Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Ancient Near Eastern Metallurgy

Dan Levene and Beno Rothenberg wrote about "Tin and Tin-Lead Alloys in Hebrew and Jewish Aramaic,"1 which may have some indirect relevance to the plates of the Book of Mormon. They write that tin, in its metallic, unalloyed form was traded as early as the middle of the third millennium BCE. They then mention archival material from Anatolia recording "a flourishing trade in tin ingots and ore between the Assyrians and Karum Kanesh in the second millennium BCE," to the tune of roughly 100 tons of tin traded during a forty to fifty year window over one particular route. The authors quote Numbers 31:22, which mentions gold, silver, copper, iron, tin and lead. They note that these were the six most commonly used metals in antiquity. The KJV translates copper as brass, and Levene and Rothernberg note that the term נְחשֶׁת "is used indiscriminately in pre-modern Hebrew as a designation for copper and a variety of its alloys." Citing Ezekiel 22:18-22, the authors observe that this passage could be understood to describe silver smelting and cupellation. Referring to Isaiah 1:25, they suggest that, "pure tin was only obtained by smelting tin ore and could not be obtained from other metals at the time. As tin was primarily used to produce bronze by alloying with copper, or as solders and pewters when alloyed with lead, it might equally well have meant 'alloy', for this would have been its most frequent use, and the refining process referred to in Isa. 1.25 would have included removal of 'alloys' . . . as well as of the 'dross'."

The authors move into post-Biblical Rabbinic literature, which is not relevant to our concerns here, but they conclude by asserting that, "Tin is a metal that is not usually used on its own in the manufacture of objects owing to the poor combinations of properties of the pure metal. Its most frequent use is in the production of bronze: copper alloyed with tin has greatly enhanced properties." They note that Ezekiel 27:12 tells us that tin was imported from Tarshish. 

This has some relevance to Nephi's story when he states that prior to manufacturing plates (1 Nephi 19:1), Nephi's group found "all manner of ore, both of gold, and of silver, and of copper" (1 Nephi 18:25). Others have written about Nephite metallurgy before,2 but I just want to point out something that has been called to attention before, and that is the nature of the "gold plates" as well as the Brass Plates of Laban.

1 Dan Levene and Beno Rothenberg, "Tin and Tin-Lead Alloys in Hebrew and Jewish Aramaic," Biblical Hebrew, Biblical Texts: Essays in Memory of Michael P. Weitzman, eds. Ada Rapoport-Albert and Gillian Greenberg, JSOT Supplement Series 333, The Hebrew Bible and its Versions 2 (New York: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001):101-112
2 John L. Sorenson, "Out of the Dust: Steel in Early Metallurgy," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 15/2 (2006):108-109, 127; Neal Rappleye, "Lehi the Smelter: New Light on Lehi's Profession," Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 14 (2015):223-225