CES Reply: Let There Be LiDAR!

This is a serialization of “A Faithful Reply to the CES Letter from a Former CES Employee.”  You can download the whole PDF here, and you can also participate in the Latter-day Saint Survey Project by joining or creating one of the Canonizer camps in the links at the bottom of this post.

This is a line-by-line response to Jeremy Runnells’s October 2017 iteration of the CES Letter. Jeremy’s original text appears in green, the color of life. My response text appears in black, the color of darkness.

Compare the absent evidence of remains of Book of Mormon civilizations to the archaeological remains of other past civilizations such as the Roman occupation of Britain and other countries. There are abundant evidences of their presence during the first 400 years AD such as villas, mosaic floors, public baths, armor, weapons, writings, art, pottery, and so on. Even the major road systems used today in some of these occupied countries were built by the Romans. Additionally, there is ample evidence of the Mayan and Aztec civilizations as well as a civilization in current day Texas that dates back at least 15,000 years . Another recent discovery has been made of a 14,000-year-old village in Canada .

There is also abundant and growing evidence of a Mesoamerican civilization consistent with Book of Mormon descriptions in an area that is the consensus location among scholars as to where the Book of Mormon took place.  More on that below. 

Admittedly, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but where are the Nephite or Lamanite buildings, roads, armors, swords, pottery, art, etc.?

Where indeed? What would Nephite buildings, roads, armors, swords, pottery, art, etc. look like?

You do realize that the Mayan and Aztec civilizations didn’t label themselves as such, right? Those titles represent transliterations of ancient pronunciation and symbols that, back when these civilizations were flourishing, probably bore no resemblance to how we reference them in modern English.

What would be the difference, for instance, between a Mayan bowl or a Nephite bowl? What would distinguish a Lamanite brick from an Aztec brick? How many Mayan roads, armors, or swords say “Property of the Mayan” on them? Any cultural impact of a Nephite, Lamanite, or Jaredite civilization would be impossible to verify based on examining ancient artifacts, regardless of how many may have survived.

How can these great civilizations just vanish without a trace?

That’s a nonsensical question. They left behind far more than a trace. Even since your last CES Letter revision, new evidence has surfaced that has utterly redefined how we understand ancient America.

From National Geographic: 

Using a revolutionary technology known as LiDAR (short for “Light Detection And Ranging”), scholars digitally removed the tree canopy from aerial images of the now-unpopulated landscape, revealing the ruins of a sprawling pre-Columbian civilization that was far more complex and interconnected than most Maya specialists had supposed.

“The LiDAR images make it clear that this entire region was a settlement system whose scale and population density had been grossly underestimated,” said Thomas Garrison, an Ithaca College archaeologist and National Geographic Explorer who specializes in using digital technology for archaeological research…

“LiDAR is revolutionizing archaeology the way the Hubble Space Telescope revolutionized astronomy,” said Francisco Estrada-Belli, a Tulane University archaeologist and National Geographic Explorer. “We’ll need 100 years to go through all [the data] and really understand what we’re seeing.”

LiDAR image of the Guatemalan jungle. Vanished without a trace? Please. 

 Source: https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2018/02/maya-laser-lidar-guatemala-pacunam/

This is why it’s never wise to jump to a final conclusion on scientific matters. The whole field can be rewritten in an instant with a new discovery like this one.

Latter-day Saint Thomas Stuart Ferguson was the founder of BYU’s archaeology division (New World Archaeological Foundation). NWAF was financed by the LDS Church. NWAF and Ferguson were tasked by BYU and the Church in the 1950s and 1960s to find archaeological evidence to support the Book of Mormon. After 17 years of diligent effort, this is what Ferguson wrote in a February 20, 1976 letter about trying to dig up evidence for the Book of Mormon:

“…you can’t set Book of Mormon geography down anywhere – because it is fictional and will never meet the requirements of the dirt-archaeology

I should say – what is in the ground will never conform to what is in the book.”

I had never heard of Thomas Stuart Ferguson before reading your letter, and it’s likely that the overwhelming majority of Latter-day Saints have never heard of him, either. He was a lawyer by trade, not a trained archaeologist, anthropologist, or geologist – an amateur, not an academic – and he’s at least as “unofficial” in his criticism as the apologists you so readily deride. Your argument is pretty weak if he’s the best witness you’ve got.

Dr. John Sorenson, a man with impeccable academic credentials who worked with Ferguson, had this to say about him:

[Stan] Larson implies that Ferguson was one of the “scholars and intellectuals in the Church” and that “his study” was conducted along the lines of reliable scholarship in the “field of archaeology.” Those of us with personal experience with Ferguson and his thinking knew differently. He held an undergraduate law degree but never studied archaeology or related disciplines at a professional level, although he was self-educated in some of the literature of American archaeology. He held a naive view of “proof,” perhaps related to his law practice where one either “proved” his case or lost the decision; compare the approach he used in his simplistic lawyerly book One Fold and One Shepherd. His associates with scientific training and thus more sophistication in the pitfalls involving intellectual matters could never draw him away from his narrow view of “research.” (For example, in April 1953, when he and I did the first archaeological reconnaissance of central Chiapas, which defined the Foundation’s work for the next twenty years, his concern was to ask if local people had found any figurines of “horses,” rather than to document the scores of sites we discovered and put on record for the first time.) His role in “Mormon scholarship” was largely that of enthusiast and publicist, for which we can be grateful, but he was neither scholar nor analyst.

Ferguson was never an expert on archaeology and the Book of Mormon (let alone on the book of Abraham, about which his knowledge was superficial). He was not one whose careful “study” led him to see greater light, light that would free him from Latter-day Saint dogma, as Larson represents. Instead he was just a layman, initially enthusiastic and hopeful but eventually trapped by his unjustified expectations, flawed logic, limited information, perhaps offended pride, and lack of faith in the tedious research that real scholarship requires. [Emphasis added, as this description fits Jeremy Runnells to a T, too.]

In any case, I’m sorry he lost his faith. Although I wonder if that would have been the case had he lived to see the LiDAR data.

Tomorrow, we get into the section that Jeremy Runnells himself has called the weakest section of the CES Letter. In the meantime, take a look at the Canonizer camps below – I’ve created a  subcamp about New World archaeology. If you think I’m completely wrong, you can join a camp that says so – or create one of your own!