Thursday, September 18, 2014

A Book of Mormon Trifecta

If the Book of Mormon geography problem is solved in this generation as I believe it will be, these three resources will prove pivotal:
  1. The 2009 Yale edition of the text edited by Royal Skousen. Based on the best scholarship currently available, this is as close as we can come to the words that fell from the lips of the prophet as he dictated to his scribes in the moment of translation. The Lord's target language was Early Modern English (A.D. 1470 - 1700+) and the translation process was largely controlled by a higher power. See the blog article "Early Modern English." We can take this text at face value, read with precision and ferret meaning from every word. This is our tool for textual analysis.  
  2. The Oxford English Dictionary. The OED, in process since 1857, is the ultimate authority on English. It can help us grasp the nuanced meanings of words and phrases as they were understood in the time of Shakespeare and the King James Bible. This is  our tool for lexical analysis. The combination of the Yale edition and the OED are still subject to interpretive assumptions. To understand our assumptions, see the blog articles "Plainness" and "Some Questions and a Rule."
  3. Google Earth. World's most widely-used geographic information system can quickly prove or disprove hypotheses. Is point A higher in elevation than point B? Is B east of A? How many air kilometers separate A from B? Where are the mountains? rivers? swamps? dense foliage? How high is the tree canopy? Are known mineral reserves nearby? Does an area exhibit wilderness characteristics? Where are the known archaeological sites in the area? How many square kilometers are in a tract of land? How many people live in the area today? What routes do the modern roads and railroads follow? These and dozens of similar questions can be answered with specialized data sets rendered in Google Earth. Then, as a model begins to come together, Google Earth is an ideal repository because most Book of Mormon students on the planet can access it with minimal effort and expense. This is our tool for spatial analysis.
Our tool for chronological analysis, admittedly crude, is the timeline published in the 1980 and 2013 LDS editions of the text. We are aware of the excellent work being done by Randall P. Spackman ("The Jewish/Nephite Lunar Calendar" in Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 7/1, 1998) but have not yet incorporated it into our research methodology. Our tools for cultural analysis include such important works as John L. Sorenson's Mormon's Codex: An Ancient American Book (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2013).

The 2009 Yale edition hardbound costs $30 - $40 and a Kindle edition is available. The OED online edition costs $295 per year for an individual subscription in the US and Canada. Many libraries and academic institutions subscribe. Google Earth is free to download on Linux, Windows and Mac. The Google Earth Pro edition costs $399 per year for a single user license. The free version has 95% of the functionality in the paid version and will be adequate for almost all students of the Nephite text.

Using all three resources extensively, we have analyzed a key feature in Nephite, Lamanite and Jaredite geography, the narrow (small) neck of land, from a variety of perspectives. A precis of this analysis illustrates the way the Book of Mormon trifecta can facilitate clear, definitive correlations based on data-driven, reproducible results. 
  • Since many people correlate the Isthmus of Tehuantepec with the narrow (small) neck, we used Google Earth and Microsoft Excel to list 53 well-known isthmuses in ascending order by width. Tehuantepec, at 216 km, is the widest isthmus in our sample set and may be the widest on earth. It is 10X the width of the mean and 73X the width of the median of our sample. As isthmuses go, Tehuantepec is huge, even gigantic. Its surface area (as defined by geographers) is 57,629 square kilometers which is nearly 3X the size of the modern nation of Israel. Correlating it with the diminutive language in the text (narrow, small) is ludicrous. See the blog article "Isthmuses."
  • Reading the text closely, we identified 17 occurrences of the word "narrow," 10 occurrences of the allied word "strait," and 50 occurrences of the word "small." Analyzing all passages containing these 77 occurrences, we deduced a reasonable upper limit for the width of the things being described. This included a preliminary look at 15 land forms in 6 different countries with the word "neck" in their name. Our results from this textual and spatial analysis: to be either "narrow" or "small" in Book of Mormon parlance a geographic feature will probably not exceed 5 km in width with 20 km the extreme upper limit of plausibility. See the blog article "Narrow and Small Things."
  • We then analyzed all occurrences of the word "neck" in the text and discovered an interesting passage (2 Nephi 18:8) where this word is used in a geographic context. Exegesis on this passage led us to conclude the Isaiah neck would not have exceeded 5 km in width and was probably closer to 2 km. See the blog article "Another Geographic Neck."
  • Immersing ourselves in the text, we identified 15 criteria any candidate narrow (small) neck must satisfy. Key findings: a) Orientation is generally southward to northward, b) The neck fronts one and only one sea - the west sea. c) The neck is near the east-west Bountiful/Desolation line that rises in the east and terminates at the west sea. d) The east-west line is situated in a place where the topography aids defense and can help a standing army control hostile southward-northward movement. e) The east-west line is on the order of 22.5 km in length according to our derivation of the standard Nephite unit of distance measure documented in the blog article "Land Southward Travel Times," f) The neck is near a harbor suitable for berthing and launching ocean-going vessels. g) The neck is near an important Olmec (Jaredite) archaeological site. h) The neck is near an inlet of the ocean or an outlet (mouth) where an inland saltwater lagoon breaches the coastal sandbar. i) Southward from the narrow neck is terrain suitable for a game preserve. j) The width of the neck does not exceed 5 - 20 km. Using Google Earth we then showed how our candidate for the narrow (small) neck, the Barra San Marcos running along the Pacific coast of Chiapas, fits all 15 criteria comfortably. See the blog article "The Narrow (Small) Neck of Land."
  • Further close reading of the text led us to the conclusion that other significant Book of Mormon geographic features lay in close proximity to the neck.. These include a) the narrow pass, b) the narrow passage, and c) the east-west defensive line described in Helaman 4:7. We identified 16 textual criteria the narrow pass must satisfy, non enumerated criteria the narrow passage must satisfy, and 3 criteria the fortified line must satisfy. Using Google Earth we then showed how our candidates for these 3 geographic features fit all criteria clearly and precisely. See the blog article "The Narrow Pass and Narrow Passage." With this analysis complete, we had identified an ecosystem of 16 geographic features from the text, all in the immediate vicinity of the narrow (small) neck of land. There were enough intersecting and mutually reinforcing lines of reasoning supporting our correlations we felt comfortable in April, 2013 claiming a 90% confidence level in this portion of our map. See the blog article "Plainness." That confidence level has since risen as we have pursued additional lines of inquiry.
  • After a visit to Sant-Malo, France, we were convinced our analysis in blog article "The Narrow Pass and Narrow Passage" point 12 was solid (pun intended.) The use of granite as a defensive architectural building material affords a logical explanation for the otherwise enigmatic passage in Mormon 4:4. See the blog article "French Connection" point 6.   
  • As soon as a second witness (Stanford Carmack) corroborated Royal Skousen's conclusions about Elizabethan, Jacobean and Caroline English and tight control over the translation process (see the blog article "Early Modern English") we felt impressed to focus attention on the 1500's and 1600's. Using Google Earth, Microsoft Excel and a few historical records, we came up with an alphabetized list of 115 necks of land from the English colonial era whose names persist on modern maps. We ventured into Australia and New Zealand for a few examples actually called "narrow neck." This was a major expansion and refinement of the research we published in November, 2012 under the title "Narrow and Small Things." How many necks of land are there along the eastern seaboard of North America? Hundreds. Our sample set of 115 is comprehensive but by no means exhaustive. Important things we learned about necks of land named in the Early Modern English era: a) They averaged 2.0 kilometers in width. Barra San Marcos is 2.0 km wide. b) They were almost all (98%) peninsulas rather than isthmuses. Barra San Marcos is a peninsula. c) Most of them (87%) fronted salt water and/or estuaries. Barra San Marcos fronts estuarial waters on one side and open ocean on the other. We illustrated 8 example necks from our sample set of long, slender coastal sandbars similar to Barra San Marcos. See the blog article "Necks of Land."
  • Having some experience with languages other than English, we were curious how LDS translators had rendered Alma 22:32, Alma 63:5 and Ether 10:20 in various romance languages. This is important because the way a language commonly describes a particular land form tells us salient things about the land form itself. We found 6 "tongues" of land, 5 "strips" and 1 "isthmus." See the blog article "Romance Languages." These expressions lend support to our notion of a slender, peninsular land form.
  • Finally, we immersed ourselves in the OED to understand Early Modern English senses of words and phrases such as "narrow," "small neck," and "led into." See the blog article "OED on Necks of Land." Some key findings: a) Something "narrow" has a length considerably larger than its width or breadth. This corroborates Barra San Marcos, but disqualifies the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. b) In 1676, Englishmen along the coast of Tabasco used the term "small neck of land" to describe the long, slender sandbar Barra del Panteon which fronts the open ocean on one side and a network of saltwater lagoons on the other. The correspondences with Barra San Marcos, 270 air kilometers distant, could hardly be more striking. c) The Early Modern English sense of the word "between" came from "by twin" meaning an independent entity C adjunct to but not integral with A and B, both of whom share significant commonalities. From this we conclude the narrow (small) neck of land was not a seamless continuation of either the land southward or the land northward, but another kind of land form entirely, aligned with the other two. In this sense, Barra San Marcos fits perfectly while the Isthmus of Tehuantepec fails utterly. d) The sense of the phrase "led into" which occurs 4 times in the text associated with 3 different geographic features is a distinctive, independent entity in communication with another entity like a gate to a garden or a path to a forest. Again, Barra San Marcos fits this sense of meaning in contrast with the Isthmus of Tehuantepec which clearly does not. Furthermore, the directionality of the narrow neck, pass and passage specified in the text is a striking corroboration of our correlation.
With the convergence of all these streams of evidence, we are now 98% confident our correlation of the narrow (small) neck of land with Barra San Marcos along the Pacific coast of Chiapas is correct. Ric Hauck and Joe Andersen have been trying to get us to pay attention to this area around Tonala, Chiapas since at least the 1980's (See F. Richard Hauck, Deciphering the Geography of the Book of Mormon, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1988. 98% is as far as we are willing to go right now because archaeological excavation will always have the last word. We are also 98% confident that the Usumacinta is river Sidon, the Caribbean is sea east, and the Pacific is sea west.

We believe this methodology - mining the Yale edition, OED and Google Earth for meaning - will eventually result in a working consensus on Book of Mormon New World geographic correlations through the same proven iterative process of reproducible results that drives science generally. Most of the historical disagreements among LDS Mesoamericanists stem from these four questions:
  1. What does the text say and what does it not say? The Yale edition solves this problem. It provides a de facto standard for scholarly inquiry.
  2. What do the words in the text mean? Now that we know we are dealing with Early Modern English, careful reading in the OED pretty much solves this problem.
  3. Does a particular geographic feature fit the text? With appropriate data sets, Google Earth can tell us yes or no quite quickly.
  4. Do ancient cultural resources fit the text? This data will remain forever tentative because of the dynamic nature of Mesoamerican scholarship. Significant new archaeological fieldwork will be required to advance the state of this art. 
The methodology described above will facilitate consensus on questions 1 - 3. Question 4 remains open to interpretation as new discoveries continually enhance our understanding of the ancient cultures in our area of interest.