Interview Michael Coe

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Coe is the Charles J. MacCurdy professor emeritus of Anthropology at Yale University and curator emeritus of the Division of Anthropology at the school's Peabody Museum of Natural History. He is an expert on the Maya, who inhabited the same part of Mexico and Central American where Mormon scholars say the events of the Book of Mormon took place. In this interview, Coe discusses the challenges facing Mormon archaeologists attempting to prove the historical truth of their central scripture and his own views on Joseph Smith. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted May 16, 2006.

How did you first get interested in this exotic subject, the Mormons?

When I was a kid I don't think I knew anything about the Mormons, except of course stories about polygamy and things of that sort. But when I was at Harvard as an undergraduate and got into anthropology for the first time, I took a course on comparative religion. It was great. It was given by a wonderful professor, Evan Bowen. One of his colleagues and former students was a man named Tom O'Dea. He invited him in to give a guest lecture on the Mormons and Mormonism, on the theology of Mormonism.

I was astonished by it. This was a world I knew nothing about. I was really fascinated with the whole idea about how these people believe, for instance, that eventually every man and woman is going to go to heaven and become a God and Mrs. God; I never heard of this. This was a different side of things. That initially got me into this whole field. ... So I was hooked really even before I began to go into the field as an archaeologist and met real Mormon archaeologists.

What stereotypes ... did you hear about Mormons, or continue to hear?

One thing that I did know about the Mormons was, of course, polygamy. My grandfather was a big collector of Western Americana. He had a major collection of books and manuscripts, things of this sort that he gave eventually to Yale University. When I was a Harvard student he got me up to Yale to meet all of his pals in the library system. We were taken in to see the Mormon collection. I mean, it's a major collection of manuscripts having to do with the Mormon winning of the West, their side of the story, but also anti-Mormon materials there, which were fascinating, because I didn't know there was an anti-Mormon movement.

There was a wonderful poster there -- actually kind of a broadside, really quite well done. It purported to be a view of inside the Beehive House in Salt Lake, Brigham Young's house, with all the dormer windows running along and so forth, and a wife ensconced beneath each one. Down below, the caption said, "Last one in bed turn out the lights."

“Joseph Smith had a sense of destiny; ... this is how he transformed something that I think was clearly made up into something that was absolutely convincing.”

It was a wonderful archival collection. The Mormon Church itself recognizes the importance of that bunch of materials. We used to discuss this all the time when I was with my grandfather.

I'd love for you to talk to me about who Joseph Smith is to you, why he fascinates you.

Well, in fact I'm a totally irreligious person, even though I was born and raised a perfectly good Episcopalian Christian. Yet figures like Joseph Smith fascinate me as an anthropologist, and I suppose as an American, too. When I read Fawn Brodie's wonderful book, No Man Knows My History, I couldn't put it down. I mean, it's the most exciting biography I've ever read.

When I did read it for the first time, I realized what kind of a person this Joseph Smith was. In my opinion, he was not just a great religious leader; he was a really great American, and I think he was one of the greatest people who ever lived. This extraordinary man, who put together a religion -- probably with many falsities in it, falsehoods, so forth, to begin with -- eventually came to believe in it so much that he really bought his own story and made it believable to other people. In this respect, he's a lot like a shaman in anthropology: these extraordinary religious practitioners in places like Siberia, North America among the Eskimo, the Inuit, who start out probably in their profession as almost like magicians doing magic. ...

I really think that Joseph Smith, like shamans everywhere, started out faking it. I have to believe this -- that he didn't believe this at all, that he was out to impress, but he got caught up in the mythology that he created. This is what happens to shamans: They begin to believe they can do these things. It becomes a revelation: They're speaking to God. And I don't think they start out that way; I really do not. ...

It's as though P.T. Barnum had started to believe his own fakeries. In many respects he was a great man, [and] he could have done something of the same thing, but he didn't. He didn't have this kind of inner spirit and this sense of destiny that Joseph Smith had. Joseph Smith had a sense of destiny -- and most fakers don't have this -- and this is how he transformed something that, I think, was clearly made up into something that was absolutely convincing, convincing to him and to a lot of people, and he never could have convinced a lot of people if he hadn't been convinced himself.

Though [did he] convince a lot of people in the beginning?

He convinced a small number of people at the beginning, the witnesses -- not all of them, but he did. This man had an incredible memory. He made it up and dictated it nonstop. It's very long, the Book of Mormon. I mean, it's an incredible feat of the mind. Even if it is all made up, to do something like that is really extraordinary. And how literate was he? He knew the Bible very well, because it comes out in the language of the King James Bible, which I was raised on. But to be able to carry this through to its logical end, that's amazing. Really, it is. I mean, if it's a work of fiction, nobody has ever done anything like this before. And I think it is fiction, but he really carried it through, and my respect for him is unbounded.

... The 19th century and the passion for archaeology, the questions that were being asked: Locate Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon in that world.

The world that Joseph Smith lived in, in upstate New York, the so-called Burned-Over District, where all of these new religions were popping up, was one where there were vestiges of ancient Americans -- I mean, real archaeological sites with mounds -- and these were found all through the area that he traveled through; in Ohio especially, incredible mound sites. We could now know what cultures they belong to. In his day, ... the theory was, among most white Americans, that this had nothing to do with the American Indians that they saw around them, that they were made by other races who had come over. There are all sorts of theories: They could be Jews or Welshmen or Vikings or what have you [who] had made those mounds. ...

Of course the basis of it is totally racist -- the idea that Native Americans, the dark-skinned people, could not do this by themselves, and it had to be light-skinned people. That's very much part of what was in Smith's mind at that time. So it was no surprise that he came up with this idea that the Angel Moroni had come to him and told him about these ancient Nephites and Lamanites and Jaredites and so forth. It was all kind of pre-adapted; he was pre-adapted to this, let's say. ...

Aren't these natural questions for people who are maybe a generation or two from Europe?

If these people who were living in New York state and Ohio and the Middle West at this point had asked the surviving Native Americans at this point, they wouldn't know, either, who had built them, because they're so old. This was 1,000 years before anything that they knew, ... 1,000 years before their time. They would [have] had nothing but the vaguest legends about them also. ...

He also was influenced … by John Lloyd Stephens' book. ...

In 1841 -- after the Book of Mormon, actually -- there was a publication in New York and London of a wonderful two-volume work called Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan by John Lloyd Stephens, an American diplomat, and his artist-companion, the British topographical artist Frederick Catherwood, with wonderful illustrations by Catherwood of the Maya ruins. This was the beginning of Maya archaeology, ... and we who worked with the Maya civilization consider Stephens and Catherwood the kind of patron saints of the whole thing.

Well, Joseph Smith read these two volumes, and he was flabbergasted, because what he had dictated about the ancient cities in his mind, these were the ancient cities that he was talking about. They weren't in South America, as he originally thought; they were in Central America and neighboring Mexico. ...

The land that Joseph Smith talks about in the Book of Mormon is Zarahemla. And of course there's a whole history of Book of Mormon geography: Where was or where is Zarahemla? It's a land that is said to be right near a kind of an isthmus, which has waters on both sides. Very quickly Smith, after he had read the account of Stephens and Catherwood of the Maya cities, said it must be what he called Guatemala in those days, which comprised also the southeastern part of Mexico, the present state of Chiapas. ... So Zarahemla, in Book of Mormon geography, is the Maya area and what's right next to it.

Joseph, through his readings, was very clear where it was.

Well, Joseph Smith was absolutely certain from his readings of Stephens and Catherwood that the Maya cities were where Zarahemla was, ... and he flatly states it. Yet the curious thing is the Mormon Church does not take an official stand on this. It sort of reminds [one] a bit of the Vatican stand about the bones of St. Peter, which are believed by many to be directly underneath a main altar in St. Peter's [Basilica]. There were excavations carried out there over the years, and you can actually go down there and see what purports to be the resting place of St. Peter. Yet the Catholic Church has never taken a stand on that, either, and that's brilliant, because in case negative evidence shows up, they're still covered. If you come down flatly and say, "That's it," and then some new scientific method comes along that says it isn't it, or if you don't find that evidence, ... you still haven't made some statement that you can't get out of later. ...

What does the Book of Mormon claim, briefly? ...

Well, the Book of Mormon is a migration story, similar to the idea of the Book of Exodus in the Old Testament, except there are three migrations involved in this: an early one [involving a people] called the Jaredites, who landed in the New World at a very early date, thousands of years ago -- these people disappeared; and then a great one, and the most important one to the Mormons, which are the Nephites' passage across the ocean in boats with cattle, Old World domestic plants, with metallurgy and so forth. And after a while, of course, ... it starts to fall to pieces, as all civilizations usually do, and a faction called the Lamanites wins out. These people are the ones that are cursed by God, with dark skins. They're not at all beloved by God, and these are the ancestors of the American Indians today.

So it's a triple migration story. The job, according to a lot of Mormon archaeologists, their job is to find that this is a true story: that all these things actually existed in this place that is described in the Book of Mormon, which in this case would have to be in Guatemala and the neighboring Mexican state of Chiapas. This is what they have been after for 50 years, and unfortunately they've never found anything that would back it up. They have excavated all kinds of sites and, unfortunately, they have never found anything that would back it up. ...

While the Mormon Church doesn't take any official stand about the Book of Mormon events all taking place in a New World context, particularly a Mayan one, that didn't stop a wonderful painter, ... Arnold Friberg, from doing these amazing murals that you can see in every Mormon center across the country, from New York City to California. They're wonderful recreations of these great events -- battles of the Nephites and so forth -- but put in terms of the ancient Maya, the total background and everything. Even the costumes the people wear are Maya. ...

In these visitor centers, the visuals that are there, ... the explanation the people get from the young men and women who conduct one around are all that this story of the Book of Mormon actually took place; that it's factual; that it's real history just like European history, history of any other place, and that this is all true: The data are there; everything backs this up. ...

[So what do you think] as an archaeologist watching this happen, looking at this?

When I was a graduate student writing my dissertation on very early cultures in the south coast of Guatemala, it was suggested to me by Alfred Kidder -- who was the leading American archaeologist of his day, the leading New World archaeologist -- he asked me, since he was on the board the New World Archaeological Foundation, which had been founded to find for the Mormon Church these relics, these ancient remains, to go over and see what they're doing.

So I did. I went over and visited and spent a wonderful week with the New World Archaeological Foundation archaeologists, who were working on a very early site in the state of Chiapas, and I was very enormously impressed with the work they were doing. It had nothing to do with the book of Mormon archaeology. These were scientific archaeologists working with wonderful field methods. They undoubtedly believed in the Book of Mormon since they were religious Mormons, but they were doing a wonderful job, and I was impressed with that.

What are the main archaeological challenges to the Book of Mormon? As a responsible archaeologist, looking at what's come up, what are the challenges? ...

The Book of Mormon is very explicit about what the Nephites brought with them to this land: domestic animals, domestic crops, all of Old World origin; metallurgy, the compass, things like that. Just take domestic animals, for example. I mentioned horses and cattle. Nobody has ever found the bones of horses and cattle in these archaeological sites. Horses were already in the New World, all right, but were wiped out about 7000 B.C. by people coming in from Asia. They never found horse bones in these early sites between the prime period, which is 500 B.C. to A.D. 200.; never found cattle bones there; never found wheat or rye and these other things that they grow in the Middle East. Plenty of evidence for all kinds of other things that are Native American, but nothing there. And that's the problem: They simply haven't shown up. ...

There are people at FARMS [Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies] who believe important archaeological discoveries are in the making. These are very intelligent people. What is it they are resting their hopes on?

To make Book of Mormon archaeology at all kind of believable, my friend John Sorenson has gone this route: He has compared, in a general way, the civilizations of Mexico and Mesoamerica with the civilizations of the western part of the Old World, and he has made a study of how diffusion happens, really very good diffusion studies. He's tried to build a reasonable picture that these two civilizations weren't all that different from each other. Well, this is true of all civilizations, actually; there's nothing new under the sun.

So he has built up what he hopes is a convincing background in which you can put Book of Mormon archaeology, and he's a very serious, bright guy. But I'm sorry to say that I don't really buy more than a part of this. I don't really think you can argue, no matter how bright you are, that what's said in the Book of Mormon applies to the peoples that we study in Mexico and Central America. That's one way of doing it -- to build up a kind of convincing background, a kind of stage set to this -- but there's no actors. That's the problem. ...

If you are a Mormon intellectual considering this, what are the ways to go? ...

But Mormonism is not the only religion that faces this problem of what's actually in the ground or in the documents that could back it up. Probably all religions have this problem in one way or the other. The Exodus, of course, in the Old Testament of the Bible is the best example of this, for which there's just absolutely no archaeological justification whatsoever; there's never been found any hard evidence that the Exodus took place. The same thing is true for Christianity. I mean, what's the hard evidence for the ascension, for instance, or even for the crucifixion? We haven't got it, in spite of a couple of thousand years of looking for it, but it's not going to be there.

Other religions have this same problem, but if you take these as moral guideposts and an ethical kind of standard, that's a different story. As something to regulate your way of life and to make you think about the world and maybe even the afterlife, that's the way it can be handled. But you don't necessarily have to go and find this justification archaeologically all the time.

Would you say that there is also a question of degree? You can find scintillas of evidence that certain civilizations in the Old Testament existed. ...

There's a lot of biblical archaeology, of course, and everybody who is a believing Jew or Christian is always hoping that hard evidence is going to show up for one thing or the other. And there is a lot of evidence that events in the Bible really did happen. I mean, there really is a Jericho; there really is Jerusalem to be excavated. And of course the Romans did know about Christ; there's no doubt about that. ...

In the case of the Book of Mormon, you've got a much bigger problem. You really do. We have another part of the world where the archaeology is really very well known now; we know a lot about people like the Maya and their predecessors. So to try to find unlikely evidence in an unlikely spot, you've got a problem. And of course none of the finds that biblical archaeologists are rightly proud about, no finds on that level have ever come up for Mormon archaeologists, which makes it a big problem.

How do they cope with this? I'll be the first to admit I don't know; I really don't. I don't really know how my friends that are Mormon archaeologists cope with this non-evidence, the fact that the evidence really hasn't shown up -- how they make the jump from the data to faith or from faith back to the data, because the data and the faith are two different worlds. There's simply no way to bring them together. ...

You knew ... [New World Archaeological Foundation founder] Thomas Ferguson. His story is poignant. ... Tell me about this man who really put his faith in the archaeological digs he was involved in; he believed he would find in the dirt what he was longing to find.

Thomas Stuart Ferguson, whom I knew, Tom Ferguson was really a wonderful man. He had a long-range vision: that if the church would simply put money into actually digging at these sites, at the right time level and the right place where Zarahemla ought to be, they're going to find pay dirt; they're going to find evidence for it; that it's there. This faith carried him all the way through decade after decade of big excavations in this region by really fine archaeologists working for the New World Archaeological Foundation.

But then a terrible thing happened. The so-called Book of Abraham that Joseph Smith claimed to have derived by reading some Egyptian papyri that were sold to him turned out to be simply just that: Egyptian papyri. They were not the Book of Abraham. Joseph Smith said he could actually read this stuff, could read these hieroglyphs, and of course at this point neither he nor anybody else could read those hieroglyphs. So Ferguson lost his faith in one fell swoop. It just fell from him, this whole idea that you're actually going to find this stuff in the dirt, that pick and shovel are going to come up with Zarahemla. He lost the whole thing.

But the terrible, sad thing was that here he is in Mormon culture with his family, as a churchgoer, and all the social events and good things that are part of a whole Mormon way of life he would lose if he turned his back publicly and openly. And he never did. He went to his grave as a unbeliever but still feeling that the Mormon way of life was the best and not giving it up. So it was a total disjunction between these two things that must have really torn him up.

As someone who has moved in and out of the Mormon culture, you've had numerous friends who are Mormons, not just archaeologists. As an outside observer, what do you feel are the special difficulties of being a Mormon intellectual?

I think that being a Mormon archaeologist, you have to be two people. You have to be, one, an archaeologist that happens to be a Mormon, and also, you have to believe in the Mormon religion. Mormon archaeology can be the Book of Mormon archaeology, where you're actually going right from the beginning, trying to find the evidence that the Book of Mormon is correct.

Doing archaeology as a scientist who happens to be a Mormon is another dish of tea completely, and this is what most of my friends who are archaeologists are doing right now. They're extremely good archaeologists, and they have made wonderful discoveries in what we call the Formative Period in southern Mexico and Guatemala and amazing stuff that's being discovered right now. But they are quick to tell me that they are archaeologists who are also Mormon, like you can be an archaeologist and you can be a Catholic or a Muslim or Buddhist or nothing, as I am. You can do this.

But again, still it must bother them, because there are many people in the Mormon Church who want them to be doing Book of Mormon archaeology, and this they don't want to do. And the people who do Book of Mormon archaeology are no longer in the ascendancy. In major educational places like Brigham Young University, which has an absolutely marvelous anthropology/archaeology department, most people are archaeologists and anthropologists who are also Mormons, and that's a different thing. ...

How would you describe the attitude of most professional historians to orthodox Mormon archaeology? ...

One might wonder how my profession in general, the profession of archaeology, has used Book of Mormon archaeology -- or let's say archaeology done by Mormons; I always separate these two things out. I think that for the Book of Mormon, even though they don't know much about the Book of Mormon or Mormonism, they take the whole thing as a complete fantasy, that this is a big waste of time. Nothing can ever come out of it because it's just impossible that this could have happened, because we know what happened to these people. We can read their writings: They're not in reformed Egyptian; they're in Maya.

On the other hand, there are the archaeologists who are Mormons, and I think there's a huge amount of respect among my colleagues -- there certainly is with myself -- for the work that they have done and the work they're continuing to do. They're really great, whether they're from BYU or other institutions. They're doing a wonderful job; they're telling us about the American Indian past, the past of Native American civilizations. And they've made a unique contribution, I think, to the study of New World cultures. ...