Evidence #133 | January 18, 2021

Brass Objects

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Scripture Central

Abstract

Nephi’s description of brass objects, such as the Brass Plates and Liahona, are consistent with emerging archaeological data which shows that actual brass (not just bronze) was being deliberately produced in the ancient Near East by at least 1350 BC.

Brass Objects in the Book of Mormon

Nephi described two significant objects said to be made of brass. One of these was the exceptional and valuable “record of the Jews” which was “engraven upon plates of brass” and possessed by Laban, a man of power and means who lived at Jerusalem.  (1 Nephi 3:3). During their time in the wilderness, the Lord also blessed Lehi’s family with “a round ball of curious workmanship,” which Nephi said was made of “fine brass” (1 Nephi 16:10). While the second object, also described as the “Liahona” (Alma 37:38), was divinely made and functioned miraculously, Nephi’s reference to its fineness and artful construction suggests a recognition of its precious value.

Lehi holding the Liahona. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org. 

Bronze or Brass?

Some English translations of the Bible, including the King James version, refer to brass items even though the underlying Hebrew word for “brass” more likely refers to copper or a copper alloy such as bronze. Because the King James Bible was the most common bible available to English speakers at the time the Book of Mormon was translated, it is possible that descriptions of “brass” in the Nephite record are actually references to bronze, an alloy of copper and tin or copper and arsenic.1 However, it is now clear that actual brass was known in the ancient Near East hundreds of years before Lehi’s day, rendering it plausible that the Brass Plates and Liahona were made of actual brass.

Phoenician Bronze Bowl From Nimrud. Image via Ancient History Encyclopedia.

Ancient Near Eastern Brass

Brass is an alloy of copper and zinc. The amount of zinc in brass can measure between 5–40% of its weight content and sometimes includes small portions of other metallic elements as well. A higher amount of zinc in the alloy tends to give it a lighter and more golden hue. Until recently, it was believed that ancient brass was first known to the Romans, but in recent decades that view has been increasingly modified.2

Much to the surprise of scholars, archaeological specimens of actual brass are now attested from an early period. “Rather unexpectedly,” writes Paul Craddock in a recent report, “alloys of copper and zinc are known almost from the inception of metallurgy.”3 He notes that while some confusion has existed in past literature due to reports of brass that were not accurately represented, thanks to the work of recent specialists, “there remains a residuum of very early copper alloy artefacts from controlled excavations around the world that have been shown to contain substantial quantities of zinc.”4

Iranian brass ewer from the 7th century AD. Image via Wikimedia Commons. 

Christopher Thornton, in a study published in 2007, documented over thirty specimens of brass that had been identified between the Aegean and Iran dating to the early third and early first millennium BC.5 Since then, additional and significant finds have been documented in China and India as well.6

In the ancient Near East, specimens of brass containing between 6–15% zinc have been identified at several sites. These include a copper ring from Ugarit in Syria from 1400 BC,7 two copper bracelets from Cavustepe in northeastern Turkey,8 three fibula found at Gordion, in Turkey,9 and two “bronze” bowls found at the late Assyrian site of Nimrud.10

Linguistic evidence from Assyrian and Greek documents and literature provide additional support for the existence of brass at this time. According to Craddock

At just this time the Assyrian records make reference to a special copper, “copper of the mountain.” References to “special” coppers occur throughout the literature of antiquity, but this one is of special interest to the study of brass as soon afterwards there are references in Greek literature to oreichalkos, literally “copper of the mountain”, in what has become known as the orientalising phrase of Greek culture in the seventh and sixth centuries BC, when many ideas were absorbed from Greece’s neighbours to the East.11

Deliberate Brass Making

In order to address the question of whether early examples of brass were intentional or not, specialists have subjected several copper-zinc artefacts to chemical analysis. Specimens of known provenance were selected for reliability. These included a bracelet and several other fragments recovered from Tepe Yahya in southeastern Iran, dating to 1700 BC, and two finger rings found at Nuzi in northern Iraq, dating to 1350 BC.12

Analysis showed that each set of objects were clearly brass. The bracelet from Tepe Yahya was crafted from an alloy containing 19.4% zinc and 0.86% lead. A second cylindrical shaped piece found with the bracelet was found to contain 16.9% zinc, 1.82% lead, and 0.78% tin.13 Furthermore, analysis of the finger rings from Nuzi showed evidence of hammering and annealing. One ring contained 12.2% zinc, 6.3% tin, and 3.35% lead. The second ring which had ridged surface decoration, had 14.4% zinc and 4.73% lead.14 Christopher Thornton and Christine Ehlers, commenting on the Nuzi rings, state:

The production technique of shaping a cast into an object through sequences of hammering and annealing is well attested in the Near East by the time of Nuzi. The striking and unexpected results of these analyses are the chemical composition of the rings. The zinc content in these pieces, 12.2 weight percent and 14.4 weight percent, would have been sufficient to alter the appearance of the copper alloys. Even at low levels (relative to later ‘true’ brasses of 30 to 32 wt% Zn), the presence of zinc in copper alloys renders the metal a noticeably more golden colour than copper-tin or copper-arsenic bronzes. The golden colour of the brasses used to fashion these rings would have made them distinct from contemporary bronze alloys.15

The techniques used, as well as the investment of time needed to create these objects, point to “a high level of working knowledge of materials and material processing on the part of the metalsmiths.”16 The brighter golden color which is distinct from the darker bronze would have been obvious to the ancient craftsmen and was likely deliberate.

Egyptian (Ptolemaic Period) bronze arrowhead. Image via https://collections.carlos.emory.edu/.

Thornton and Ehlers note that bronze arrowheads and pins, made of copper-tin and copper arsenic, were also found at Nuzi in addition to the brass rings. This also supports the view that the production of brass was deliberate and reserved for more decorative objects, while bronze was used for utilitarian items. The authors suggest that brass object commodities were “highly valued due to their golden colour, distinct from bronze alloys, and thus their resemblance to objects fashioned from gold.”17

Conclusion

“The results of these recent studies,” note Thornton and Ehlers, “provide evidence that copper zinc alloys existed almost two thousand years before the date generally accepted for the development of the cementation process, suggesting that the history of brass is longer and more complex than is generally believed.”18 As it relates to the Book of Mormon, this evidence shows that the process of deliberately making brass to create valued and highly treasured objects was known hundreds of years before Lehi and his family encountered the Brass Plates and Liahona.

Nephi’s description of brass technology—whether in reference to bronze or actual brass—in the ancient Near East by 600 BC is thus consistent with the most up-to-date archaeological findings. Moreover, it seems natural that Nephi, who was familiar with metalworking techniques, would draw attention to the material composition and curious craftsmanship of these sacred and valuable objects.19

John L. Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex: An Ancient American Book (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book and the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2013), 335–336.

William J. Hamblin, “Sacred Writing on Metal Plates in the Ancient Mediterranean,” FARMS Review 19, No. 1 (2007): 37-54.

John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret and FARMS, 1985), 283–284.

1 Nephi 3:31 Nephi 3:121 Nephi 3:241 Nephi 4:161 Nephi 4:241 Nephi 4:381 Nephi 5:101 Nephi 5:141 Nephi 5:181 Nephi 5:191 Nephi 13:231 Nephi 16:101 Nephi 19:211 Nephi 19:221 Nephi 22:302 Nephi 4:22 Nephi 4:152 Nephi 5:12Omni 1:14Mosiah 1:3Mosiah 1:16Mosiah 10:16Mosiah 28:11Mosiah 28:20Alma 37:33 Nephi 1:23 Nephi 10:17

1 Nephi 3:3

1 Nephi 3:12

1 Nephi 3:24

1 Nephi 4:16

1 Nephi 4:24

1 Nephi 4:38

1 Nephi 5:10

1 Nephi 5:14

1 Nephi 5:18

1 Nephi 5:19

1 Nephi 13:23

1 Nephi 16:10

1 Nephi 19:21

1 Nephi 19:22

1 Nephi 22:30

2 Nephi 4:2

2 Nephi 4:15

2 Nephi 5:12

Omni 1:14

Mosiah 1:3

Mosiah 1:16

Mosiah 10:16

Mosiah 28:11

Mosiah 28:20

Alma 37:3

3 Nephi 1:2

3 Nephi 10:17

  • 1 “Bronze” is never mentioned in the Book of Mormon text. William Hamblin has summarized evidence for ancient writing on bronze and other metal plates throughout the Mediterranean world and the ancient Near East. See William J. Hamblin, “Sacred Writing on Metal Plates in the Ancient Mediterranean,” FARMS Review 19, no, 1 (2007): 37–54.
  • 2 P. T. Craddock, “Europe’s Earliest Brasses,” MASCA Journal 1 (December 1978): 4–5.
  • 3 Paul T. Craddock, “Brass, Zinc and the Beginnings of Chemical Industry,” Indian Journal of History of Science 53, no. 2 (2018): 149.
  • 4 Craddock, “Brass, Zinc and the Beginnings of Chemical Industry,” 149.
  • 5 Christopher P. Thornton, “Of Brass and Bronze in prehistoric Southwest Asia,” in Metals and Mines: Studies in Archaeometallurgy, ed. S. La Niece, D. R. Hook, P. T. Craddock (London: Archetype Publications, 2007), 123–135. While specimens of early brass have been identified before the second millennium BC, extant examples suggest to Craddock that these earlier examples were fortuitous and likely unintentional, while subsequent samples show signs of deliberate creation. See Craddock, “Brass, Zinc and the Beginnings of Chemical Industry,” 149.
  • 6 Craddock, “Brass, Zinc and the Beginnings of Chemical Industry,” 156–177.
  • 7 Craddock, “Problems and possibilities for provenancing bronzes by chemical composition,” 320.
  • 8 Craddock, Early Metal Mining and Production, 293.
  • 9 Craddock, “Problems and possibilities,” 320.
  • 10 Craddock, “Brass, Zinc and the Beginnings of Chemical Industry,” 150.
  • 11 Craddock, “Brass, Zinc and the Beginnings of Chemical Industry,” 150.
  • 12 Christopher P. Thornton and Christine B. Ehlers, “Early Brass in the Ancient Near East,” Iams 23 (2003): 3–8.
  • 13 Thornton and Ehlers, “Early Brass,” 5.
  • 14 Thornton and Ehlers, “Early Brass,” 6.
  • 15 Thornton and Ehlers, “Early Brass,” 7.
  • 16 Thornton and Ehlers, “Early Brass,” 7.
  • 17 Thornton and Ehlers, “Early Brass,” 7.
  • 18 Thornton and Ehlers, “Early Brass,” 7.
  • 19 See Neal Rappleye, “Lehi the Smelter: New Light on Lehi’s Profession,” Interpreter: A Journal of Latter-day Saint Faith and Scholarship 14 (2015): 223–225; John A. Tvedtnes, The Most Correct Book (Salt Lake City, UT: Cornerstone, 1999), 76–98;
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