Evidence #124 | December 15, 2020

Silk

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Scripture Central

Abstract

The Book of Mormon’s mention of silk is supported by archaeological and historical data from both the Old World and the New.

Silk in the Book of Mormon

Several Book of Mormon passages refer to “silk.” The first instances, chronologically speaking, come from the Jaredite record. During the days of Emer, the people became “exceedingly rich—Having all manner of fruit, and of grain, and of silks, and of fine linen, and of gold, and of silver, and of precious things” (Ether 9:16–17; emphasis added here and in the verses below). The next chapter makes mention of silk again, reporting that the people had “silks, and fine-twined linen; and they did work all manner of cloth” (Ether 10:24).

Silk was also known among the Nephites. In his apocalyptic visions of the future, Nephi recognized silk among the many worldly goods coveted by the wicked among the Gentiles (1 Nephi 13:7–8). Later, silk is mentioned in the early chapters of Alma, indicating that the Nephites, like the Jaredites, had silk in the New World. Alma 1:29 notes that the Nephites had an “abundance of silk and fine-twined linen, and all manner of good homely cloth.” And Alma 4:6 reports that “their fine silks, and their fine-twined linen” led the “people of the church” to become proud.

Zoram walking among the Zoramites. Image via churchofjesushrist.org. 

Possible Meanings of “Silk”

Silk obtained from the cocoon of the Chinese silk moth (Bombyx mori) was known in China from early times, but it has long been held that silk was unknown outside of China until the late second century BC, when the tightly controlled silk trade was introduced into the West during the Han Dynasty. This has brought up questions about the mention of silk in the Bible before this time. For example, Nephi’s contemporary Ezekiel mentioned a fabric called mesi (Hebrew) which refers to a valuable fine cloth (Ezekiel 16:10, 13).1 Several Bible translations, including the King James version, render this word as “silk.”2 However, other translations have opted for different renderings, such as “rich fabric” (NRSV) or “costly garments” (NIV), based on the assumption that silk would have been unknown to Israelites in Ezekiel’s day.

Silk Moth (Bombyx mori). Image via wikiwand. 

If the Book of Mormon’s translation is similar to these latter examples, it is possible that its mentions of silk may simply be referring to quality fabric and not actual silk, as it is technically defined today. On the other hand, new findings made over the last century have called into question previous assumptions about the early absence of silk. It is possible, therefore, that the silk mentioned in the Book of Mormon may refer to something closer to traditional silk.

Classical Sources

Classical Greek sources mention “Amorgian” fabric, a soft, expensive, transparent garment, sometimes donned by women to seduce men. Greek sculptures during the fifth and fourth century BC portray figures draped in what may be such clothing. Several scholars believe that these sources do not refer to imported Chinese silk, but rather to a wild silk spun from the cocoons of a Mediterranean moth (Pachypasa otus) from which the Phoenician city of Sidon and the island of Cos developed a prosperous industry.3 This moth feeds upon Oak and Cypress trees, and the threads of this particular variety have a transparent quality not found in Chinese silk.4

Silk in the East, Near East, and Mediterranean

Like many fabrics made in antiquity, comparatively few examples have been preserved. However, examples of silk fabrics which predate the Han Dynasty have been discovered and identified from archaeological sites outside of China. Silk fibers were recently recovered from copper alloyed ornaments in India from Harappan sites dating to 2450–2000 BC, the earliest known example from outside of China. Microscopic analysis shows them to be wild silk.5

Dress made from muga silk, commonly produced in India.

In fact, “at least two separate types of silk were utilized in the Indus in the mid-third millennium BC.” Analysis shows them to be from the silk moth Antheraea and the South Asia Philosamia (Eri silk moth).6 These discoveries show “that silk was being used over a wide region of South Asia for more than 2000 years before the introduction of domesticated silk from China.” Thus, according to one team of archaeologists, “Earlier models that attribute the origins of silk and sericulture exclusively to China need to be re-examined and revised.”7

Other archeological samples of silk can be found in the following regions: Sapalli Tepe in Uzbekistan (1800 BC), Nevasa in Central India (1500–1050 BC), Van in Eastern Turkey (750 BC), Phrygian Gordian, (700 BC), and western Europe (fifth century BC).8 Some of these may be Chinese silk, but others have been identified as silk from species of wild silk moth, and may have been imported through trade from Mediterranean locations.9

Silk in Pre-Columbian America

After the conquest of Mexico, the Spanish introduced eastern silk to the New World, but it is now recognized that wild silk, native to the Americas, was known and utilized in pre-Columbian times. According to Patricia Anawalt, an authority on pre-Columbian textiles, “There is … evidence that in certain regions of Mesoamerica, the filament of a wild silk—the cocoons of caterpillars feeding on the leaves of the madrono (red oak tree)—was used in small quantities for decorative purposes.”10 This practice of making valuable fabrics from wild silk persisted into more recent times. “Wild silk used to be gathered by Zapotec women and woven into fabric which was sold with high profits,” writes Matthew Wallrath.11

According to another recent study:

Wild silk was used until recently in some areas of Oaxaca. The species that produced it appear to be Gloveria psidii, a moth, and Eucheira socialis, a butterfly, both of which are found in midaltitude, relatively dry forests. In Santa Catarina Estetla, a Mixtec community in the mountains west of the Valley of Oaxaca, a wild silk called, in Mixtec, doko tachi was gathered from oak trees and spun and woven into very durable sashes. Wild silk was also used to weave sashes in Santo Tomás Ouierí and other communities in the Zapotec area of Yautepec; two types of wild silk were known in this area—one found on oaks, the other on madrona trees (Arbutus). A silk gathered from oaks is also remembered in San Miguel Cajonos, a Zapotec community in the Villa Alta district.12

According to a colonial-period document published in 1777, textiles of “cotton and wild silk intertwined with feathers” were recovered from a pre-Columbian burial in the Tehuacan-Cuicatlan Valley, near Teotitlan.13 Sometimes threads from wild silk were combined with those of other fibers.14

Silk being woven into yarn using a drop spindle at San Pedro, Oaxaca. Image and explanation via https://traditionsmexico.wordpress.com/.

Silk-like Fabrics in Pre-Columbian America

In his survey of the issue of pre-Columbian textiles, John Sorenson found that in addition to actual silk, peoples in Mexico and Central America also produced many fabrics that were like silk.15 An inventory of Aztec goods shipped to Spain in 1825 listed “five cloths for a bed, like a kind of striped silk.”16 It is unclear from what material the goods spoken of in this list were made, but the description of a silk-like fabric is noteworthy.

Kapok Tree (ceiba pentandra). Image via brittanica.com.

Another source of silk-like material was the pod of the Ceiba tree (kapok). According to Francesco Clavigero, “Besides that common silk [silk imported from Europe by the Spanish], there is another excellent kind, very white, soft, and strong, which is often found upon trees, in several woods upon the sea coasts, particularly in those years when there is very little rain.”17

Pita Floja (“silk grass”), a strong, silk-like fiber taken from the wild pineapple, was also highly valued. It was widely used in the American tropics, including the Pacific coast of Guatemala, for nets and cordage.18 It also grows along the mountain slopes of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. “Cords, cloth, hammocks, and thread are manufactured from it. It is probable that the best varieties would, owing to the fineness of the fiber and its silky texture, be found very well adapted for the fabrication of certain sorts of fine dress goods.”19 Anawalt states that “certain of the whiter, more delicate maguey fibers were used unspun, carefully woven into fine cloth that had a silk-like sheen.”20

In addition, some cotton textiles were so soft and finely woven that the Conquistadores compared them to silk. Cortes wrote that Motecuhzoma gave him “many garments belonging to himself which, considering that they were woven of cotton without any admixture of silk, could not, I think, be matched in all the world: among them were both men and women’s clothes and bedspreads such as could not be bettered had they been of silk.”21 A rare specimen of cotton cloth found at Teotihuacan, dating to the fourth century AD, was described as having “irreproachable evenness, woven … exceedingly fine,” and “of gossamer thinness.”22

Classic Maya monuments, murals and ceramic vessels portray women, dressed in translucent clothing spun from soft and “extremely fine threads” of cotton fibers.23 Christina Halperin notes, “the poor preservation of textile remnants in semitropical climates leave scant record of these socially and symbolically potent garments,”24 These “whisper-thin textiles” were clearly luxury items.25

Conclusion

It is not surprising, given their delicate and ephemeral composition, that archaeological examples of silk (or silk-like fabrics), have not been identified from Nephite and Jaredite times. But the portrayal of fine-threaded textiles in Mesoamerican art, the availability of silk-like materials, and the exploitation of actual wild silk from pre-Columbian times until today, all point to the likelihood that silk or silk-like materials would have been known and available during Book of Mormon times.

Moreover, the archaeological and historical evidence for silk from various locales in the Old World suggests that silk was plausibly known to the Nephites (and perhaps even the Jaredites) before their crossings to the New World. These findings demonstrate that the Book of Mormon’s references to silk are plausible, no matter whether they refer to actual silk, silk-like textiles, or some combination of these possibilities.

John L. Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book and the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2013), 346–347.

John L Sorenson, “Silk and Linen in the Book of Mormon Ensign 22, no. 4 (April 1992): 62.

John L. Sorenson, “Possible ‘Silk’ and ‘Linen’ in the Book of Mormon,” in Reexploring the Book of Mormon: A Decade of New Research, ed. John W. Welch (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1992), 162–164.

Maurice W. Connell, “The Prophet Said Silk,” Improvement Era 65, no. 5 (1962): 324–326, 338–340, 342–345.

1 Nephi 13:7–8Alma 1:29Alma 4:6Ether 9:17Ether 10:24

1 Nephi 13:7–8

Alma 1:29

Alma 4:6

Ether 9:17

Ether 10:24

  • 1 See Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (New York, NY: Brill, 1995), 2:645.
  • 2 See “Ezekiel 16:10,” online at biblehub.com
  • 3 See Eva Panagiotakopulu, Archaeology and Entomology in the Eastern Mediterranean: Research into the History of Insect Synanthropy in Greece and Egypt (Oxford: BAR, 2000), 69–85; Irene Good, “On the Question of Silk in Pre-Han Eurasia,” Antiquity 69 (1995): 965–1966; William T. M. Forbes, “The Silkworm of Aristotle,” Classical Philology 25 (1930): 22–26; Gisela M. A. Richter, “Silk In Greece,” American Journal of Archaeology 33 (1929): 27–33. See also John L. Sorenson, “Possible ‘Silk’ and ‘Linen’ in the Book of Mormon,” in Reexploring the Book of Mormon: A Decade of New Research, ed. John W. Welch (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1992), 162–164.
  • 4 See F. Nigel Hepper, Illustrated Encyclopedia of Bible Plants (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1992), 169. Eva Panagiotakopulu explains that while the threads of Chinese silk are easier to work with, “the flat thread of wild silk has a natural lustre and a shine that comes out slightly when dyed in strong colours, e.g., black or gold. Wild silk is more difficult to dye in a cloth piece than in the skein” and “wild silk can be used for making all kinds of material, from very fine and delicate pieces of cloth.” Even today, silk dresses, handkerchiefs, tassels, rugs, and carpets can be made from wild silk. Panagiotakopulu, Archaeology and Entomology in the Eastern Mediterranean, 84–85.
  • 5 I. L. Good, J. M. Kenoyer, R. H. Meadow, “New Evidence for Early Silk in the Indus Civilization,” Archaeometry 50 (2009): 1–10.
  • 6 Good, Kenover, Meadow, “New Evidence for Early Silk in the Indus Civilization,” 8.
  • 7 Good, Kenover, Meadow, “New Evidence for Early Silk in the Indus Civilization,” 8.
  • 8 See Good, “On the Question of Silk in Pre-Han Eurasia,” 960, figure 1, 964–968; David Marshall Lang, Armenia: Cradle of Civilization, 2nd ed. (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1978), 96.
  • 9 See Irene Good, “The Archaeology of Early Silk,” Textile Society of America Symposium Proceedings, 388 (2002), 7–15.
  • 10 Patricia Rieff Anawalt, “Weaving and Textiles,” in Archaeology of Ancient Mexico and Central America: An Encyclopedia, ed. Susan Toby Evans and David L. Webster (New York, NY: Routledge, 2001), 816.
  • 11 Matthew Wallrath, “Excavations in the Tehuantepec Region, Mexico,” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 57, no 2 (1967), 12. “Many of them weave admirable fabrics from the wild silk and cotton.” J. J. Williams, The Isthmus of Tehuantepec (New York, NY: Appleton, 1952), 227.
  • 12 Alejandro de Avila B., “Threads of Diversity: Oaxacan Textiles in Context,” 125. References silently omitted.
  • 13 Manuel Esparza, ed., Relaciones Geographicas de Oaxaca, 1777–1778 (Oaxaca: Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropologia Social and Instituto Oaxaqeno de las Culturas, 1994), 59; Alejandro de Avila B., “Threads of Diversity: Oaxacan Textiles in Context,” in The Unbroken Thread: Conserving Textile Traditions in Oaxaca, ed. Kathryn Klein (Los Angeles, CA: Getty Conservative Institute, 1997), 125.
  • 14 According to Patricia Anawalt, “For the embroidery of the finer garments, a special thread composed of finely spun fur from the underbelly of the rabbit and strands of the indigenous wild silk were used. When dyed, this composite thread took on brilliant colors that were reputed to be fade resistant. Fine embroidery work was so highly esteemed that a slave woman accomplished in this art, although destined for sacrifice would be replaced by another so that she could continue working at her craft.” Patricia Rieff Anawalt, Indian Clothing Before Cortes: Mesoamerican Costumes from the Codices (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1981), 12.
  • 15 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), 346–347.
  • 16 Marshall Saville, The Goldsmith’s Art in Ancient Mexico (New York, NY: Museum of the American Indian, 1920), 79, emphasis added.
  • 17 Francesco Severio Clavigero, History of Mexico, 3 vols., trans. Charles Cullen (Philadelphia, PA: Thomas Dobson, 1817), 1:41.
  • 18 William Edwin Safford, “Food Plants and Textiles of Ancient America,” Proceedings of the 19th International Congress of Americanists (1917): 17; Felix W. McBryde, “Cultural and Historical Geography of Southwest Guatemala,” Smithsonian Institute, Institute of Social Anthropology, 4 (1947): 149, 154.
  • 19 Robert W. Shufeldt, Reports of Explorations and Surveys, to Ascertain the Practicability of a Ship-Canal (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1872), 118.
  • 20 Anawalt, “Weaving and Textiles,” 813.
  • 21 Jay Bayard Morris, trans., Hernando Cortes: Five Letters 1519–1526 (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 1991), 85.
  • 22 Sigvald Linne, ed., Mexican Highland Cultures (Stockholm: 1942): 157–160.
  • 23 Christina T. Halperin, “Textile Techné: Classic Maya Translucent Cloth and the Making of Value,” in Making Value, Making Meaning: Techne in the Pre-Columbian World, ed. Cathy L. Costin (Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2016), 433–434, 447.
  • 24 Halperin, “Textile Techné,” 433.
  • 25 “Such whisper-thin textiles were relatively ephemeral, especially in the tropical heat and humidity of the Maya Lowlands, where they disintegrated quickly. As such, these particular types of textiles were not durable items to be inherited over generations; rather, they were meant for the immediate moment and for people who wore, used, or were shrouded in them.” Halperin, “Textile Techné,” 461.
Culture
Clothes and Fashion
Silk
Book of Mormon

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