesting parallels to the Book of Mormon in the account that Mark points, such as a sacred metal plate containing hieroglyphics with a family history that was preserved by being buried in the earth and passed from one generation to the next. Where the relic is now I do not know, and do not know if there were other witnesses. Perhaps the influence of Mesoamerica on tribes to the north over the centuries can account for this Ojibwe tradition, if it is accurately described.
For now, look to the Book of Mormon, both the text itself and the lives of the witnesses, as the critical evidence for ancient writing on metal in the Americas. But stay tuned for further intriguing finds....
2012 Update: Now we can add writing on gold plates from ancient Mesoamerica to the "intriguing finds" mentioned above. See my 2012 Update section at the beginning of this page to see an example of Mayan writing on a gold plate. Cool!
Recent discovery of ancient metal working in Peru - this article shows evidence of Peruvian metallurgical skills dating before 1000 B.C.
Ancient Silver Scrolls from Israel - some of the oldest scrolls ever found were written on silver.
Book of Mormon Anachronisms: Metal and Metallurgy - an excellent article at FairMormon.org.
"Geologists Discover Iron Ore in the Region of Nephi's Bountiful" by Ron Harris in Meridian Magazine at LDSmag.com. This pertains to the remarkable evidences for the Book of Mormon in the Arabian Peninsula, as discussed on my Book of Mormon Evidences page. Excellent, easy-to-smelt iron ore has been discovered in the region of Bountiful on the eastern coast of Oman, consistent with the Book of Mormon. This article discusses the significance of the find and confirms that the iron ore near the area can be converted to workable metal using wood-fired technology.
Metals of the Book of Mormon by Wm. Revell Phillips.
Warfare and the Book of Mormon by Hugh Nibley.
Reed Putnam's Article on Tumbaga and the Golden Plates - provided by SHIELDS (Scholarly and Historical Information Exchange for Latter-Day Saints).
Non-metallic Aztec swords are discussed (with a drawing) in this article, "Pre-Columbian Use of Obsidian," by the presumably non-LDS writer Terry Stocker for the Corning Museum of Glass (CMOG.org). Original source: Terry Stocker, "A Technological Mystery Resolved," American Heritage of Invention & Technology, Vol. 2, No. 3, Spring 1987, p.64.
Eyewitness Descriptions of Mesoamerican Swords - by Matthew Roper.
Also see Francis van Noten and Jan Raymaekers, "Early iron smelting in Central Africa," Scientific American, 258 (6):84-91 (1988). Another interesting source is Duncan E. Miller and Nikolaas J. van der Merwe, Early Metal Working in Sub-Saharan Africa: A Review of Recent Research," The Journal of African History, 35(1): 1-36 (1994).
Ancient Iron Ore Mine Discovered in Peruvian Andes - A 2,000-year-old iron ore mine in Peru was NOT necessarily used to make iron metal, but more likely iron-oxide pigments. But this is an interesting reminder that mining activities often leave little trace, with this find being a fortunate exception.
Prof. Richard Hooker (Washington State University), Civilizations in Africa: The Iron Age South of the Sahara, 1996, https://richard-hooker.com/sites/worldcultures/CIVAFRCA/IRONAGE.HTM , 18 June 2013.
Wikipedia's take on "Metallurgy in pre-Columbian America". Metals were there, but smelting in particular during Book of Mormon times and in proposed Book of Mormon lands (Mesoamerica) is not attested. But again, the Book of Mormon does not explicitly require smelting in the Americas, though I expect the early Nephites to have known of it.