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Hiding from archaeologists
By Orson Scott Card May 5, 2011

Archaeology began with a strong bias toward exploring the lives of the ruling class in ancient civilizations. Archaeologists are aware of this bias and try to compensate for it and work around it.

Many of them continue to assume, however, that the evolution of a society from "chiefdoms" to "states" involves the development of an elite social class.

The site at Çatalhöyük, in Turkey, one of the earliest cities ever found, has proven to be a challenge precisely because there are no elite markers.

The whole site is like one enormous apartment building, with the houses right up against each other and doors only in the roofs. The houses are all modest, a pattern that is also seen in some early sites on the Pacific coast of South America.

Since elite markers eventually developed much later, it is tempting to speculate that these societies may have been communal or otherwise egalitarian. I certainly had no trouble fitting a version of the law of consecration into what I learned about Çatalhöyük in a class I recently took from the Great Courses.

But that's just guessing -- fun but not significant. Still, the Mormon perspective does help us break out of assumptions that are common to most people who don't have the advantage of knowing about other ways to organize a prosperous high-population society.

When there are no markers of high status, archaeologists find it hard to recognize a social pattern that we would call a "state," if only because we know of no historical examples of an organized state that doesn't have people of high rank who clearly distinguish themselves from common people in their dress, housing, property, or burial.

How can you have a state without a ruling class?

My mind immediately jumped to Mormon life today. While we partake of all the social status markers of the societies we live in, the fact is that within our highly-organized LDS life we have almost no status markers.

That's because we rotate our leadership positions. How could you distinguish a bishop from a Sunday school teacher or a clerk, a Relief Society president from a camp counselor or Primary teacher, if you didn't have something written down?

The Book of Mormon, as a historical record, may very well be showing us a society that would be almost unrecognizable to archaeologists. The dates of the Book of Mormon are very clear, and with the recently acquired ability to translate Maya writings, we have solid information about some aspects of the history of Maya cities contemporaneous with portions of the Book of Mormon.

Before those earliest Maya writings, though, a pivotal event took place: the merger of the people of Nephi with the people of Zarahemla. Amaleki, writing in the book of Omni, tells us that Mosiah I (father of Benjamin) was warned by God to flee from the land of Nephi.

Led by the Lord, the Nephites came upon the people of Zarahemla, who claimed Israelite ancestry, though they had lost their language. Then something truly astonishing happened:

The people of Zarahemla, or Mulekites, though they outnumbered the wandering Nephites, accepted them so completely that they learned the Nephite language and accepted the Nephite king, Mosiah I, in place of their own king, Zarahemla (Omni 12-19).

The two peoples retained their separate identities for at least two generations: Under Mosiah II, "all the people of Nephi were assembled together, and also all the people of Zarahemla, and they were gathered together in two bodies" (Mosiah 25:4).

This separation may be at the root of many other events in later years. Who were the King-men, for instance, if not (perhaps) descendants of the old ruling family or ruling class of the Mulekites? After all, the Mulekites had previously been torn by "many wars and serious contentions" (Omni 17), and many later Nephite problems may have had their origins in Mulekite history.

Why did the majority Mulekites learn Nephite language and except the Nephite king?

It seems that the people of Zarahemla behaved very much like what the archaeology and history of Mayan cities show us: Frequent war between groups, with occasional civil wars and coups within the ruling class.

The rich and powerful were clearly marked in Mayan culture, and perhaps in Mulekite culture also. Maybe this is why King Benjamin felt it so important to address his people -- Nephite and Mulekite alike -- and point out to them that he was just like them (Mosiah 2:10-11).

He reminds them that he has "not sought gold nor silver nor any manner of riches of you" (Mosiah 2:12) -- no elite markers for the king, and no tax structure!

He has not imprisoned anyone, or allowed slavery to exist; in fact, as he catalogues the things he has not done, he is also listing things that were common in Maya city-states, and probably in Mulekite culture before the coming of the Nephites.

When Benjamin reminds them that he has labored with his own hands, instead of taxing them, he may be telling us exactly why the Mulekite people embraced Nephite leadership!

Then, as part of the gospel of salvation, King Benjamin lays out a set of social rules based on providing for and sharing with others (Mosiah 4:16-19, 23-26).

Through the rest of the Book of Mormon, we see a constant struggle against the development of elites. When the people become wicked in their prosperity, it almost always takes the form of the rich persecuting the poor.

One has only to think of money-loving Ammonihah and the elitist Zoramites to get the point -- these cultures were distinct from the Nephite people who were actually living the gospel, but they no doubt would look perfectly ordinary to archaeologists of today.

When the gospel is lived in its perfection, elites disappear entirely (4 Ne 3, 16-17). The end of the golden age is marked by the reestablishment of distinctions between the rich and poor (4 Ne 24-26).

In other words, when Nephites are at their best, they would virtually disappear as a state from the archaeological record.

Add to that the fact that "none other people knoweth our language" (Mormon 9:34), which may refer only to the language in which they kept their records, and we might find that Nephite culture does not show up in any distinctive way to archaeologists.

Nephite culture overlaps with Mayan history only in the era right before Mormon's own time, after the collapse of the egalitarian golden age that began with the coming of Christ. At that time, the great city of Teotihuacan in Mexico ("the land northward"?) imposed its power over one of the greatest Mayan cities of the time, deposing a king and replacing him with a puppet.

At that time, the "Nephites" (remember that this term no longer had its pre-Christ meaning) had close connections in the land northward; it was in the land northward that Ammaron had hidden the ancient records that he entrusted to Mormon.

Might it not be possible that, like the ancient Israelites in Egypt during the Hyksos era, the Nephites had become closely tied with a foreign ruling class? When Mayan kings threw off the rule of Teotihuacan and drove them back into the "land northward," might that not be a part of what we're seeing in the life of Mormon?

The Nephites might have taken refuge in the land northward, where they had allies; but by the time they tried to retake their southern homeland, Teotihuacan might have been so reduced in power that the Nephites had only themselves to rely upon as they were ground up under the conquering king Jacob of the Lamanites.

Once the Nephites ceased to exist as a nation, their memory would be expunged from Mayan history as if they had never existed -- there are precedents.

The politics of the various Lamanite cities would have been meaningless to Mormon; he was telling the history of the Nephites and their relationship with God. My point is merely that it is easy to fit known Nephite history into Maya history during the few centuries when they overlap.

A society whose ideal was to keep even their kings from being distinguished by wealth, and which then proceeded to replace kings with ordinary citizens elected to judgeships, is one that is not going to show up very easily in the archaeological record.

Particularly if they otherwise looked like everybody else -- using the same tools, agriculture, and building patterns.

And yet it is precisely that cultural difference that Mormon and Moroni stress for our benefit in their abridgment. "Jesus Christ hath shown you unto me, and I know your doing," says Moroni (Mormon 8:35), and this may be the reason Mormon made sure we were told again and again how destructive it is when the rich become puffed up in their pride.

Copyright © 2011 by Orson Scott Card

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