An LDS Guide to the Yucatán by Daniel Johnson, Jared Cooper, and Derek Gasser (Springville, Utah: Cedar Fort, 2012) is probably my top recommendation for an intelligent, fun, and beautiful LDS book that you will want to own and give to others. It is available as a PDF directly from Cedar Fort (just $9.99), or for Kindle via Amazon. “Intelligent, fun, and beautiful” are compliments I don’t give easily and rarely give all at once, unless, of course, I am talking about my wife. Speaking of my wife, we read this book together during some of our recent travels in China, which have increased our interest in the ancient world and our respect for those who undertake adventure in foreign lands.
We both found An LDS Guide to the Yucatán to be enlightening, entertaining, and inspiring. We loved the many sidebars with tangential information on Book of Mormon topics and evidences and on practical travel tips and experiences. We also loved the photography that brings many beautiful Mayan sites to life. I especially appreciated the caution and restraint generally exercised by the authors as they refrained from leaping to extreme conclusions, recognized weaknesses and problems in some pro-Book of Mormon positions, acknowledges alternate explanations, and let the reader know when they were offering speculation or tentative suggestions in applying Mesoamerican finds and legends to Book of Mormon topics. Finally, what I like about this book is the on-site, real-world experience the authors have with their subject matter. It is one thing to discuss what others have written about a site in Mesoamerica. It is another to have been there and examine the terrain and the ruins in detail, to have spoken with its curators and to have witnessed what the state of excavation actually is. There is both a great deal of homework coupled with hands-on investigation behind this book, yet it is presented in a highly readable form with great attention to layout and aesthetics. It’s truly a pleasure to read, to view, and to digest.
This book is a follow-up to an earlier book based on travels in Mesoamerica, An LDS Guide to Mesoamerica (Cedar Fort, 2008) which dealt with related Book of Mormon topics based on travels in the adjoining regions of Guatemala, Mexico, and Honduras. Some material on the Yucatan was meant to be included in that volume, but could not be for space considerations. This new volume includes significant added information based on further travels and study. I’m glad they waited for this second book.
The authors caught my attention in the opening pages with his discussion of a prophecy from the Book of Chilam Balam, a book with origins in the Yucatan Peninsula . He presents the following tidbit in the context of answering the question, “Why Go to the Yucatan?”–or rather, why should fans of the Book of Mormon care about the Yucatan?
The Yucatán is also a great introduction to traveling in Mesoamerica because of the safety and ease of traveling around there. That is why it is such a popular tourist destination. There are also intriguing bits of history to consider. One that is of interest these days is the Book of Chilam Balam. Local variants of this collection of writings and prophecies by the ‘Jaguar Priest’ were kept in towns throughout the Yucatán Peninsula. Written early during the Spanish conquest, they draw upon older hieroglyphic texts which contain cyclical prophecies, each lasting a katun, a period of years in the Maya calendar lasting almost 20 years. In the early 1500s, the original prophet, or chilam, for whom the collection is named, lived in Maní and predicted the coming of bearded men from the east bringing a new religion. It is believed that he had in mind the return of Quetzalcoatl and his white-robed priests,3 but ironically, the Spanish arrived right on schedule, bringing Catholicism. His words seemed to foretell the event: “A new day shall dawn in the north, in the west … . Our lord comes, Itzá. Our elder brother comes, … . Receive your guests, the bearded men, the men of the east, the bearers of the sign of God, lord. Good indeed is the word of God that comes to us. The day of our regeneration comes … . The First Tree of the World is restored; it is displayed to the world. This is the sign of Hunab-ku (the true and living God) on high. Worship it, Itzá … . They will correct their ways who receive him in their hearts … .”4
But what is not often remembered is what the Chilam Balam said of these newcomers: “Behold, when they come, there is no truth in the words of the foreigners to the land.” He ends his prophecy by asking, “Who will be the prophet, who will be the priest who shall interpret truly the word of the book?”5
My guard was up, though, since intriguing passages of this nature of are often misquoted, taken out of context, or sometimes completely mangled as internet rumors become promoted to faith-promoting stories. But as with so much in this book, the authors have done their homework and have shown care and caution in what they present. The citation has been accurately made from The Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel. You can read about this Mayan book in the Wikipedia article at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chilam_Balam by Ralph L. Roys. You can download the book for free at ForgottenBooks.org and verify the citations from pages 116 and 117.
The book takes you step-by-step through a trip into the Yucatan. The sites covered are Ek Balam, Chichen Itza, Uxmal, Loltun Cave
(an amazing site where pre-Columbian horse remains were found), Kabah, Xpujil, Calakmul, Becan, and Coba. There is also an appendix that discusses the Mayan site of Cancuén (not to be confused with the resort of Cancún). For each site, the primary text discusses the history and significance of the site, accompanied with some great photography, while sidebars provide information on how they traveled there and on some specific Book of Mormon topics such as horses, metals, elephants, fortifications, warfare, the honeybee, Quetzlacoatl, and gold plates. Gold plates? Yes, the section on metals has some interesting material not widely known to Latter-day Saints. Here is an excerpt from page 49:
Notwithstanding the popular belief that the Maya did not have metal, most museums will have a small display of copper and bronze objects in their Mesoamerican section. We were fortunate enough to have been granted a research visit at the Peabody Museum at Harvard in April of 2007. During this visit, we saw and handled blades and knives of various sizes and configurations from their collections in storage. Some are rough and green with age, but some are still smooth and without copper’s green corrosion, indicative of an alloy like bronze. We also saw large copper spearheads, something we had not known of before and did not expect. Surprisingly, included in this collection are some iron blades and implements, which we saw as well. They are pre-Columbian and were found in mounds in Costa Rica. See the chapter on Kabah for more information.
Those who still assert that the Maya had no metal implements must not have visited many museums or read Landa’s description of metal blades and tools. [Landa, Yucatan Before and After the Conquest, pp. 50, 90, 94.] While they did primarily use stone and obsidian as cutting ￼blades, it is certain that they had weapons and tools of metal as well. Just how common these were will probably remain unanswered, as the damp climate of Mesoamerica is not conducive to the preservation of metals.
Later some highly interesting material is presented under the header, “Plates of Gold?” They discuss the dredging of an ancient Mayan cenote (water hole) by Edward Thompson, who roughly a century ago found numerous artifacts that he shipped to the Peabody Museum at Harvard, unbeknownst to Mexican authorities.
Because of Thompson’s work, the Peabody Museum has perhaps the best collection of Mesoamerican artifacts outside of the region. However, because of space and financial issues, most of these objects are not on display, but rather archived in the museum’s immense storage facilities. Thompson found carved jade, wooden objects, tools, gold ornaments, copper axes, other obscure metal items, and of course, human remains. Many people know about some of these artifacts, but very few know about the gold plates and sheets he found. Many of them are decorated with images of warfare and sacrifice, showing bearded Toltecs.71 Some have Mayan hieroglyphics carved around the edges. The gold came from as far away as Panama, and it is possible that it was brought to Chichén as blank plates to be engraved by the local Maya.72 They date to the ninth century AD.73
These gold plates are quite remarkable. The detail is astounding, with precise and tiny designs. After inspecting them up close, it is our opinion that very precise and delicate metal tools would be necessary to do such work. The gold itself is very thin, but quite strong and stiff. Most had been crumpled up into balls, either on purpose or by the action of centuries of mud and water, so they have been carefully opened and flattened out as much as possible. Scholars refer to them as disks and believe they are pictured worn or carried by the Toltecs on the murals of the Temple of the Jaguar. For them, they were important symbols of authority and represented portals into the next world and a means of obtaining revelation and prophecy.74 Other gold objects we saw at the museum are small, rectangular sheets, some flat and some curved. Most of these are plain, but some have designs carved into them….
Are these plates directly linked to the Book of Mormon? Obviously not, but they do show that such technology and skills existed by around 400 years after the end of the record. Needless to say, the existence of such artifacts was not even imagined in Joseph Smith’s time. Now, as then, people scoff at the idea of writings on plates of gold in ancient America. However, we suspect that if more people knew of what has been kept in the Peabody for almost a century, the laughter would be less loud.
Provocative as these aforementioned metal items are, it is obvious that they are not old enough to be directly related to Book of Mormon events. We must admit that metallurgy does not appear to have been an integral part of the Maya culture until late in their history, and then, perhaps only to a limited extent. The Yucatán Peninsula does not even have the necessary ores for metalworking, so these weapons, tools, and ceremonial items had to be brought in from other lands, probably through trade. (pages 51-53)
The authors not only provide photos of some of these finds, but identify the item numbers at the Peabody Museum and give a URL for the museum. The most interesting gold plate is item number 10-71-20/C10049. At the Peabody Museum Collections Online site at http://pmem.unix.fas.harvard.edu:8080/peabody/, simply enter the item number in the search box and you will be presented with the following photo of a pre-Columbian gold plate from Chichen Itza in the Yucatan Peninsula, with a small amount of additional information:
This delicate gold plate contains Mayan glyphs and, though dated too late to directly fit into Book of Mormon timelines, still should be of some interest to Book of Mormon enthusiasts, especially in light of increasingly antiquated objections made to the Book of Mormon based on questions involving metals and writing on gold plates. The authors recognize the limitations of these finds and may even error in understating the significance of the finds. But restraint and caution is a virtue in these matters.
That restraint weakens slightly in discussing the issue of horses in the Book of Mormon, where the authors feel that multiple finds of actual pre-Columbian horse remains in the Yucatan and elsewhere in the Americans clearly show that ancient horses in the Americas were not completely extinct in at least early Book of Mormon times, resulting in no need to consider the possibility of other species being meant by the term “horse”:
The hard evidence of pre-Columbian horses means that we should not be too apologetic about their appearance in the Book of Mormon, nor do we have to go to extraordinary lengths to explain them. There are still some controversial elements in the scriptural record that we may never be able to explain, but the existence of horses in Ancient America is not one of them. The case is closed on that subject. When Nephite record keepers wrote about horses, they apparently meant horses just as we would understand them. (p. 78)
That may be too strong a position, in my opinion, but the point is logical in light of what they present. However, their multiple finds recited can still be viewed as scant evidence that may leave room to wonder about human error or other anomalies, and further finds or analysis may be needed to before the case is really closed.
The “defense of the Book of Mormon” elements are only a portion of the book, and those not interested in those issues may still enjoy the bulk of the material just for better appreciating the ancient Mayan world and the fascinating experiences of exploring the Yucatan. For me, the mix of Book of Mormon insights, historical insights, photography, and travel experiences made it a constantly interesting and enjoyable book, and one that I intended to share with others as a gift.
The book leaves many questions unanswered, which I think is actually an important lesson from this work. Many times the authors indicate how little has actually been excavated at key sites, how little work is now being done, and how little has been preserved from ancient times, meaning that what we now know is rather incomplete and subject to change. They also bring out several examples of established wisdom from the past having been overthrown by new findings in recent years. For those whose testimonies were weakened by pronouncements about the ridiculousness of ancient writing on metal plates, the impossibility of ancient horses in the Americas, or many other critiques of the Book of Mormon based on the sorely limited knowledge of apparent experts, this volume might also be helpful in several ways, if only to open the door to further patience and more thorough study.
While the documentation is excellent and the authors have done a great deal of homework in addition physically inspecting the sites in this book, they are not professional archeologists, anthropologists, or linguists specializing in Mayan studies. There is some fascinating material discussing Mayan glyphs and their meaning, as well as their ability to express some Book of Mormon names, but one wonders what qualifies the authors to delve into speculative possibilities with the Mayan language. A discussion of Mayan glyphs and Book of Mormon names in an appendix left me wondering if that material should have been included and if it might be far too speculative or whether it has any merit, something I cannot say since I know nothing about Mayan or other Mesoamerican languages. The ability to express random names with the phonetic units of Mayan is not necessarily meaningful nor even a worthwhile exercise on its own.
One of my frustrations about the book is that the authors are not really introduced in the text and the reader is left wondering who these three people are and why they are collaborating for this book. From their blog (http://ldsguide.blogspot.com/), it is clear that the lead author, Daniel, has made multiple trips to Mesoamerica and has led many others to the region on tours. While it is that kind of experience among the authors that adds so much flavor and value to the book, it is not the same as the experience of someone who has been doing the excavating and has years of archaeological scholarship under their belt. That is not to take away from what has been achieved here in this work, but to remind the reader to approach it with reasonable expectations and the ability to exercise the same kind of caution that the authors generally exercise. If I were a Mesoamericanist scholar, I might have numerous issues to challenge and bones to pick (an easy assumption, since studies in Mesoamerica seem to be characterized by a great deal of controversy among the professionals), but given that I am not, it is harder for me to identify gaps in the analysis and discussion from the book. While there is further homework that I need to do, I can still say that I greatly appreciate what these Mesoamerican enthusiasts have provided for the rest of us. Indeed, both my wife and I are much more interested in actually visiting the region now and viewing some of the sites that the authors have brought to life.
I congratulate the authors, Daniel Johnson, Jared Cooper, and Derek Gasser, for an enjoyable and original contributions, including some gems from Mesoamerica that have been overlooked before. Kudos also to Cedar Fort for another outstanding volume that should appeal to many Latter-day Saints and those interested in better understanding LDS topics.