The Church History Library receives numerous questions about artifacts mentioned in the Book of Mormon and Church history. These questions often ask if the Church is in possession of an artifact, whether we know the whereabouts of an artifact (if the Church doesn’t have it), or whether a recent archaeological exploration has unearthed an artifact. In most cases, unfortunately, the answer is no. True, the Church’s archives hold a few artifacts from Church history, including Joseph Smith’s seer stone. However, we do not have most of the interesting artifacts mentioned in the Book of Mormon, Pearl of Great Price, Doctrine and Covenants, and History of the Church.
Nevertheless, even if the answer to a question is “no” (or, similarly, “we don’t know”), these questions can reveal a lot about our history. Thus, without further ado, here are the top questions—and their answers—we receive about Book of Mormon artifacts:
1. Does the Church have the sword of Laban?
No, we don’t.
The main source for the sword of Laban being included in Moroni’s stone box in the Hill Cumorah was Joseph Smith’s sister Catherine, who mentioned the sword in an article published many years after Joseph’s death.1 Regardless of whether Laban’s sword was in the box, though, the only items from the box that Joseph Smith was allowed to take out were the gold plates, the breastplate, and the interpreters. Joseph never received possession of the sword of Laban, Liahona (if, indeed, it was also in the box), or any other Nephite artifacts mentioned in the Book of Mormon. It is true that Joseph saw the sword at least once, when Moroni showed it to the Three Witnesses along with the gold plates, breastplate, interpreters, and Liahona, but Moroni took the sword with him when he left.2
On June 17, 1877, Brigham Young gave a talk in Farmington, Utah, in which he recounted a story from Oliver Cowdery. Oliver had said that he and Joseph Smith saw the sword of Laban inside a cave in the Hill Cumorah. The cave, Oliver had told him, also contained piles of gold plates bearing the records of the Nephites. Other Saints of Brigham’s era were familiar with the story of the cave, too, though Brigham’s version remains perhaps the most well-known of the accounts, as it was published in the Journal of Discourses.3 The story has generated much discussion over the years, since, geologically-speaking, the Hill Cumorah is a drumlin, a giant pile of sand and gravel that is unlikely to support naturally-occurring cave structures.4 That hasn’t stopped people from searching for the cave Oliver described, but nobody has found it.
If you would like to learn more about the sword-in-the-Hill-Cumorah story, Cameron Packer wrote an article in 20045 comparing the story’s versions—all of which, Packer noted, were at least secondhand. Based on the available information, some researchers have concluded that Oliver may have seen the cave in a dream, not during an in-person visit.
2. Was a Nephite coin found in Utah in the 1800s?
In 1848, a recently-arrived pioneer named Isaac Chase found an odd coin buried 10 feet underground near what is now Liberty Park in Salt Lake City. The coin was old, and the writing on it was evocative of what some Saints supposed the gold plates’ characters looked like. Thus, over the years, some people concluded that the coin was Nephite in origin and had lain in the ground since the days of the Book of Mormon.6
That assumption persisted until Elder John A. Widtsoe sent the coin to New York City in 1925 for examination by the American Numismatic Society. The coin was determined to be a British East India Company pice, a coin minted in Bengal around the turn of the 18th century during the reign of Mughal emperor Shah Alam II. The writing on it was not reformed Egyptian—it was Bengali, Hindi, and Persian, the native tongue of the emperor.
Oliver Hoover, a numismatist, has identified other discoveries of pice across New England and Canada. His research has also shown that, during the early 1800s, colonial Canada accepted any copper coin as legal tender. Accordingly, Hoover suspects that pice may have been imported into North America by traders attempting to profit from a beneficial currency exchange rate. Since many early Saints came from New England, Hoover postulates that one of them may have brought the pice with them on their trek west.7
The real mystery is how the coin came to be buried ten feet deep in the Salt Lake Valley soil; no one knows.
3. Did the members of Zion’s Camp find the grave of a Book of Mormon-era warrior during their march through the American Midwest?
During the Zion’s Camp march, the group stopped in Pike County, Illinois, on June 2 or 3, 1834. As they surveyed the area, some of the men noticed a tall earthen mound on the west side of the Illinois River and began digging into it.8 In his autobiography, Heber C. Kimball recorded what happened next:
At about one foot deep we discovered the skeleton of a man, almost entire; and between two of his ribs we found an Indian arrow, which had evidently been the cause of his death. …
The same day, we pursued our journey. While on our way we felt anxious to know who the person was who had been killed by that arrow. It was made known to Joseph [Smith] that he had been an officer who fell in battle, in the last destruction among the Lamanites, and his name was Zelph. This caused us to rejoice much, to think that God was so mindful of us as to show these things to his servant. Brother Joseph had enquired of the Lord and it was made known in a vision.9
There are other accounts of the Zelph story written by members of Zion’s Camp, including Reuben McBride, Moses Martin, Wilford Woodruff, and Levi Hancock. Joseph also wrote a letter home in which he described “roving over the mounds” in the area and finding bones, though he does not mention Zelph by name.10
The Zelph story is often cited by those interested in establishing the geographical location of Book of Mormon places and events: if Zelph was present during the “last destruction of the Lamanites,” then some researchers conclude that Book of Mormon events may have happened in what is now southwest Illinois. However, the exact interpretation of this phrase is unclear—it is unique to Heber’s account—and the Church takes no official stance on Book of Mormon geography.11
In 1990, archaeologists from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the Center for American Archaeology went to the Zelph mound. Their excavation of the site unearthed additional artifacts, such as bowls and axe heads, which were dated to between 100 AD and 500 AD.12
Still, it is difficult to definitively say that Zelph was a warrior during the Nephite-Lamanite wars. If the records of the Zelph story are accurate, and if Joseph truly meant that Zelph was a participant in Book of Mormon events, and if Zelph was buried in the mound at the same time as the other items, then it is possible—but that’s a lot of ifs.
4. Were Nephite tablets found in Michigan?
No, it was a hoax.
In October 1890, a man in central Michigan named James Scotford announced he had discovered pieces of ancient ceramic in the ground while digging post holes.13 These pottery shards were covered with crudely-drawn religious imagery—the Flood and the Crucifixion were common depictions—and inscriptions in a non-English, non-Romanized script. The announcement created a stir in Scotford’s community, and soon other people began digging around the town for more artifacts—which, surprisingly, they found. These other pieces of ceramic included a clay box, a sculpted face, and a sphinx perched atop another box, all covered in similar characters. Not long after the initial discovery, similar artifacts made of slate or copper were also found.
News of the artifacts spread, albeit slowly, and attracted scrutiny. Two professors, Francis Kelsey from the University of Michigan and Morris Jastrow Jr. from the University of Pennsylvania, quickly realized that the writing on the artifacts was an incoherent mishmash of several ancient scripts. Kelsey also noticed that the ceramic’s composition included a large amount of sand, which, given the rainfall in Michigan, meant that the clay couldn’t survive underground for very long without dissolving. In other words, the artifacts were forgeries, created and seeded around Michigan by Scotford to garner fame and fortune. (Scotford tried selling the relics via mail order.)
Despite the professors’ denunciations, Scotford persisted, buoyed in his efforts by those he managed to convince that the relics were authentic—and by a man named Daniel Soper who wanted in on the con. In 1893, Scotford submitted a stone coffin to be exhibited at the World’s Fair in Chicago. Walter Wyman, who served as the head of the fair’s archaeology staff, saw through the ruse and rejected it. Five years later, upon hearing that Scotford was still marketing his supposed relics, Wyman paid Scotford a visit. He found Scotford hard at work creating more fakes, and Scotford was unrepentant, even offering to sell Wyman his latest creation—another stone sarcophagus—at a discounted price.
Eventually, news of the Scotford relics reached Salt Lake City. Unaware that the relics were forgeries, leaders of the Church were cautiously interested in them, as they could potentially provide evidence of a Book of Mormon-era civilization in North America. Elder James E. Talmage was asked to investigate. After extensive trips throughout the country collecting evidence, including a visit with Scotford himself in which Talmage dug up planted artifacts, Talmage used his scientific training to perform laboratory experiments on samples of the relics he took home to Salt Lake City. The experiments confirmed the relics’ fraudulent nature.
Additionally, Talmage arranged to speak with Scotford’s stepdaughter, Etta Riley. Talmage later wrote in his journal:
She solemnly declared to me that she positively knows her step-father, James Scotford, has made, buried, and dug up many of the articles reported to be genuine archeological relics. She gave circumstantial details, and agreed to sign a written statement with the proviso that such statement shall not be made public without her consent during the lifetime of her mother, Mrs. Jas. Scotford.
Riley was good to her word and later gave an affidavit testifying that the relics were frauds.14
Soon after, the Deseret Evening News published a report from Talmage exposing Scotford and Soper’s scheme,15 and the relics Talmage accumulated during his travels were put on exhibit in the Deseret Museum—not as legitimate artifacts but as a cautionary tale against con men.
Scotford’s discredited artifacts are now collectively referred to as the Michigan Relics by historians. Brigham Young University eventually acquired some of the Michigan Relics and invited Richard B. Stamps, an anthropology professor not affiliated with the Church, to analyze them. His analyses, in addition to other scholarly evaluations, were printed in BYU Studies.16
5. Was a Jaredite barge found in Lake Michigan back in the ’90s?
On January 25, 1999, a large, wooden, submarine-like object was found in Lake Michigan in the United States; CNN reported that the object was “the size of a bus and shaped like a zeppelin.”17 It was made from massive four-inch-thick oak boards that were curved and glued together to render the object watertight. Some Latter-day Saints who saw the report noticed the similarities between the object and the description of the Jaredite barges in the Book of Mormon. Could it be proof, they thought, of the Jaredite civilization?
Other Latter-day Saints were skeptical. If the Jaredites came from the Old World, one author wondered, why would a barge be found in Lake Michigan, not the ocean?18
A couple of weeks after the discovery, an answer came: the object was a prototype fuel tank built in 1942 by a Ukrainian immigrant to the United States named Mike Tym. Designed to float behind a shipping vessel tethered to it, the fuel tank was developed during World War II to “reduce losses of shipping from torpedoing, bombing, and shelling.”19 In other words, by putting some of a ship’s fuel in a tank trailing behind it, the tank’s inventor hoped to disperse and preserve valuable fuel stores—if the ship got hit, the tank would survive, and vice versa.
The project never went into production, and it appears that the prototype was scuttled to the depths of Lake Michigan.
Top image: An artist’s depiction of the gold plates.