Near the town of Palmyra, New York, rising over cornfields and dairy farms and the dark green thread of the Erie Canal, is a glacially formed monadnock known as the Hill Cumorah. It's too small to qualify as a mountain, but in its context Cumorah is an arresting sight, wildly out of scale with the somnolent farm country of New York's Finger Lakes region, like an interloper from a distant geological epoch. At the hill's summit is an American flag, an asphalt pathway lined with pink rosebushes, and a golden statue of the angel Moroni, from the Book of Mormon.
I had come to this distinctive landmark one muggy evening in mid-July to watch the largest outdoor play in America, the HillCumorah Pageant, a two-hour spectacle that features a cast of over six hundred people. It's a kind of passion play that's been held in a grass field at the base of the hill every July for sixty-one years. When I arrived, an immense proscenium had been erected, and orchestral music was pouring through concert speakers. A crowd estimated at slightly more than ten thousand people had turned out for this, the seventh and final performance of the 1998 pageant. Along the edges of the field, hundreds of families were splayed out on blankets enjoying the cool air of twilight. Ruritans were selling hamburgers and personal pizzas, and cast members in biblical attire-deerskin robes, leather sandals, and long false beards-were ushering late arrivals to the last empty rows of plastic seats in the rear. Then the sun went down, and in a blaze of trumpets and laser lights swirling through smoke, the 627 actors gathered on the stage.
The Hill Cumorah Pageant tells the tale, in a drastically distilled form, of the Book of Mormon. The play traces the family history of the Nephites, a tribe of Jews who leave Jerusalem around 600 B. C., journey on foot across the desert, and then set sail for a promised land. They faithfully drift across the ocean, Kon-Tiki fashion, and, after many disasters at sea, come to light somewhere on American shores. Once established in the New World, the Nephites build impressive cities of stone and do remarkable work with agriculture and metallurgy, when they're not battling their chief adversaries, a crude band of Indians called the Lamanites, who wear antlers and feathered headdresses and look vaguely like the Aztecs. Christ makes a brief appearance in America, and there are wilderness wanderings, cataclysmic storms, even a volcanic eruption, with plumes of steam and potato flakes to simulate ash. The story ends with a great battle on the Hill Cumorah in which the Nephites are finally exterminated by the Lamanites. After the dust settles, only one Nephite remains-Moroni, son of the supreme commander, Mormon. It is Moroni's solemn duty to take the ancient records, engraved on a set of golden plates, and bury them in the hill so that someone, one day, will learn the true story of America's lost tribe of Hebrews.
As a coda to the play, the story jumps forward some 1,400 years to 1823. The spotlights are trained on a young man climbing high along the west face of the Hill Cumorah, while celestial strains of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir seep from the concert speakers. He kneels while the angel Moroni points to the spot where the golden plates are buried. The young man is the prophet Joseph Smith, and the record he removes from this hallowed ground is the Book of Mormon.
After the pageant I met a cast member, Sister Spencer from Michigan, a vivacious woman in her mid-forties who was stationed in a semiofficial capacity at the base of the statue of Moroni to answer any questions people might have about the import of the play.
"Whatever happened to the golden plates?" I asked her. "Are they in a museum somewhere?" "No, they were returned to the angel Moroni, probably reburied somewhere," Sister Spencer said. "There are individuals in the church who would like to find them. But God will reveal them only when and if He wants to" "Where did all of these events take place?" I asked her. "The wars, the civilizations?" "Well," Sister Spencer said, "Joseph found the plates here, we know that. But we're not sure about the rest of it. Some of the scholars are now saying it all happened in southern Mexico" "In Mexico?" I asked. "That's what the experts at BYU are saying-Mexico, Central America. The Mayans and all those people down there. Those wonderful ruins"
This geographical leap seemed to me an implausible new wrinkle in an already implausible saga, but Sister Spencer's statement about the scholars at Brigham Young University, I would discover, was correct. While church leaders in Salt Lake City have made no official pronouncements on the subject, the prevailing view within Mormon intellectual circles is that the primary action in the Book of Mormon did not, in fact, happen in upstate New York, but in Mesoamerica. During the past half-century, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has been quietly attempting to prove this new theory. Over the years, the church and wealthy Mormon benefactors have sunk what is conservatively estimated to be $10 million into archaeological research all across Central America in what may be the most ambitious hunt for a vanished civilization since Schliemann's search for Troy.
Much of the excavation work has been the stuff of scrupulous scholarship carried out under the auspices of the Mormon-funded New World Archaeological Foundation, based in San Cristobal, Chiapas. Founded in the early 1950s by a former FBI agent named Thomas Stuart Ferguson, the foundation initially concentrated its work on the preclassic period, roughly 600 B.C. to A.D. 300, which, not coincidentally, corresponds to Book of Mormon times. Yet the foundation has hired many non-Mormon scholars over the years and has published its findings without a whiff of religious bias.
Likewise, Brigham Young University boasts a number of world-renowned Mesoamerican archaeologists such as John Clark, who has done pioneering work in the area of the early-preclassic Maya, and Ray Matheny, whose National Geographic-funded excavations of the Mayan El Mirador ruins in the Peten rainforest of Guatemala are among the most extensive in the New World. Richard Hansen, a Mormon archaeologist affiliated with UCLA, has digs under way elsewhere in the Peten that are already yielding intriguing finds.
Yet over the years southern Mexico has also seen a fairly steady procession of Mormon cranks and amateurs nursing zealous hopes of discovering the tomb of Nephi or the lost city of Zarahemla. Along the edges of legitimate, Mormon-financed archaeology, one finds a colorful demimonde, one that has turned out a steady crop of grainy videos and specious books written in the sweeping style of Erich von Daniken's Chariots of the Gods? A number of resourceful travel operators from Utah have capitalized on the trend, leading Mormons on "Holy Land" package tours to the ruins of Mexico, running advertisements in the Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret News. Hundreds of Mormons make these freelance trips each year, packing into sour-smelling buses, wielding machetes and metal-detectors and occasionally an archaeologist's trowel. With neither academic credentials nor official permits allowing them to go digging for relics, they bushwhack through the rainforests and savannas of Central America on the scent of lost Semitic civilizations.
Mainstream archaeologists have scoffed at the church's long and, for the most part, discreet involvement with Mesoamerican archaeology calling the Mormon theories patently absurd, procedurally flawed, even racist. The Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History and the National Geographic Society have been so besieged with inquiries from enthusiastic Mormons over the years that both institutions have had to issue formal disclaimers stating that the Book of Mormon is not a historical text, and that no evidence points to the existence of a Jewish civilization in ancient America. Perhaps the most outspoken critic of Mormon archaeology has been Yale University's Michael D. Coe, one of the world's preeminent scholars of the Olmec and the Maya. The author of the best-selling book Breaking the Maya Code, Coe says there's not "a whit of evidence that the Nephites ever existed. The whole enterprise is complete rot, root and branch. It's so racist it hurts. It fits right into the nineteenth-century American idea that only a white man could have built cities and temples, that American Indians didn't have the brains or the wherewithal to create their own civilization."'
Today, the ten-million-member Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is generally considered the fastest-growing denomination in the Western Hemisphere, especially among the Indian populations of South and Central America whose ancestors built the cities and temples that have so intrigued Mormon scholars. This is no accident, of course; the church has spent considerable money and effort proselytizing among the present-day Maya and other natives of the region, with church literature sometimes suggesting that the ancient Mexican god Quetzalcoatl was actually the triumphant Jesus Christ visiting the New World as depicted in the Book. Church missionaries often float the notion that American Indians are direct descendants of Book of Mormon peoples and are thus blessed with a sacred lineage.
Mormonism, in a sense, was born out of an inspired act of archaeology, Smith's stirring claim of having unearthed the golden plates. And to this day, the Book of Mormon remains a sacred text with a unique status, in the sense that its value and weight, its purchase on the imagination of the convert, crucially depend upon its acceptance as an authentic artifact of archaeology, a written work that is historically accurate and even testable. From its opening page, the Book of Mormon presents itself not as a sacred allegory but as the record of act extinct race of Hebrews who lived and sweated and died on real American soil. The events in the Book had to have happened, and somewhere on these shores, or the book is a fraud. Joseph Smith understood that any people with the sophistication of the Nephites surely would have left tangible traces of their civilization behind-a Hebrew inscription, a metal sword, a ruined temple mailed in jungle vine-and he always said that excavation work would eventually vindicate everything printed in the Book.
But over the past fifty years, as Mormon scholars have begun to apply the techniques of modern archaeology, the search has only grown more complex, more desperate, more discouraging. Adherents of other faiths and sects have of course encountered similar problems when the astringent of science has been applied to their most cherished beliefs. The fields of geology and paleontology, for example, do little to substantiate the truncated timeline of the creationists-quite the contrary. Despite the painstaking efforts of numerous Christian a- archaeologist, not a shred of evidence has yet been produced that suggests the presence of Noah's ark on Mount Ararat in Turkey. For years, India and Nepal have been engaged in a rancorous and ultimately futile archaeological rivalry to resolve the ancient debate over which of the two countries was the true native land of Siddhartha (the Buddha).
Then again, the Book of Mormon does pose unique problems for the empirical-minded reader-most fundamentally, the problem of a wholly hypothetical geography. Unlike a Holy Land archaeologist who can set up a dig in Jericho or Bethlehem and know with reasonable certainty that at least the location is about right, a Mormon archaeologist is forced to work from a map constructed entirely from guesswork: none of the Book's place-names match up with present-day sites, and the Americas lack the continuity of culture and language that one finds in Israel.
As archaeological digs throughout the Americas have increased our knowledge of ancient civilizations and led to such advances as the cracking of the Mayan hieroglyphic code, Mormondom has been forced to confront the problem of evidence. What happens when the ground refuses to cooperate, when the soil fails to yield what the faith insists is there? For many Mormons, it's been a perilous quest, and more than a few who have ventured too far down the path have come back with their convictions in tatters, despairing at the lack of hard proof, wondering why the square pegs of belief won't fit into the round holes of the targeted terra firma.
Joseph Smith was a tall, rangy, young farmer when he began the arduous, two-year task of translating the Book of Mormon, "An Account Written by the Hand of Mormon upon Plates Taken from the Plates of Nephi" These golden plates, Smith said, were inscribed in an obscure hieroglyphic language called "Reformed Egyptian," which he was able to decipher only with the help of magical stones given to him by the angel Moroni. A long and densely written epic that Mark Twain later described as "chloroform in print," the Book of Mormon was published in 1830. Shortly thereafter, a new religious sect was born, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Smith and his followers moved west to Kirtland, Ohio, then west again, to the Illinois banks of the Mississippi River, where a little theocratic city called Nauvoo rose froth the canebrake, with Smith as general, mayor, newspaper editor, social chairman, lodge wizard, and beloved prophet. He improvised his own little satellite world, his own frontier phratry, out on the edge of America. He took thirty wives. He commanded what was then the second-largest standing army in the United States. He steamed up and down the Mississippi in his private sternwheeler. He held grand feasts, dances, and wrestling matches. Smith was the life of his own party, following his passions right up until the end.
His most consuming passion, however, was for the American landscape itself-its ghosts and artifacts, the aboriginal prehistory of the New World, the puzzle of where the American Indians originated. In his youth, Smith had poked around the backwoods of New England as a "money digger," hunting for buried treasure that he said had been left by ancient civilizations. Throughout his life, he was fascinated by Indian mounds and liked to spin intricate romances about who built them, and why. "Joseph would occasionally give us some of the most amusing recitals that could be imagined," the prophet's mother, Lucy Smith, once recalled. "He would describe the ancient inhabitants of this continent, their dress, mode of traveling, and the animals upon which they rode; their cities, their buildings, with every particular; their mode of warfare; and also their religious worship. This he would do with as much ease, seemingly, as if he had spent his whole life with them:'
When news of the stunning Mayan ruins at Palenque reached the United States in 1841 with the publication of John Lloyd Stephens's Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan, Smith speculated that the Maya must have been Book of Mormon peoples. At one point he enthusiastically stated that the Palenque ruins were "among the mighty works of the Nephites:" A Nauvoo newspaper article later attributed to Smith went on to suggest, "It will not be a bad plan to compare Mr. Stephens's ruined cities with those in the Book of Mormon."
By that time, however, Smith was already enmeshed in more pressing plots and subplots-his run for the U.S. presidency in 1842, controversies arising from the church's views on polygamy, and mounting squabbles with state and federal authorities. Then in 1844, at the age of thirty-nine, Smith was murdered by a lynching mob at a jailhouse in Carthage, Illinois, where he had been temporarily imprisoned on conspiracy charges. Several years later, the church began the exodus west under the stern gaze of Brigham Young, a stout man who proved to be a shrewd institution-builder. Upon seeing the parched country around the Great Salt Lake, Young is said to have solemnly proclaimed, "This is the place!" To which his aide-de-camp responded, "Are you sure, Brother Brigham, are you sure?"
For the next hundred years, the church rarely revisited the question of just where in the New World the Nephites were supposed to have lived. The Book offered few clues. The place-names that cropped up in the text-Desolation, Manti, Shemlon, Bountiful-matched up neither with ancient Indian nor modern American geography, and the descriptions and coordinates were vague at best. The Book spoke of a "Land Northward," which the church fathers generally guessed to be North America, a "Land Southward" (South America?), and a "Land of Many Waters" (the Great Lakes?). Given these parameters, the faithful were left to assume that the action in the Book had taken place in both North and South America, though mostly around upstate New York (especially the great Nephite-Lamanite battle depicted at the end), since that's where Smith had excavated the plates.
But within the anthropology department at Brigham Young University, another geographic paradigm began to evolve about fifty years ago. The more precisely scholars like BYU anthropologist M. Wells Jakeman studied the text, the more they realized that the action was, in fact, limited to an area of just a few hundred square miles. And the more they tried to superimpose the Book's mountains, rivers, oceans, weather, estimated travel times, and other characteristics over the physical landscapes of the Americas, the more apparent it became that wherever those few hundred square miles were, they certainly weren't anywhere near upstate New York.
When they boiled it down, what Mormon scholars were looking for was a "narrow neck of land," as the Book calls it, an isthmus set in a tropical climate (the text makes no mention of cold weather or snow) and surrounded by terrain known 1 have supported ancient peoples of sophisticated means-written language, masonry, astronomy, metal-working skills, and so forth. It eventually dawned on the scholars that they were throwing a dart at only one place, the same beguiling turf that Joseph Smith had speculated on from afar more than a century before: Mesoamerica, home of the Maya, the Olmec, the Toltec, the Zapotec, the Aztec, and other advanced civilizations of antiquity. (Not that Mormon scholars were arguing that the Nephites necessarily were the Maya or any of these other peoples; rather, that the Nephites had likely influenced them or were related to them in some way.) Alter much study, Mormon scholars narrowed their focus to an area that encompassed slices of Guatemala and Honduras, and parts of the Mexican states of Veracruz, Tabasco, Oaxaca, and Chiapas. "Book of Mormon Lands," they called it.
If there is a "headquarters" for Mormondom's multifaceted interest in ancient Mesoamerica, it is a private nonprofit think tank called the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS). Housed on the BYU campus and handsomely endowed by the university and by faithful donors such as Mormon technobaron Alan Ashton (who founded the WordPerfect Corporation), FARMS is an energetic outfit that promotes all sorts of abstruse scholarship and research junkets of a vaguely cloak-and-daggerish nature. When I first called FARMS, for example, I was told that several FARMS researchers had proposed conducting "aerial reconnaissance missions" over southern Mexico to look for undiscovered ruin sites using the same "ground-penetrating radar technology," developed at BYU, that the U.S. military used to peer into Saddam Hussein's bunkers. Here, pro-church scholars write spirited disquisitions on themes related to the antiquity of the Book of Mormon and publish apologetic books and pamphlets at an impressive clip. It's a kind of all-purpose clearinghouse, the place inquisitive Mormons turn to for answers when critics raise nettlesome questions about the ancient provenance of the Book or the apparent paucity of archaeological evidence for Nephite civilization.
When I dropped by FARMS on a bitterly cold and gusty winter day, a middle-aged photographer who had just returned from a long trip across Mesoamerica was presenting a rather specious slide-show lecture to a small audience of faithful Mormons, a lecture that one of the more serious FARMS researchers would later describe as "the height of naïveté". Look at that face!" the photographer said at one point, pausing the projector on a certain face from a Mayan relief at Tikal. "That's not an American Indian face. See the nose? That's not a nose characteristic of the area. That's a Semitic nose! And look closely. You see? He has a beard. What's that beard doing there? Well, that's interesting, because the Indians down there don't have facial hair. Where'd that beard come from?"
I was later led down the hall and introduced to the venerable white-haired theoretician sometimes referred to as the Thomas Aquinas of ancient Mormon studies-a tall, thin, precise gentleman in his mid-seventies named John L. Sorenson. A former chairman of BYU's anthropology department, Sorenson is a full-time scholar at FARMS and the author of numerous books, including the definitive work on the subject, Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon. Personally involved in nearly every debate of consequence in the field for the past half-century, Sorenson is one of the principal architects of the notion that the action of the Book of Mormon occurred in Mesoamerica. His first field trips to southern Mexico in the early 1950s set the tone and geographical parameters for much of the Mormon-affiliated research that has followed.
Ushered into his office, I found Sorenson leaning against a map of Mexico, absorbed in thought as he peered out his window at a winter storm sailing in fast from the alkali flats to the west. Once I sat down he snapped from his reverie, like a maestro satisfied that the crowd was now sufficiently hushed. "You know," he began, "I've never asked the question, 'Did the events in the Book of Mormon happen?' I was born and rised in the church, and so for me this is beyond doubt. The question I've asked over fifty years of scholarship is, 'How did they happen?' Where did these people live, what were they like, what did they eat? I am very interested in establishing the book's historicity. This is supposed to be the authentic record of a dead people. It won't suffice to say that Joseph Smith merely wrote it to impart a few spiritual truths. If it were ever conclusively demonstrated that Smith simply made it up, I don't know whether the church could survive:'
Driven by this sense of spiritual urgency, and possessed of a polymath's grasp of interdisciplinary detail, Sorenson has spent the better part of his life hunkered in libraries, examining all sorts of arcane topics: linguistic cognates, ancient seeds of grain, comparisons of intestinal parasites, the possible resemblance of a specific Mayan glyph to a specific Hebrew character, and the insufficiency of the Bering Straits land-bridge theory to explain how all Native Americans arrived in the New World. Listening to Sorenson tick off these baroque lines of inquiry, I felt as though I were in the presence of a first-rate mind that had long since become inured to the stalemates and disappointments of a bedeviling scavenger hunt. "I've been at this for over a half-century," he said, "and believe me, I have ways of managing the data reasonably so that I can take into account every apparent problem and contradiction in the Book."
The problems and contradictions in the Book are legion, in fact, and dealing with them has kept Sorenson and his colleagues ceaselessly busy for decades. Take the problem of elephants, to raise one prominent example. The Book mentions elephants several times, and yet as far as we know there weren't any elephants in Central America. This issue leads down a trail littered with imponderables: Could it be an error in translation? Could a woolly mammoth qualify as an elephant? Did mammoths ever exist in Central America, and at a time contemporaneous with Book of Mormon peoples? (So far, the evidence is no.) Should the church dispatch archaeologists to Mexico to hunt for mastodon bones?
The Book of Mormon describes dozens of other species of animals and domesticated plants that have yet to turn up in any pre-Columbian Mesoamerican excavations, including horses, asses, bulls, goats, oxen, sheep, barley, grapes, olives, figs, and wheat. This is not to mention all the inanimate objects: coins, functional wheels, metal swords, brass armor, chariots, carriages, glass, chains, golden plates.
The cumulative effect of all these minute examples would seem to deal a deathblow to the whole enterprise of Mormon archaeology. Yet BYU scholars like Sorensen have found all sorts of exotic rationales to circumnavigate these issues. Sorenson has gone so far as to postulate that the Book may actually have been referring to a tapir or a deer when Joseph Smith copied down the word "horse," although on the face of it, the idea of soldiers riding tapirs into battle seems ludicrously impractical. Sorenson has also suggested in his books and essays that the "chariots" referred to in the Book weren't what we think of as chariots, but some considerably more primitive conveyance without wheels more akin to a sled or a sledge, or even a nuptial bed.
Other Mormon scholars have been less willing to trowel over these apparent inconsistencies. In at least one public forum, BYU archaeologist Ray Matheny has been surprisingly blunt about the serious dilemmas posed by these rather glaring holes in the archaeological record. "I'd say this is a fairly king-sized problem," Matheny observed at a tape-recorded symposium in 1984 in Salt Lake City. "Mormons, in particular, have been grasping at straws for a very long time, trying to thread together all of these little esoteric finds that are out of context. If I were doing it cold, I would say in reviewuating the Book of Mormon that it had no place in the New World whatsoever. It just doesn't seem to fit anything that I have been taught in my discipline in anthropology. It seems like these are anachronisms:' Matheny concluded his talk with a sockdolager: "As an archaeologist," he said, "what [can] I say . . . that might be positive for the Book of Mormon? Well, really very little." Several Mormon archaeologists told me that Matheny's remarks caused considerable stir within church circles and came close to costing him his tenured position at BYU. Matheny has since carefully refrained from further public commentary on this subject, and he declined to be interviewed for this story.
Yet in 1993 Matheny's wife, Deanne G. Matheny, also a Mesoamerican anthropologist, echoed her husband's remarks in an essay entitled "Does the Shoe Fit? A Critique of the Limited Tehuantepec Geography." In taking Sorenson's elaborate apologetics to task, she wrote, "There are too many areas where one must either assume that evidence exists but has not yet been found or that something other than the words actually used [in the Book of Mormon] were intended . . . . Too much sidestepping of this sort can lead to the absurd." With Sorenson's elastic style of argumentation setting the overall tone, there is about FARMS a dizzying buzz of intellectual energy, with scholars investigating every imaginable cranny of inquiry, from hermeneutics to meteorology, from animal husbandry to the prevailing currents of the oceans. Yale's Michael Coe likes to talk about what he calls "the fallacy of misplaced concreteness," the tendency among Mormon theorists like Sorenson to keep the discussion trained on all sorts of extraneous subtopics (like tapirs and nuptial beds) while avoiding what is most obvious: that Joseph Smith probably meant "horse" when he wrote down the word "horse," and that all the archaeology in the world is not likely to change the fact that horses as we know them weren't around until the Spaniards arrived on American shores.
"They're always going after the nitty-gritty things," Coe told me. "Let's look at this specific hill. Let's look at that specific tree. It's exhausting to follow all these mind-numbing leads. It keeps the focus off the fact that it's all in the service of a completely phony history. Where are the languages? Where are the cities? Where are the artifacts? Look here, they'll say. Here's an elephant. Well, that's fine, but elephants were wiped out in the New World around 8,000 B.C. by hunters. There were no elephants!"
Another eminent Mormon archaeologist of Mesoamerica, Gareth Lowe, has come down hard on Sorenson's attempts to, as he puts it, "explain the unexplainable." "A lot of Mormon 'science' is just talking the loudest and the longest," says Lowe. "That's what Sorenson is about, out-talking everyone else. He's an intelligent man, but he's applied his intelligence toward questionable ends."
Sorenson is quite well aware of his pariah status among non-Mormon archaeologists as well as in certain Mormon circles, and in a way he seems to relish the intellectual combat. He and his prolific, steadfast colleagues at FARMS are the last of the true believers, still confident that hard proof of Mormonism's essential truth will eventually emerge from the ground.
"This is a very, very lonely line of work," Sorenson conceded, running a hand through his thinning hair. "Non-Mormon archaeologists and anthropologists don't want to have anything to do with us. Still, Mesoamerica is such a wide-open field, with so many complexities and conundrums. Only one one-hundredth of one percent of the material has been excavated. And so I have complete faith that over time, the answers are going to rise up out of the forest carpet .... like wild mushrooms."
Sorenson turned for a moment to watch the snowflakes that were tumbling outside his window. Suddenly, a vent opened in the clouds, and for a moment the Wasatch Mountains appeared, glowing pink as bubblegum over Provo.
It was John Sorenson who put me in touch with a group of young Mormon financial consultants from Salt Lake City about to embark on their own two-week archaeological junket in southern Mexico. Merrill Chandler, Steve Paige, and Jayson Orvis were close friends and business partners, all in their mid-thirties. With FARMS covering most of their traveling expenses, they were heading down to survey a number of impressive ruins, from Monte Alban to Palenque to Chiapa de Corzo. I met them on a paintball field on the outskirts of Salt Lake City, where they held a weekly battle in Technicolor, and after the skirmish was over, they asked me to accompany them on their trip. I would be the fourth and only nonMormon member of their "expedition," which was a bit of an overstatement, since they were without government permits and knew virtually nothing about the discipline of Mesoamerican archaeology. They called me "the gentile."
A few weeks later we were renting a VW bus at the airport in Mexico City and heading for points south. We looped through the foggy, pine-forested highlands of Chiapas, still seething with its Zapatista rebellion. We met with dirty-nailed Mormon archaeologists in San Cristobal, nosed around in caves, and took a dory up the Rio Grijalva, thought to be the holy river "Sidon" that figures prominently in the Book of Mormon. The primary target of our trip, however, was the Olmec country along the Gulf Coast of Veracruz State. The rationale behind this focus had everything to do with John Sorenson. After much searching, Sorenson has postulated that a certain mountain along the coastal plains of Veracruz called Cerro El Vigia is the "most likely candidate" for the Hill Cumorah of the Book of Mormon. (As fantastic as it may seem, Sorenson actually argues that there were two Cumorahs: one in Mexico where the great battle took place, and where Moroni buried a longer, unexpurgated version of the golden Nephite records; and the one near Palmyra, New York, where Moroni eventually buried a condensed version of the plates after lugging them on an epic northeastward trek of several thousand miles.) Located between the little towns of Santiago Tuxtla, Santiago Andres, and Catemaco, Cerro El Vigia is the nub of a long dormant volcano, hanging over pastures of Brahman cattle and sugarcane fields. My comrades' plan was to climb Cerro El Vigia - the sacred mountain," they called it-with shovels and sifting crates and look around for evidence of the gory battle that may or may not have taken place there fourteen centuries ago.
Steve was an anxious, flaxen-haired chili-pepper fanatic whose mind constantly raced with pet conjectures fed by topo maps and dog-eared Mormon archaeology books. Jayson, on the other hand, was soft-spoken, skeptical, his deep brown eyes pooling with doubts about the advisability of the trip. "I can't help wondering where this all leads," he had confided in me, raising his voice to be heard over the howler monkeys thrashing in the surrounding canopy as we sat atop the Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque. "I guess my logical requirements are more stringent."
It was Merrill who would turn out to be the natural leader of our expedition. Brash, fearless, a large guy with a knack for accelerating the plot of whatever situation in which he happened to find himself, Merrill had been dreaming about this trip for years, and his expectations were sky-high. "We're not here just to eat some tacos," Merrill had told me as he climbed aboard our rental bus in Mexico City. "We're all stalwart members. This is our Holy Land tour."
The night before our planned "assault" on the hallowed mountain, Cerro El Vigia, we stopped off in the nearby lakeside hamlet of Catemaco, a town famous all over Veracruz as an annual gathering place for witches and warlocks. We ordered a paella dinner at an outdoor restaurant and began to discuss the great Nephite-Lamanite battle on the Hill Cumorah. Merrill read to us from Mormon 6:7: "All my people had fallen; and their flesh, and bones, and blood lay upon the face of the earth, being left by the hands of those who slew them to molder upon the land, and to crumble and to return to their mother earth."
"It was a bloodbath," said Steve. "Hundreds of thousands of Nephite corpses. Any battle that big, there's bound to be local legends."
"Exactly," said Merrill. "So what we need to do is find the head brujo of Catemaco and plumb his knowledge of the folklore around here. They say his name is Apolinar. Supposed to be the most famous one in Veracruz State. He lives just down the street here, at Hidalgo number 20"
We eventually found the house, just off the zocalo, and studied the little sign out front-"Apolinar Gueixpal Seba, Botanica y Ciencias Ocultas." Merrill rapped on the massive oak gate. After a long wait, the hinges creaked open, and there stood Apolinar himself. He was a frightening sight, a Hispanic version of Alice Cooper, attired in black leather pants and a black leather vest draped over luridly tattooed pectorals. He seemed unhappy to see us, as if we'd just interrupted something-the weekly infanticide, perhaps. But when Merrill paid him something in advance for his services, Apolinar reluctantly led us back to his lair, a slatternly room crowded with jarred elixirs and dried insects and the mingled fragrances of a dozen incense sticks.
"So may I help you in finding a loved one?" Apolinar's eyes glinted in the thin light of a votive candle. "Or are you ill?" "No, gracias," said Merrill, who speaks fluent Spanish from his days as a missionary in Guatemala in the late 1980s. "We are Mormons. We've come from Utah, in the United States, to learn about Cerro El Vigia." "Apolinar regarded us in silence for a long moment, and said, "Ah, El Vigia. It is a magical place" "Magical in what way?" Merrill asked. "There are so many legends. It is said that there was once a fierce and bloody battle." "A what?" Merrill said, his interest quickening. "Si, it is an old, old story," Apolinar went on. "Hundreds and thousands fell. It is believed that their ghosts are still up there, swirling in the mist." Merrill was hungry for more. "In this battle you speak of who was doing the fighting?" "I cannot say more. It is a belief we do not like to discuss. But, if you must know more, well . . . it is said that there is a book buried up on the mountain:'
Merrill was beside himself. A book? Buried in the hill? This is precisely what the Mormons believe-and I could see that Apolinar knew it. He'd doubtless heard the story of the Mormon interest in Cerro El Vigia before, and he'd seen those squads of clean-cut missionaries all suited up and knocking on doors around town. I sensed that he was perhaps preying on Merrill's hopes a little, just for kicks.
Apolinar could have been Lucifer himself, but Merrill seemed buoyed by everything the brujo had said. After we left Apolinar's place, Merrill drove us toward Cerro El Vigia, which was faintly visible in the moonlight, a dim swell of basalt scarved in fog. Merrill said he'd made up his mind to buy a little hacienda in the town of Santiago Tuxtla so he could come down from Utah on a regular basis to live near the sacred mountain. Now, as he beheld its presence, there was a look of misty awe in his eyes, the same devout look I'd seen on the faces of the Mormon pilgrims up in Palmyra, New York. It was the sentimental gaze of ancestral longing, the yearning for a kind of motherland. Only this was a motherland based on literary constructs and anthropological speculation rather than on bloodlines, a theoretical motherland thrice removed, with Hebrew ancestors said to be related to American descendants through an Egyptian-language text purportedly unearthed over a hundred and fifty years ago by a young farmer nearly three thousand miles north of here. It was a nostalgia, in other words, that had to travel through a fabulous, labyrinthine circuit before it could be felt.
It's doubtful that any Latter-Day Saint has ever felt this sense of sentimental kinship with the Nephites as vividly as the late Thomas Stuart Ferguson, an attorney and former FBI agent who, from the early 1950s to the 1970s, was more or less the godfather of Mormon archaeology. Born in Pocatello, Idaho, and educated at Berkeley, Ferguson was a vigorous, headstrong man who believed with absolute certainty that excavations in Mexico would one day vindicate the Mormon faith. In the late 1940s, flush with excitement over the new Mesoamerican parameters that had been staked out by BYU scholars, Ferguson personally tromped through the jungles of Chiapas hunting for suitable candidates for Nephite ruins.
One of his comrades on those early freelance expeditions to Mexico and Guatemala was his friend J. Willard Marriot, the hotel magnate. In one letter, Marriot recalls, "We spent several months together in Mexico looking at the ruins and studying the Book of Mormon archaeology. I have never known anyone who was more devoted to that kind of research than was Tom."
Another of Ferguson's traveling companions to Mexico was John Sorenson, who was then a young anthropology Ph.D. candidate. "Tom was a lawyer, first, last, and always," Sorenson told me. "He had no training in archaeology. To him, things had to be proven. He wanted to hit the jackpot, to find a chariot or a Hebrew inscription or something. He was betting everything on a pull at the slot machine. Ferguson's view was, the Book of Mormon talks about horses, there should be figurines showing horses. So everywhere he went his first question to campesinos was 'Seen any figurines of horses? Tom felt like he had to have something moderately spectacular to sell to the church. No archaeologist had ever systematically looked at Chiapas before, so we took a Jeep up there and looked around" The results were impressive: Sorenson and Ferguson were able to identify some seventy potential sites in less than two weeks of traveling.
In 1952, Ferguson formed the New World Archaeological Foundation and then set about soliciting funding from the church and from well-to-do Mormon benefactors. "If the anticipated evidences confirming the Book of Mormon are found," he wrote in a letter to David O. McKay, the president of the church, "world-wide notice will be given to the restored gospel through the Book of Mormon. The artifacts will speak eloquently from the dust."
In another letter to McKay, Ferguson wrote, "The source of our income and support for the work can be kept strictly confidential if it is desired . . . [but] the Church cannot afford to let all of the priceless artifacts of Book of Mormon people fall into other people's hands. We can make wonderful use of them in missionary work and in letting all the world know of the Book of Mormon."
Finally, in 1953, President McKay relented, and the church quietly presented the New World Archaeological Foundation with an initial grant of $15,000, with a much larger sum of $200,000 to be given in 1955. Ferguson was shrewd enough to realize that if his quest were to succeed, he must hire objective, non-Mormon scholars, and he lured some of the most prominent names in the field, including Gordon F. Ekholm, who later became curator of American archaeology at New York's Museum of Natural History, and A. V Kidder, the grand old man of American archaeology. From the outset, Ferguson stipulated that the NWAF "would not discuss direct connections with the Book of Mormon, but rather [would] allow the work to stand exclusively on its scholarly merits." "Let the evidence from the ground speak for itself," Ferguson declared, "and let the chips fall where they may."
The NWAF set up its first large dig at Chiapa de Corzo, and the site proved a fabulous trove for studying the formative preclassic period. Ferguson was ecstatic. "The importance of the work carried out this past season cannot be overestimated," he wrote in a letter to the First Presidency of the church. "I know, and I know it without doubt and without wavering, that we are standing at the doorway of a great Book of Mormon era:' In 1958, in an enthusiastic and notably amateurish survey of Mesoamerican archaeology titled One Fold and One Shepherd, Ferguson wrote, "The important thing now is to continue the digging at an accelerated pace in order to find more inscriptions dating to Book-of-Mormon times. Eventually we should find decipherable inscriptions . . . referring to some unique person, place or event in the Book of Mormon"
In October of 1957, NWAF archaeologists dug up a cylinder seal from a site at Chiapa de Corzo that caused immediate excitement. The seal was inscribed with an unusual-looking ornamental design that, to Ferguson's eyes at least, resembled Egyptian hieroglyphics. In May of the following year, he sent a photograph of the seal to an eminent Egyptologist at Johns Hopkins University named Dr. William F. Albright. Without prompting from Ferguson, Albright examined the photograph and, in a letter, stated that the cylinder seal contained "several clearly recognizable Egyptian hieroglyphs." Although other Egyptologists would later dispute Albright's assessment, Ferguson was overjoyed, believing with heart and soul that this was the first piece of incontrovertible proof of the Nephites. "In my personal opinion," he wrote in a moment of religious abandon, "[Albright's finding] will ultimately prove to have been one of the most important-announcements ever made:'
The rutted dirt road on the back side of Cerro El Vigia winds through green-black jungle, past the tin-sided shacks of campesinos, and eventually peters out on the high, wind-scrubbed flanks, where thousands upon thousands of enormous basalt boulders are spread over the golden grass like caviar on toast. These are the lava fields that provided the raw material for the colossal Olmec busts-some of which weigh more than ten tons-that now squat in town squares along the Veracruz coast. How they managed to drag these immense rocks from the mountains is one of the many riddles that surround the Olmecs, who died out around 400 B.C. and are generally considered the progenitors of all other advanced civilizations in Mexico.
Steve, Jayson, and I were standing amid this boulder field, while Merrill held a compass in his hand and surveyed the landscape like a commanding general, envisioning the battle lines as they must have looked during the great Nephite-Lamanite engagement. We had been up here all day, wandering through a maze of impressive petroglyphs. It was dusk now, and Mexican free-tailed bats swooped down at us attracted to the bugs that were attracted to our headlamps. Down in the valley, the first lights of Santiago Tuxtla gave off a skim-milk blue.
In the gathering darkness, a campesino named Carlisto pointed out a long, slender boulder lying in the scrub. On its underside, he said, there was rumored to be an elaborate carving that dated back to Olmec times. Apparently it had fallen over years ago like a pillar at Stonehenge, and no one had ever bothered to right it.
Merrill stood there considering the capsized monolith. He brushed his hand over the hard, pebbly surface an,: scanned it with his flashlight.
Maybe, Carlisto politely suggested, we would like to come back tomorrow morning and have a better look?
"I say we turn it over right now!" Merrill replied, and as if to emphasize his point, he shined his flashlight in our faces. "We've got plenty of manpower here," he added, nodding at the dozen or so friends and relatives of Carlisto, who'd gathered to see what the commotion was about.
Presently, all of us assumed our places around the rock and started building up a rhythm of shoves, tossing in stone chocks after each heave while Merrill used a large log as a prying lever. Soon we could see a piece of the underside, but it was caked in dirt and hard to make out.
"Maybe it's a horse," Steve said, hopefully.
With one last push, the boulder tipped forward and tumbled downhill. Twenty yards below us, it rolled to a stop in a cloud of dust. We all scurried over to it. There was just enough juice left in Merrill's flashlight to limn the outlines: A round lobe here. Another lobe over there. A long shaft that culminated in . . .
The campesinos couldn't contain their laughter. It was impossible to ignore the obvious. After an exercise that only hinted at the hernias and slipped discs the Olmecs must have suffered as they hauled their titanic rocks to the coast, we had succeeded in unearthing what must be one of the most magnificent stone phalluses in the New World.
"What does this mean for the Book of Mormon?" asked Steve.
"It doesn't mean jack!" Merrill replied, laughing for a while with the others. Then, as the campesinos all wandered back to their shacks for the night, Merrill lingered in silence by the monolith, catching his breath, wondering whether this was, in fact, the place.
Despite Tom Ferguson's nearly effervescent zeal, the New World Archaeological Foundation somehow managed to hold fast to its original pledge to keep Mormonism out of its scholarship, and over the years it developed an international reputation for first-class work. This had much to do with the efforts of Gareth Lowe, the meticulous Mormon archaeologist who served as the foundation's director for thirty years. "We were always dealing with a tension between doing good scholarship and just digging for Mormonism," recalls Lowe, who is now retired and living in Tucson, Arizona. "The church would tell people in the congregation, relax, we have people down there who're investigating things. Just hold tight. They're on the case. But when I went down there, I realized I was very green and wide-eyed. I decided early on that we might never find anything that proves the Book of Mormon. But by doing good science, at least we could make a contribution. There was almost nothing known about these early cultures."
I asked Lowe whether, after all those years of digging under the auspices of the church, he was still a faithful Mormon. He paused thoughtfully for a long moment and then replied, somewhat gingerly, "Well, my wife still is."
Yale's Michael Coe worked with Gareth Lowe and other NWAF scholars in the fifties, sixties, and seventies, and says he has "nothing but absolute admiration" for their work. "They did the first really long-term, large-scale work on the preclassic in Mesoamerica, and they published it all. And by and large, their Mormonism never came through. Occasionally they'd get these dopes out of Utah who'd arrive with metal detectors and earphones and march around their sites trying to find the plates of gold. But the foundation's scholars always made sure they got on the plane and went back home. What's amazing is that they were able to do this kind of scholarship within the context of what is essentially a totalitarian organization. There isn't much of a difference between the old Red Square and Temple Square. But as in the Soviet Union, even given the terrible theoretical framework that they had to operate under, the foundation managed to do excellent work in spite of it."
By the early 1970s, surveying all of the foundation's notable findings, Thomas Ferguson began to assemble the case for the Book's ancient origins. Other than the "Egyptian" cylinder seal, the NWAF excavators had found nothing that seemed to authenticate the Mormon faith. Ferguson grew increasingly alarmed by this lack of progress. In a letter dated June 5, 1972, he would write, "I sincerely anticipated that Book of Mormon cities would be positively identified within ten years-and time has proved me wrong:'
What began merely as a mild suspicion would become an inexorable undertow of doubt. In 1975 Ferguson wrote a twenty-nine-page paper analyzing the case for Mormon archaeology. Entitled "Written Symposium on Book-of-Mormon Geography," it had all the hallmarks of a legal brief. "With all of [our] great efforts, it cannot be established factually that anyone, from Joseph Smith to the present day, has put his finger on a single point of terrain that was a Book-ofMormon geographical place. And the hemisphere has been pretty well checked out by competent people. Thousands of sites have been excavated." In a detailed chart that poignantly illustrated his spiritual despair, he went on to enumerate all the plants, animals, and artifacts mentioned in the Book of Mormon that were as yet undiscovered in ancient Mesoamerican digs. Under the heading, "Evidence supporting the existence of these forms of animal life in the regions proposed," he ticked off: "Ass: None. Bull: None. Calf: None. Cattle: None. Cow: None. Goat: None. Horse: None. Ox: None. Sheep: None. Sow: None. Elephant: None (contemporary with Book of Mormon). Evidence of the foregoing animals has not appeared in any form-ceramic representations, bones or skeletal remains, mural art, sculptured art or any other form .... [T]he zero score presents a problem that will not go away with the ignoring of it. Non-LDS scholars of first magnitude, some of whom want to be our friends, think we have real trouble here."
In this same legalistic fashion, Ferguson surveyed the long list of plants and artifacts that pose similar problems for the Book of Mormon: barley, figs, grapes, wheat, bellows, brass, breastplates, chains. copper, gold, iron, mining ore, plowshares, silver, metal swords, metal hilts, engraving, steel, carriages, carts, chariots, glass. The evidence for their existence in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, he succinctly summarized, was "zero."
Eventually Ferguson, the indefatigable apostle and founder of Mormon archaeology, came to the anguished conclusion that Joseph Smith had simply invented the Book of Mormon out of whole cloth. He pronounced Mormonism a "myth fraternity," and slipped into a profound spiritual crisis that lasted until his death, of a heart attack, in 1983. "You can't set Book of Mormon geography down anywhere," he wrote in 1976, "because it is fictional and will never meet the requirements of the dirt-archaeology. What is in the ground will never conform to what is in The Book." And in another letter: "I have been spoofed by Joseph Smith."
Precisely when Ferguson lost his faith is not entirely clear -it seems to have been a gradual process, and he was very discreet-but his disillusionment dates at least as far back as December of 1970; when he paid a curious visit to ex-Mormons Jerald and Sandra Tanner, owners of Lighthouse Bookstore and Salt Lake City's best-known critics of Mormonism. "He sat in our shop and told us that he had lost faith in the historicity of the Book of Mormon," Sandra Tanner told me when I stopped by her bookstore. "This was just astounding to us. Tom Ferguson was the big answer man of Mormonism. He was the man who had gotten the church's hopes up. He'd said to the church, 'If the Book of Mormon really is history, we ought to be able to find something if we throw enough money and expertise at it' He seemed grieved by the fact that he had wasted all those years of his life trying to prove the Book of Mormon."
Ferguson did not broadcast his disenchantment with the Book of Mormon, in large part because he had close family members who were, still faithful and because he still enjoyed some of the church's social aspects. Consequently, his crisis of faith was not widely known within church circles. In 1990, however, the liberal Mormon journal Dialogue published a controversial essay titled "The Odyssey of Thomas Stuart Ferguson:' Written by a University of Utah librarian named Stan Larson, the essay told the Ferguson story in its entirety for the first time. (Larson's essay has since been expanded into a book, Quest for the Gold Plates.) The long, and ultimately painful, arc of Ferguson's relationship with Mormon archaeology has had powerful resonance for a new generation of Mormon liberals who have tried to reconcile what they view as major problems in the Book of Mormon with the latest findings of science and ancient scholarship.
This new line of revisionist thinking came to something of a crescendo with the publication, in 1993, of New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology, a much talked-about collection of essays written mostly by apostate former Mormons and edited by a young Mormon raised, self-taught scholar named Brent Lee Metcalfe. The book, which one reviewer went so far as to call "the most sophisticated critique of Mormonism to date," has been banned from all church-affiliated bookstores, and several of the book's contributors, including Metcalfe, have been formally excommunicated.
"There is a new wave of younger, savvier intellectuals who've come along in the wake of Ferguson's disillusionment who simply cannot square the Book of Mormon with the scholarship," Metcalfe told me when I met him at his home in a southern suburb of Salt Lake City. "In order to accept the Book of Mormon as a factual record, one has to be willing, literally, to turn one's whole world upside down. North is no longer north, south is no longer south, a horse is no longer a horse, and chariots don't have wheels. No other historical text would make these kinds of demands on its readers. If one has to go to all these tremendous lengths to make this book work, then what's the point?"
Despite this new current of doubt within liberal Mormon intellectual circles, and despite its own patriarch's profound disenchantment, the New World Archaeological Foundation lives on today. It's a small, dedicated outfit based in San Cristobal, Chiapas, with a tiny staff of archaeologists still quietly digging in the dirt of southern Mexico. When I stopped by to visit the foundation, I was greeted by archaeologist Ron Lowe, Gareth Lowe's son, who gave me a tour of the musty offices and examining rooms, with topo maps on the walls and countless portfolio drawers filled with carefully cataloged potsherds and artifacts. The foundation's budget has been scaled back, perhaps because the church leaders saw in Ferguson's story a cautionary tale about the perils of using science to "prove" the historical origins of the faith, and perhaps because so little had been found to pique the faithful's interest The scaleback came in the mid-1990s, shortly after the foundation staff was embroiled in an embarrassing sex scandal: one of the senior Mormon archaeologists was formally accused of sleeping with the underaged daughter of the NWAF cook, and this allegation led to a number of firings and a wholesale rethinking of the foundation's mission.
Still, Brigham Young University remains committed to funding the NWAF, and its current director, the respected Mesoamericanist and BYU professor John Clark, has pursued a cautious course of serious, no-nonsense archaeology.
"Everybody still believes we've got this secret agenda to validate the Book of Mormon, and it makes my life very difficult," Clark told me. "The problem is, we have these socalled Book of Mormon tours, we have a lot of people running around trying to find Nephi's tomb. I get very nervous about people knowing more than they can possibly know. Archaeological data in the hands of the wrong person scares the heck out of me."
Clark spoke with all the concentrated caution of a high-wire artist. I could sense that he'd had much practice negotiating the fine line that's strung between the faith that sustains him, the university that pays him, and the scholarly discipline that gives him professional respect. He said he wished Mormon archaeology, as a subject, would go away. Yet it was more than mere coincidence that of all the regions of the world, he'd chosen ancient Mesoamerica as the place to sink in his trowel and stake his career for Brigham Young University. It was as though the ghost of Joseph Smith were perched on his shoulder, pointing enthusiastically at maps and continents, suggesting places to dig for the ultimate treasure. Clark did his best to tune him out, but the founder's ghost was such a steady distraction, proposing such quixotic goose chases, spinning such fanciful diversions, that it was virtually impossible to ignore his presence, try as one might.
"Look," Clark finally said, "I'm just trying to be a professional archaeologist. To me, the Book of Mormon has the feel of an ancient document, and any problems are problems of translation. I believe it did happen someplace. I just don't know where. But I, for one, can live with the uncertainty."