06 September 2014

Maya sites newly rediscovered!

We love hearing news like this. Ancient Maya sites in the Yucatán Peninsula have been discovered recently and excavation work is proceeding. Named Tamchén and Lagunita, they are located in Calakmul's Biosphere Reservation, in the southeastern corner of the Mexican state of Campeche.

Archaeologist Ivan Sprajc of Slovenia is leading the work, with approval and funding by INAH. Lagunita was initially visited by American archaeologist Eric Von Euw in the 1970s, who took pictures but failed to note its location, so it was lost again for decades. These sites, which date to the end of the late Classic period, are a fascinating example of just how much may lie hidden in Mesoamerican jungles. This particular area has is apparently lacking in archaeological efforts. Indications are that these areas may have been settled as far back as 300 b.c.

Monster doorway at Lagunita
Animal figurine from one of the sites
Both sites are close to the ancient site and modern town of Xpujil, which we visited on our first trip to Mexico. They also are in the region once controlled by the powerful ancient city of Calakmul, one of our favorite sites. Work is ongoing to see what relationship it may have had with Tamchén and Lagunita.

Just last year, Ivan discovered another unknown site in the area using aerial photographs. Named Chactún, this site may have been known to local loggers, but not to the scientific community. This was quite a large city anciently, with inhabitants numbering up to 40,000. It should not be surprising anymore, but discoveries like these keep happening. To us, this is particularly interesting, since we have traveled through this region and had no idea of what really was there. We hope to return again and see what progress has been made. If three new sites in a fairly small region have just recently come to light, who knows what further finds the future may hold?

Click here to read more about these discoveries.

28 January 2014

The original language(s) of the Book of Mormon

What did the writing on the plates look like? Can there be any comparison to known ancient languages? Aside from the 'Caractors' roughly drawn by Joseph or perhaps one of his scribes, we have little to go on. What is Reformed Egyptian anyway? And more importantly, what do Book of Mormon writers say themselves about the languages they used?

Our first clue comes very early in the record, when Nephi tells us that his record is in the language of his father. He then goes on to tell us that it consists of the 'learning of the Jews and the language of the Egyptians' (1 Ne 1:2). Admittedly, we don't know exactly what he means, but obviously, Lehi and his family would have spoken Hebrew, the language of the Jews. We might think we know what Hebrew looks like, but the written language was changed anciently. The block script used today was adopted by Jews in the third century BC. Before that, they used an older script called paleo-Hebrew. In the image below, the two writing systems are compared. Aleph starts on the far right, then Beth, then Gimel, and so on. Remember that Hebrew, like other Semitic languages, was written and read from right to left. The familiar Hebrew alphabet on the top line would have been unknown to the Jews of Lehi's day. They would have been using the characters shown on the bottom line.

However, Nephi seems to be telling us that he did not use Hebrew as the written language on the plates. Instead, he refers to Egyptian. It should be fairly obvious that he was not using hieroglyphics. Two other writing systems were known among the Egyptians of Lehi's day: Hieratic and Demotic. Hieratic was an early cursive writing system developed for writing with a reed brush and ink. By about 660 BC it had been replaced by Demotic for secular writings, but the priestly class continued to use Hieratic for quite some time. The question is, which system, Hieratic, or the early Demotic of his day, would Lehi have known and taught to his son? Even though Hieratic continued to be the language of religious writings, that was just among Egyptian priests. In fact, the word Demotic is derived from the Greek term for 'popular.' Egyptians referred to this written language as 'document writing.' It was commonly carved on monuments and is one of the languages found on the Rosetta Stone. It is likely that Lehi, as a non-Egyptian visitor, would have learned Demotic, shown below.

In addition, Hieratic is known for its ligatures and highly cursive nature, which may have been difficult to reproduce by engraving on plates of metal ore. For these reasons, Demotic would have been a more likely choice, but Nephi does not tell us why he chose Egyptian over Hebrew. His aforementioned statement has been interpreted by some LDS scholars as meaning that he used Egyptian letters to transliterate Hebrew words. Whatever Nephi did, it is also apparent from the Book of Mormon itself that Mormon did not copy, translate, or condense the duplicate record he found, known as the small plates of Nephi. He found them among other records in his possession. and because he found the words on these plates pleasing, he put them with the remainder of his record (WoM 1:6). Not only were these plates likely smaller than the ones Mormon had made centuries later in the 4th century AD, but they were written in a completely different and much older language than he was using on his plates: the early Demotic of 600 BC!

Regarding the language used for their record, Moroni tells us they wrote in what the Nephites called Reformed Egyptian, the most enigmatic writing system connected with the Book of Mormon. This was mentioned only once at the very end of Nephite history and was unknown to the original Nephi and probably many record keepers after him. No one besides Moroni refers to it. The only surviving example of it is presumably in the 'Caractors' drawing. We should not expect to find other examples of it, because it had evolved over the years and was known only among the Nephites; no one else knew it (Mor 9:32-34). It may also be that only keepers of the sacred records used this language. They also kept a knowledge of Hebrew alive, but Mormon chose the Egyptian over it because it was more concise (if less perfect) for writing. We are told that both Egyptian and Hebrew had been altered by the Nephites, which one might expect after being isolated from their original sources for almost a millennium and surrounded by different cultures. By Mormon and Moroni's time, Demotic had changed into reformed Egyptian and we must expect that paleo-Hebrew had become reformed Hebrew as well. Regardless of what common Nephites spoke, or what acted as a lingua franca so that different groups could communicate with each other, we know that an elite group of Nephite record holders kept alive a Semitic written tradition, including the languages and the practice of writing on metal plates. As with many Semitic languages, both Demotic and Hebrew are written from right to left and Joseph Smith confirmed that the script on the Book of Mormon was read in the same manner.

As we try to imagine the origin of Nephite languages, we must start with what would have been known in the Middle East of 600 BC: paleo-Hebrew and early Demotic Egyptian.

Click here for more information on Demotic.

03 January 2014

Mysterious metal plates?

We came across a webpage recently that mentioned artifacts from Calakmul that would soon be released to the public by the Mexican government. Since this is one of our favorite sites in the Yucatán, we were initially interested. Although not mentioned in the article, at least one of the artifacts looked like it could be made of metal with engraved images. However, upon closer inspection and comparison with photos of other items from the same group, it appears to be of polished, smooth stone. The greater problem is that the point of the page is to show contact with aliens and the ancient Maya, so they are likely fake. Most of the iconography doesn't really match what is known about the Maya culture and the figure in the carving on the right side of the image bears a suspicious resemblance to items seen in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Mainstream archaeologists hate the suggestion of alien contact with ancient cultures, even more than they hate the idea of pre-Columbian contact between the Old World and the New.

But a link on the page about a documentary called Revelations of the Mayans leads to some interesting information. It's a YouTube video taken from season 2 of an episode of Ancient Aliens called "Underground Aliens," broadcast on the History Channel on 18 November 2010. If this aspect of the 'evidence' is overlooked, what it shows is actually far more interesting and may have a more earthbound explanation. At 19:22 on the video, the story is told of Padre Carlos Crespi, a Silesian monk born in Italy in 1891 who served in Ecuador from 1923 until his death in 1982. In the courtyard of the Maria Auxiliadora church, he kept an enigmatic collection of artifacts given to him by the local indigenous people, the Shuar.

Notable among his collection were metal plates with an unknown language inscribed on them. There were many other artifacts of gold, metal, and stone in the collection, but none have been the subject of serious study. Padre Crespi apparently had no interest in selling or otherwise benefiting from them, but did show them to visitors. The have been seen and photographed various times, and were filmed as part of a documentary. Items of all types were in the collection, including this stone carving showing what seems to be an elephant over marks that look like Hebrew block script letters, which were adopted by Jews in the 3rd century BC. Before that, an older writing system similar to Phoenician called paleo-Hebrew was used. The true provenance of these items is unknown, so controversial pieces like this one would be highly suspect by most archaeologists. Some of them look suspiciously too Egyptian or Babylonian.

Sadly, the collection has vanished. Some items may have been destroyed in a fire in 1962. Others may have ended up with private collectors or may still be stored somewhere, but if any survived their current locations are unknown. None have been seen since Crespi's death. His explanation is that they all came from caves and subterranean tunnels, known only to the local Shuar. Stories were told of vast libraries of metal books hidden underground in the Ecuadorean jungle. Several people have claimed to know the location of these caves, but have since passed away. In 1976, a large expedition was organized by Scottish explorer Stan Hall. Included in the group of spelunkers, cameramen, experts, and Ecuadorean military was astronaut Niel Armstrong. They explored Cueva de los Tayos, a large cave system believed to be the origin of the artifacts, but found nothing like those kept by Padre Crespi. However, they did find a few other archaeological relics.

We are left with no definite answer as to what the items in Padre Crespi's collection were. Could they have been legitimate items carved by ancient peoples or were they modern hoaxes? Supporters of the ancient alien theory including Erich von Däniken believe that such artifacts are evidence of visits by technologically advanced or extraterrestrial beings. But we can find a much more likely and down-to-earth explanation for libraries of metal plates hidden underground and lost to later civilizations.

Click here for more information on Padre Crespi and his collection.
Click here for information on Cueva de los Tayos.
Click here for "Underground Aliens" on YouTube.