Evidence #356 | July 11, 2022

Decorative Iron

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Book of Mormon passages mention iron alongside other precious items in the context of major religious or civic building projects. These descriptions are consistent with the use of iron in both ancient Israelite and Mesoamerican settings.

Just before mentioning that he built a temple, Nephi included “iron” as one of the materials he taught his people to work: “And I did teach my people to build buildings, and to work in all manner of wood, and of iron, and of copper, and of brass, and of steel, and of gold, and of silver, and of precious ores, which were in great abundance” (2 Nephi 5:15). The narrator of Mosiah 11 similarly mentioned “iron” as one of the items that Noah used to ornament his buildings: “And it came to pass that king Noah built many elegant and spacious buildings; and he ornamented them with fine work of wood, and of all manner of precious things, of gold, and of silver, and of iron, and of brass, and of ziff, and of copper” (Mosiah 11:8).

To modern readers, these descriptions may sound a little odd, as iron is not widely used today for decorative or ornamental purposes. Nor is it seen as a particularly precious commodity. Yet these descriptions would be meaningful in ancient times in both the Old and New Worlds.

Iron in Ancient Israel

Several passages in the Old Testament link iron with precious metals and materials. When the Israelites conquered Jericho, “all the silver, and gold, and vessels of brass and iron” were reserved for the Lord’s treasury (Joshua 6:19). Iron was also among the materials that David had prepared for building a temple:

I have prepared with all my might for the house of my God the gold for things to be made of gold, and the silver for things of silver, and the brass for things of brass, the iron for things of iron, and wood for things of wood; onyx stones, and stones to be set, glistering stones, and of divers colours, and all manner of precious stones, and marble stones in abundance. (1 Chronicles 29:7)

Even in New Testament times, iron is mentioned along with other precious items: “The merchandise of gold, and silver, and precious stones, and of pearls, and fine linen, and purple, and silk, and scarlet, and all thyine wood, and all manner vessels of ivory, and all manner vessels of most precious wood, and of brass, and iron, and marble” (Revelation 18:12).

Og’s bed (engraving circa 1770 by Johann Balthasar Probst)

In addition to this textual evidence, John W. Welch, summarizing the work of Alan Millard, has drawn attention to “archaeological evidence for the early use of iron to decorate beds (see Deuteronomy 3:11) and thrones, as well as bracelets and jewelry, weapons and royal swords. Such beds or jeweled boxes were not of solid iron, but they were plated, veneered, or studded with the metal.”1

Iron also held a symbolic value that may have led to its implementation in royal settings and grand architectural projects. “Because iron was recognized as the hardest metal in antiquity,” writes Maria Metzler, “Near Eastern texts frequently use iron in figurative expressions to describe something that is exceedingly strong or impermeable.”2

Iron in Mesoamerica

Various iron ores—including pyrite, hematite, geothite, ilmenite, magnetite, chalcopyrite, and meteoric iron—have a long history of decorative, ornamental, and ceremonial use in Mesoamerica, including throughout Book of Mormon times.3 One early and fascinating example is a dwarf-like Olmec figurine made of polished hematite which dates to the Middle Preclassic period (1000–400 BC).4 More commonly, iron ores were fashioned into beads,5 necklaces, pendants, and other ornaments,6 especially reflective surfaces often dubbed as “mirrors.” As explained by Emiliano Gallaga,

In recent decades, a consensus has been reached that pyrite mirrors had been used mainly for ritual divination and magical-civic activities, such as communicating with the ancestors, serving as portals to alternate realities, to start fires or reflect light beams, as part of clothing, or as social symbols or prestige objects used in ceremonies.7

Part of the value of such mirrors surely came from the skill and significant time and labor needed to craft them.8 In addition to their use in clothing and as ceremonial objects, mirrors could have functioned as building décor and were typically mounted onto circular or rectangular bases, usually made of stone but sometimes made of wood or ceramic materials.9

Pre-Columbian pyrite mirror. Image via Penn Museum. 

Another application of iron ores was as a pigment in paint. “In addition to its use in pottery, the earthy variety of hematite was used to obtain a distinctive red pigment common in Teotihuacan murals. The oldest wall paintings that have been discovered so far date from the Tzacualli phase (AD 50–150) and were composed on clay. Analyses have confirmed the use of this mineral as a pigment.”10 Iron has also been found in high concentrations in the brilliant red and green paint at the Rosalila temple in Copan, Hondurus, which dates to the Middle Classic period (AD 520–655).11

Reconstruction of the Rosalila temple. Image via Wikimedia Commons. 


The references to “iron” in 2 Nephi 5 and Mosiah 11:8 don’t specify how it was used among the Nephites. Yet, in each case, iron is listed alongside other precious items, suggesting that it was seen as a valuable or symbolically significant material. It is also noteworthy that in each passage iron is associated with major religious or civic building projects—Nephi’s temple and Noah’s palaces. This general picture accords well with the decorative and ornamental value of iron in both ancient Israel and Mesoamerica.

At least during certain periods of Israelite history, iron was seen as a precious commodity and was used for decorative purposes, even in royal settings. It’s association with the Israelite temple is especially relevant, seeing that Nephi directly modeled his temple after Solomon’s (2 Nephi 5:16). It is possible that King Noah would have had the same textual history in mind, not to mention Nephi’s temple, when constructing his own palaces.

It shouldn’t be too surprising, therefore, that iron is mentioned as part of these Nephite building projects, assuming that iron was indeed available in the New World. And clearly it was, at least in settings like Mesoamerica. Not only were iron ores available in this region, but they were utilized by a variety of cultures over time. Iron was implemented in clothing, building décor, and sacred ceremonial objects, many of which appear to have been prestige items of deep symbolic importance.

John Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex: An Ancient American Book (Provo and Salt Lake City, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship and Deseret Book, 2013), 336–337.

William J. Hamblin, “Vikings, Iron, and the Book of Mormon,” in Pressing Forward with the Book of Mormon: The FARMS Updates of the 1990s, ed. John W. Welch and Melvin J. Thorne (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1999), 259–261.

John W. Welch, “Decorative Iron in Early Israel,” in Reexploring the Book of Mormon: A Decade of New Research (Provo and Salt Lake City, UT: FARMS and Deseret Book, 1992), 133–134.

BibleJoshua 6:191 Chronicles 29:7Revelation 18:12Book of Mormon2 Nephi 5:15Mosiah 11:8


Joshua 6:19

1 Chronicles 29:7

Revelation 18:12

Book of Mormon

2 Nephi 5:15

Mosiah 11:8

  • 1 John W. Welch, “Decorative Iron in Early Israel,” in Reexploring the Book of Mormon: A Decade of New Research (Provo and Salt Lake City, UT: FARMS and Deseret Book, 1992), 133.
  • 2 Maria Metzler, “King Og’s Iron Bed,” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 73 (2011): 488.
  • 3 See Emiliano Gallaga and Marc Blainey, eds., Manufactured Light: Mirrors in the Mesoamerican Realm, ed. (Boulder, CO: University of Colorado Press, 2016); Tomás Barrientos Quezada, “Reflecting on Reflections: Iron Ores Use by the Ancient Maya,” 2020–2021 Mesoamerican Center Colloquium Series, April 26, 2021. See also John Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex: An Ancient American Book (Provo and Salt Lake City, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship and Deseret Book, 2013), 336–337.     
  • 4 Elizabeth P. Benson and Beatriz de la Fuente, Olmec Art of Ancient Mexico (New York, NY: National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1996), Figure 60.
  • 5 See Steven E. Jones, Samuel T. Jones, and David E. Jones, “Archaeometry Applied to Olmec Iron-ore Beads” BYU Studies Quarterly 37, no. 4 (1997): 129–142.
  • 6 See Julie Gazzola, Sergio Gómez Cháves, and Thomas Calliaro, “Identification and Use of Pyrite and Hematite at Teotihuacan” in Manufactured Light, 107–124. See, for example, the comments on p. 108: “Pyrite and hematite were also important in the decoration of sculptures and masks, used primarily as incrustations in the eyes. Its use has been inferred in the manufacture of mirrors formed by tesserae in sheets adhering to slate supports. Pyrite was used in these distinctive ornaments, in the form of disks (identified as tezcacuitlapillis) carried on the lower back by the upper classes (possibly military and priests), as a kind of brooch or mirror and/or as a status distinction.” Concerning the discovery of more than 200 discs of various sizes and degrees of preservation, the authors write on p. 115: “Most of the disks had several holes that were most likely used to tether the object with a cord, as a pendant. Some disks, identified by their dimensions as tezcacuitlapillis, present incised motifs and cinnabar, while another example is completely impregnated with red ocher on one side and probably pyrite on the other. Other slate disks are smaller and unperforated. They could have been used as decorations or as pendants, rather than as tezcacuitlapillis, with pyrite or hematite attached to one side.” The authors further state on p. 115 that it “is likely that the plates formed part of necklaces, breastplates, or armor used by personages with a high social status.” Pyrite and hematite were also used in dental inlays. See Andrea Sandoval Molina, Yoshiyuki Iizuka, and Shintaro Suzuki, “Preclassic Mesoamerican Dental Inlays: Study of the Raw Material by SEM–EDS,” STAR 5, no 2 (2019): 157–163. For further examples of the use of iron ores in clothing, see Tomás Barrientos Quezada, “Reflecting on Reflections.”
  • 7 Emiliano Gallaga, “How to Make a Pyrite Mirror: An Experimental Archaeology Project,” in Manufactured Light, 31.
  • 8 See Gallaga, “How to Make a Pyrite Mirror,” 25–50.
  • 9 Emiliano Gallaga, “Introduction,” in Manufactured Light, 12.
  • 10 Gazzola, Cháves, and Calliaro, “Identification and Use of Pyrite and Hematite at Teotihuacan,” 107–108.
  • 11 See Rosemary A. Goodall, Jay Hall, Rene Viel, Ricardo Agurcia, Howell G. M. Edwards, and Peter M. Fredericks, “Raman Microscopic Investigation of Paint Samples from the Rosalila Building, Copan, Honduras,” Journal of Raman Spectroscopy 37 (2006): 1072–1077. According to the article, geochemical analysis demonstrates that “a high iron concentration” is present for “all [red] layers of paint,” which “has been identified as hematite” with “the presence of magnetite in the hematite material” (p. 1075). Similarly, “analysis confirmed that the green paint is an iron-based material” with “numerous particles throughout the sample [exhibiting] very high iron levels … consistent with the presence of … magnetite” (p. 1076).
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