Evidence #175 | March 30, 2021


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Ancient fortifications at Becan, Mexico date to the time of the Book of Mormon and are consistent with descriptions of fortifications in the Nephite record.

For many years, scholars cited the apparent lack of fortifications in ancient Mesoamerica as evidence that the Maya were primarily peaceful and that warfare was not a significant factor in the development of their civilization.1 According to this view, warfare was not an important cultural factor until a few centuries before the arrival of the Spanish. More recent archaeological discoveries of fortified sites throughout Mesoamerica have forced scholars to discard this earlier erroneous view.

A major development in this paradigm shift came in the early 1970s , when David L. Webster published an influential report of archaeological work that he conducted at the site of Becan in Campeche Mexico.2 Webster’s excavations showed that this lowland Maya site was fortified with a massive dry ditch and earthen embankment before AD 300. Webster’s report compares favorably with the descriptions of battles involving fortifications in the book of Alma.


Nephite fortifications in the book of Alma are described as having a significant ditch surrounding their cities and lands which hindered their enemies in their attack (Alma 49:18, 22; 53:3). Webster found that Becan was surrounded by a large ditch which originally averaged 5.3 meters (17 feet) deep and 16 meters (52 feet) wide and was flat at the bottom. “To judge from the bedrock outcrops which are still visible the sides of the trough must have been vertical or near vertical, steep enough to keep attackers from climbing them.”3 Webster found that the ditch at Becan had been a dry ditch, not a water filled moat.4 None of the fortifications described in the book of Alma are said to have contained water.

Old photo showing Becan's significant ditch and earthen walls. Image via brunson20.com.

An Earthen Wall on the Inner Bank of the Ditch

Moroni’s fortifications included a wall or ridge of earth thrown up on the inner bank of the ditch against wooden timbers (Alma 53:4). The text speaks of “the highness of the bank which had been thrown up, and the depth of the ditch which had been dug round about,” which together formed an insurmountable obstacle for the attacking army (Alma 49:18). According to Webster, material excavated from the ditch at Becan “had been immediately heaped up on the inner lip to form an embankment, burying the old topsoil and at least one good-sized structure.”5 From the bottom of the ditch to the top of the earthen wall (not counting the likely wooden parapet) would have been 11.6 meters (38 feet).6

Old photo showing Becan's ditch and earthen wall. Image via brunson20.com.

Wooden Palisades

At the top of the earthen ridge of Moroni’s fortifications, the Nephites also constructed wooden pickets. “And upon the top of these ridges of earth he caused that there should be timbers, yea, works of timbers built up to the height of a man round about the cities. And he caused that upon those works of timbers there should be a frame of pickets built upon the timbers round about; and they were strong and high” (Alma 50:2–3).

According to Webster,

No traces or wooden palisades were found in any of our parapet sections or test trenches. Palisades are commonly associated with dry-ditch and parapet defensive systems, and the forested country around Becan (assuming it was well wooded in Classic times) would have furnished abundant materials … I suspect that a palisade may well have existed but that all traces of it have been obliterated. About the only remaining evidence would be a line of post holes or soil discolorations along the outer edge of the embankment, but this is precisely where the most severe erosion has taken place.7

Captain Moroni's Works of Timbers. Image via brunson20.com.


Moroni “caused towers to be erected that overlooked those works of pickets" (Alma 50:4). At Becan, “[The attacker’s] approach would have been easily spotted by observers on tall buildings such as structure I, who could have directed reinforcements to threatened points.”8

Tall structure at Becan. Image via Wikipedia. 

Causeway/Entrance: The Main Focus of Attack and Defense

As several passages demonstrate, Moroni’s fortification had a narrow entrance that allowed passage into the city but which could be easily defended:

  • “Now behold, the Lamanites could not get into their forts of security by any other way save by the entrance, because of the highness of the bank which had been thrown up, and the depth of the ditch which had been dug round about, save it were by the entrance” (Alma 49:18).
  • “Thus they prepared, yea a body of their strongest men, with their swords and their slings, to smite down all who should attempt to come into their place of security by the place of entrance” (Alma 49:20).
  • “And it came to pass that the captains of the Lamanites brought up their armies before the place of entrance” (Alma 49:21).
  • “[The Lamanites] could not obtain power over the Nephites by the pass” (Alma 49:22).

This also explains why the Lamanites who had captured Nephihah concentrated their forces by the entrance (Alma 62:20–21).

Becan had several narrow causeways that allowed access past the ditch and the wall.9 Webster notes, “Just to completely envelope Becan would require a force of 500–600 men, with most of them concentrated near the causeways and the rest spread out thinly in between.”10 The most serious Nephite casualties were inflicted at the entrance or pass leading into the city (Alma 49:24).

The Attackers’ Dilemma

Webster describes the difficulties faced by those assaulting a fortification such as Becan.

The Ditch and parapet derive their main defensive strength from sheer size. What I call the “critical depth” of the fortifications (the vertical distance from the top of the embankment to the bottom of the ditch) would have averaged something over 11 m., not counting any problematic wooden palisade. The steep angles of the inner ditch wall and parapet slope could not have been climbed without the aid of ladders; an enemy force caught in the bottom of the ditch would have been at the mercy of the defenders, whose most effective weapons under the circumstances would have been large rocks … To throw “uphill” from the outside is almost impossible. Defenders, possibly screened by a palisade, could have rained long-distance missiles on approaching enemies using spear throwers and slings. The cleared ground on the outer perimeter would have left attackers with little protection, and their approach would have been easily spotted by observers on tall buildings such as structure I, who could have directed reinforcements to threatened points.11

This description sounds very much like the assault on the city of Noah, where the Nephites were able to defend their fortifications with stones and arrows from a protected location. “For behold the Nephites had dug up a ridge of earth round about them, which was so high that the Lamanites could not cast their stones and their arrows at them that they might take effect” (Alma 49:4).

The only place where the attackers could effectively utilize their weapons was at the causeway or entrance (Alma 49:24), but this is where the Nephites positioned “a body of their strongest men, with their swords and their slings, to smite down all who should attempt to come into their place of security” (v. 20). After failing at the entrance, the Lamanites tried to “dig down their banks of earth that they might obtain a pass to their armies,” but they “were swept off by the stones and arrows which were thrown at them” (Alma 49:22).

Image via Violeta v. Campa, “Depósitos rituales arqueológicos del período Clásico en Campeche,” Estudios de Cultura Maya 44 (2014): 167–202.

Time and Labor involved

Webster estimates that if only males worked on the fortifications at Becan, “just under 10,000 men could have accomplished the task in one continuous effort of 40 days.” He thinks this is reasonable given the fact that the people of the region would have needed to devote time to planting and harvesting crops during the agricultural cycle. That amount of time may have been less if women and children were also involved in the work. Drawing upon labor from the surrounding hinterland, the work could have been accomplished in a relatively short period of time.

This is consistent with the description we have in the Book of Alma. Amalickiah’s rebellion was suppressed at the beginning of the forty-ninth year of the reign of the judges (Alma 45:20; 46:37). and the Lamanite attack on the cities of Ammonihah and Noah took place in the eleventh month of that same year (Alma 49:1). This means that Moroni was able to rapidly mobilize the people of those regions and sufficiently fortify those cities in a matter of months, not years.


The nature of the fortifications at Becan would have posed problems if the attackers had attempted a siege. “Without any effective siege machinery the only alternative would have been to starve the community into submission.” Webster observes, however, “the logistical problems inherent in Mesoamerican warfare make it far more likely that the besiegers would run out of food before the defenders.”12

This was one of the problems experienced by the Gadianton Robbers at the time of Lachoneus, who laid siege to the well-prepared Nephite forces:

But behold, this was an advantage to the Nephites; for it was impossible for the robbers to lay siege sufficiently long to have any effect upon the Nephites, because of their much provision which they had laid up in store, And because of the scantiness of provisions among the robbers; for behold they had nothing save it were meat for their subsistence, …  And it came to pass that the wild game became scarce in the wilderness insomuch that the robbers were about to perish with hunger. (3 Nephi 4:16, 18–20)

The success of Helaman’s small force in their siege of Cumeni (Alma 57:7–12) can attributed in part to the fact that the Nephites were able to maintain an adequate supply line, while the Lamanites could not (Alma 57:11–12).

Weaknesses of the Fortification

Webster states, “All things considered Becan should have been very difficult to assault if the defenders had sufficient warning of an impending attack.”13 Obviously, such fortifications would become vulnerable at times of sudden and unexpected raids, if a sufficient number of defenders could not be mustered. For instance, Nephites fortifications along the eastern coast easily fell to Amalickiah’s unexpected assault.

And it came to pass that the Nephites were not sufficiently strong in the city of Moroni; therefore Amalickiah did drive them, slaying many. And it came to pass that Amalickiah took possession of the city, yea, possession of all their fortifications … And thus he went on, taking posession of many cities, the city of Nephihah, and the city of Lehi, and the city of Morianton, and the city of Omner, and the city of Gid, and the city of Mulek, all of which were on the east borders by the seashore (Alma 51:22–26).

Mormon attributes this success not only to the unexpected nature of the assaults, but also to the Lamanites “numerous hosts” (Alma 51:27). A similar situation occurred when Nephihah fell to the Lamanites. Moroni attributed this set back to the number of attackers and the lack of sufficient Nephite reinforcements (Alma 59:5–10; 60:2–36). Although Mormon reported that the city of Zarahemla was “the strongest hold in all the land” (Helaman 1:22), Coriantumr’s forces were still able to take it by surprise because the Nephites “had not kept sufficient guards” (Helaman 1:18).

After the Lamanite garrison at Antiparah was diminished following a disastrous battle against Helaman’s forces, the Lamanites yielded up the city of Antiparah because they no longer had sufficient forces to effectively sustain an assault. “And now it came to pass that I received an epistle from Ammoron, the king, stating that if I would deliver up those prisoners of war whom we had taken that he would deliver up the city of Antiparah unto us. But I sent an epistle unto the king, that we were sure our forces were sufficient to take the city of Antiparah by our force; and by delivering up the prisoners for that city we should suppose ourselves unwise.” Consequently, “the people of Antiparah did leave the city, and fled to their other cities ... and thus the city of Antiparah fell into our hands” (Alma 57:1–4). All of these references underscore the practical need for an adequate defense force to maintain these types of fortifications.

Structure at Becan. Image via mexicanroutes.com.

Ongoing Discoveries of Mesoamerican Fortifications

About the same time Webster was directing fieldwork at Becan, other archaeologists were finding similar fortifications at the site of Tikal, where what had once appeared to be nothing more than a small ravine turned out to be part of a lengthy ditch fortification system that not only had once protected the city, but much of the surrounding region.14 In his review of archaeological literature published previous to 1990, John Sorenson found that evidence for fortifications was fairly widespread throughout much of Mesoamerica during the time of the Book of Mormon.15

Nearly three decades after his initial report Webster observed:

When I wrote my dissertation on Maya war there was only a sparse, scattered, and mostly desultory literature on the subject. Today [2000], in a startling turnabout, warfare is all the rage. The Maya are often portrayed as compulsively warlike, and warfare is a ubiquitous theme in books and journals … Subsequent research has documented more than 20 other defensive systems, or at least defensive constructions, at large Maya centers dating from the Preclassic through Postclassic times. These typically consist of one or multiple lines of barriers created by ditches, earthworks, and stone walls, often originally strengthened with parapets and palisades of timber and other perishable materials. In some cases, fortifications were integral to the original layout of a center … Extensive boundary defenses were sometimes built to incorporate considerable amounts of hinterland.16

The recent development of lidar technology has shown that these earlier findings about fortifications in the land of the Maya have only scratched the surface of what we may learn about ancient Mesoamerican warfare.17

"LiDar digitally removes the denseforest that cloaksthis ridge, revealing ancient defensive structures. The newly discovered site, now called La Cuernavilla, includes moats, watchtowers, and walls 20 feet tall." Image and description via nationalgeographic.com.


The features of Becan’s fortifications identified by Webster fit remarkably well with those described in the Book of Mormon. Many textual details—including deep ditches, earthen walls, towers, narrow entrances, labor requirements, duration of construction, and military tactics and outcomes—all converge together to form a realistic ancient American military narrative. While this does not mean that Becan was a Book of Mormon city, it demonstrates that a Mesoamerican city during Book of Mormon times had the type of fortifications described in its pages. Ongoing research at other sites is showing that such fortifications were widespread. 

It isn’t a given that fortifications so close in style and function with those mentioned in the Book of Mormon would have been found in ancient America. The discovery at Becan was pivotal in helping convince the scholarly world that warfare was much earlier and more prevalent in ancient Mesoamerica than was assumed—a development that clearly favors the Book of Mormon’s historical plausibility.

Book of Mormon Central, “What Was the Nature of Nephite Fortifications?” (Alma 50:6) KnoWhy 158 (August 4, 2016).

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), 381–425, 604–623, 672–676.

John L. Sorenson, “Last Ditch Warfare in Ancient Mesoamerica Recalls the Book of Mormon,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 9, no. 2 (2000): 44–53.

John L. Sorenson. Images of Ancient America: Visualizing Book of Mormon Life (Provo, UT: Research Press, 1998), 132–133.

John L. Sorenson, “Fortifications in the Book of Mormon Account Compared with Mesoamerican Fortifications,” in Warfare in the Book of Mormon, ed., Stephen D. Ricks and William J. Hamblin (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1990), 425–444.

John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1985), 260–262.

Alma 45:20Alma 46:37Alma 49:1Alma 49:2Alma 49:4Alma 49:13Alma 49:18Alma 49:19Alma 49:20Alma 49:21Alma 49:22Alma 49:24Alma 50: 1Alma 50:2Alma 50:3Alma 50:2–3Alma 50:4Alma 50:6Alma 51:23Alma 51:22–26Alma 51:27Alma 53:4Alma 57:1–4Alma 57:7–12Alma 57:11–12Alma 59:5–10Alma 60:2–36Alma 62:20–21Helaman 1:18Helaman 1:223 Nephi 4:163 Nephi 18–20

Alma 45:20

Alma 46:37

Alma 49:1

Alma 49:2

Alma 49:4

Alma 49:13

Alma 49:18

Alma 49:19

Alma 49:20

Alma 49:21

Alma 49:22

Alma 49:24

Alma 50: 1

Alma 50:2

Alma 50:3

Alma 50:2–3

Alma 50:4

Alma 50:6

Alma 51:23

Alma 51:22–26

Alma 51:27

Alma 53:4

Alma 57:1–4

Alma 57:7–12

Alma 57:11–12

Alma 59:5–10

Alma 60:2–36

Alma 62:20–21

Helaman 1:18

Helaman 1:22

3 Nephi 4:16

3 Nephi 18–20

  • 1 J. Eric S. Thompson, The Rise and Fall of Maya Civilization (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1966, 94, 98.
  • 2 David L. Webster, Defensive Earthworks at Becan, Campeche, Mexico: Implications for Warfare, Publication 41 (New Orleans, LA: Tulane University Middle American Research Institute, 1976). This report was based upon Webster’s 1972 Doctoral dissertation.
  • 3 Webster, Defensive Earthworks at Becan, 88.
  • 4 Webster, Defensive Earthworks at Becan, 88.
  • 5 Webster, Defensive Earthworks at Becan, 88.
  • 6 Webster, Defensive Earthworks at Becan, 95.
  • 7 Webster, Defensive Earthworks at Becan, 89.
  • 8 Webster, Defensive Earthworks at Becan, 96.
  • 9 Webster, Defensive Earthworks at Becan, 90–91.
  • 10 Webster, Defensive Earthworks at Becan, 96.
  • 11 Webster, Defensive Earthworks at Becan, 95–96.
  • 12 Webster, Defensive Earthworks at Becan, 96.
  • 13 Webster, Defensive Earthworks at Becan, 96.
  • 14 Dennis E. Puleston and Donald W. Callender, Jr., “Defensive Earthworks at Tikal,” Expedition 9, no. 3 (1967): 40–48.
  • 15 John L. Sorenson, “Fortifications in the Book of Mormon Account Compared with Mesoamerican Fortifications,” in Warfare in the Book of Mormon, ed., Stephen D. Ricks and William J. Hamblin (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1990), 425–444.
  • 16 David Webster, “The Not So Peaceful Civilization: A Review of Maya War,” Journal of World Prehistory 14, no. 1 (2000): 68, 73.
  • 17 Book of Mormon Central, “4 Ways the New Maya Discoveries May Relate to the Book of Mormon,” BMC Blog, February 5, 2018; Evidence Central, “Book of Mormon Evidence: Watch Towers and Strong Holds,” September 19, 2020, online at evidencecentral.org.
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