Evidence #104 | September 19, 2020


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The Book of Mormon’s portrayal of thrones and the rulers who sat upon them has parallels with the construction and symbolic meaning of thrones found among ancient Mesoamerican societies.

Thrones in the Book of Mormon

The Book of Mormon mentions that both Jaredite and Nephite rulers sat upon thrones.1 The book of Ether reports that Riplakish, the tenth Jaredite king, erected “an exceedingly beautiful throne” (Ether 10:6). During Nephite times, King Noah “built him a spacious palace, and a throne in the midst thereof, all of which was of fine wood and was ornamented with gold and silver and with precious things” (Mosiah 11:9). Noah also constructed “seats which were set apart for the high priests, which were above all the other seats” which “he did ornament with pure gold” (v. 11). 

After the Nephites transitioned from a monarchy to a system of judges, their chief judges were associated with a “judgement-seat” that symbolized their status as rulers.2 Although the occupant of the judgment-seat was appointed by the “voice of the people,”3 the right to the judgment-seat was often passed down from father to son, thus making it a symbol of ruling lineages as well as ruling individuals.4 

During a time of military conflict, Captain Moroni questioned whether the governing leaders in Zarahemla were lazily sitting upon their thrones while their nation was in dire circumstances (see Alma 60:7, 11, 21). This suggests that in addition to the judgement-seat occupied by the chief judge, other rulers—most likely lower judges (see Mosiah 29:25–29)—concurrently sat upon seats that symbolized power and authority.

Thrones in Ancient America

Map of the Olmec heartland. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

In ancient Mesoamerica, the Olmec (ca. 1700–400 BC)5 began constructing thrones of stone between 1350–1000 BC.6 Olmec thrones were usually made out of a single, large, altar-like stone, ornamentally carved with three-dimensional depictions of the rulers themselves seated in cave-like openings.7 According to art historian Mary Ellen Miller, some thrones may have been painted or otherwise adorned in “brilliant colors.”8 One such depiction of an elaborate, multi-color throne appears in a wall painting from the late Middle Preclassic period (ca. 800–500 BC) at Oxtotitlan, Mexico that strongly resembles an Olmec throne from the site of La Venta (“Altar 4”).9 

Olmec throne found at la Venta. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The massive stones used to make these thrones and the Olmec’s colossal stone heads could weigh up to 40 tons and were transported from as far as 90 km (about 56 miles).10 “The sheer labor requirements involved in these operations,” explained Christopher A. Pool, “attest to the exceptional power of the rulers who commissioned them.”11 John E. Clark, writing with Arlene Colman, noted that the construction of massive thrones was one of the ways Olmec kings memorialized themselves.12 Olmec thrones served as “seats of power,” symbolically positioning rulers as seated between the human and divine realms,13 and legitimizing their high-status by establishing continuity back to founding ancestors.14

The Olmec practice of constructing elaborate thrones was continued by other societies in Preclassic and Classic times as part of what Jonathon Kaplan described as “an apparently continuous Mesoamerican Throne tradition.”15 John L. Sorenson has noted, for instance, that the Late Preclassic site at Kaminaljuyu features thrones which “clearly … served as the formal seats for monarchical rulers who, while sitting on them, disposed of important civil and sacral business.”16 

Moving on to the Classic period, Mark Alan Wright has explained that in the southern Maya lowlands, “Each major Lowland polity was ruled by a divine king” who upon “accession to the throne” received a sacred or divine title.17 In addition to material remains of the thrones themselves, “Depictions of rulers or nobles seated upon such objects are seen in Mesoamerican art from the Late Preclassic until the [European] Conquest.”18 


The Book of Mormon’s portrayal of thrones and the rulers who sat upon them parallels the construction and symbolic meaning of thrones found among ancient Mesoamerican societies. The first thrones mentioned in the Book of Mormon were constructed by the Jaredite civilization, which corresponds favorably in both the approximate time and (according to some geography theories) the same general location as the Olmec.19 Moreover, in both the Book of Mormon and ancient Mesoamerica, thrones were:

  • sat upon by kings and other ruling elite,
  • elaborately constructed,
  • symbols of wealth, power, and authority,
  • linked to ruling lineages,
  • and an enduring cultural tradition.

While thrones are not unique among ancient civilizations, they were also not a cultural feature that early 19th-century Americans would have readily associated with native peoples in the Americas.

John L. Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex: An Ancient American Book (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2013), 370–371, 515–518.

Brant A. Gardner, Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2007), 6:269–273.

John E. Clark, “Archaeology, Relics, and Book of Mormon Belief,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 14, no. 2 (2005): 45–46.

Mosiah 11:9, 11 Alma 1:2 Alma 4:17–18, 20Alma 30:33Alma 50:37, 39–40 Alma 51:5–7Alma 60:7, 11, 21 Alma 61:4, 9Alma 62:2, 8, 44Helaman 1:2–4, 6, 9Helaman 2:1–2, 5–9 Helaman 3:20, 37 Helaman 5:1, 4Helaman 6:15, 19Helaman 7:4Helaman 8:27Helaman 9:1, 3, 7, 143 Nephi 6:193 Nephi 7:1  Ether 7:18 Ether 9:5–6 Ether 10:6Ether 14:6, 9

Mosiah 11:9, 11

Alma 1:2

Alma 4:17–18, 20

Alma 30:33

Alma 50:37, 39–40

Alma 51:5–7

Alma 60:7, 11, 21

Alma 61:4, 9

Alma 62:2, 8, 44

Helaman 1:2–4, 6, 9

Helaman 2:1–2, 5–9

Helaman 3:20, 37

Helaman 5:1, 4

Helaman 6:15, 19

Helaman 7:4

Helaman 8:27

Helaman 9:1, 3, 7, 14

3 Nephi 6:19

3 Nephi 7:1  

Ether 7:18

Ether 9:5–6

Ether 10:6

Ether 14:6, 9

  • 1 See Mosiah 11:9; Alma 60:7, 11, 21; Ether 7:18; 9:5–6; 10:6; 14:6, 9.
  • 2 See, for example, Alma 1:2; 4:17; 50:37; Helaman 1:2; 2:2; 3:37; 5:1; 6:15; 8:27; 3 Nephi 7:1.  
  • 3 See Alma 4:16; 51:7; Helaman 1:5, 13; 2:2.
  • 4 See Alma 50:37–40; Helaman 1:2; 3:37; 6:15; 3 Nephi 6:19.
  • 5 For the dating of the Olmec civilization, see John E. Clark, “Archaeology, Relics, and Book of Mormon Belief,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 14, no. 2 (2005): 48; Joel W. Polka, “Olmec,” in The A to Z of Ancient Mesoamerica (Lenham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2010), 92–93.
  • 6 John E. Clark and Arlene Colman, “Time Reckoning and Memorials in Mesoamerica,” Cambridge Archaeological Journal 18, no. 1 (2008): 97. Mary Miller and Karl Taube, An Illustrated Dictionary of the Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya (New York, NY: Thames and Hudson, 1993), 165 dates the earliest thrones to “around 1200 BC.”
  • 7 See examples in Mary Ellen Miller, The Art of Mesoamerica: From Olmec to Aztec, 5th edition (New York, NY: Thames and Hudson, 2012), 38–39.
  • 8 Miller, The Art of Mesoamerica, 38.
  • 9 See David C. Grove, “The Middle Preclassic Period Paintings of Oxtotitlan, Guerrero,” FAMSI, online at famsi.org; David C. Grove, “Olmec Altars and Myths,” Archaeology 26 (1973): 128–135.
  • 10 See Christopher A. Pool, Olmec Archaeology and Early Mesoamerica (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 10. Large thrones (previously mislabeled as “altars”), possibly portraits memorializing the former king, were also recarved into the famed Olmec colossal heads. See James B. Porter, “Olmec Colossal Heads as Recarved Thrones: ‘Mutilation,’ Revolution, and Recarving,” Res: Anthropology and Aesthetics 17–18 (Spring–Autumn 1989): 23–30. For example, Monuments 2 and 53 from San Lorenzo are, according to Ann Cyphers, “clearly recarved from thrones.” Ann Cyphers, “From Stone to Symbols: Olmec Art in Social Context at San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán,” in Social Patterns in Pre-Classic Mesoamerica, ed. David C. Grove and Rosemary A. Joyce (Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1999), 163. See also Pool, Olmec Archaeology, 121; Richard E. W. Adams, Prehistoric Mesoamerica, 3rd edition (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma, 2005), 69–70.
  • 11 Pool, Olmec Archaeology, 10.
  • 12 Clark and Colman, “Time Reckoning,” 96; Pool, Olmec Archaeology, 10.
  • 13 Guersney describes the Olmec-style throne at Oxtotitlan, Mexico as “a celestial throne,” depicting a ruler “engaged in supernatural communion through a cosmic portal symbolized by the quatrefoil opening.” Julia Guernsey, Ritual and Power in Stone: The Performance of Rulership in Mesoamerican Izapan–style Art (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2006), 80.
  • 14 See Susan D. Gillespie, “Olmec Thrones as Ancestral Altars: The Two Sides of Power,” in Material Symbols: Culture and Economy in Prehistory, ed. John E. Robb (Carbondale, IL: Center for Archaeological Investigations, 1999), 224–253.
  • 15 Jonathon Kaplan, “The Incienso Throne and Other Thrones from Kaminaljuyu, Guatemala: Late Preclassic examples of a Mesoamerican throne tradition,” Ancient Mesoamerica 6, no. 2 (1995): 194.
  • 16 John L. Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex: An Ancient American Book (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2013), 371.
  • 17 Mark Alan Wright, “The Cultural Tapestry of Mesoamerica,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 22, no. 2 (2013): 15.
  • 18 Kaplan, “The Incienso Throne,” 192. For enduring linguistic evidence of the important link between ancient Mesoamerican thrones and rulers, see Maarten Jansen and Gabina Aurora Pérez Jiménez, “The Mat and the Throne,” in Encounter with the Plumed Serpent: Drama and Power in the Heart of Mesoamerica (Louisville, CO: University Press of Colorado, 2007), 65–114.
  • 19 Book of Mormon Central, “Why Does the Book of Mormon Include the Rise and Fall of Two Nations? (Ether 11:20–21),” KnoWhy 245 (December 5, 2016); Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex, 499–595; John E. Clark, “Archaeological Trends and Book of Mormon Origins,” in The Worlds of Joseph Smith: A Bicentennial Conference at the Library of Congress, ed. John W. Welch (Provo, UT: BYU Press, 2006), 89–93; Clark, “Archaeology, Relics, and Book of Mormon Belief,” 48–49; John L. Sorenson, Images of Ancient America: Visualizing Book of Mormon Life (Provo, UT: FARMS, 1999), 192–217; John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1985), 108–137.
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