Underwater archaeology and the Book of Mormon in Sorenson’s Mormon’s Codex

09.06.2013 | The Maxwell Institute

To celebrate John L. Sorenson’s magnum opus Mormon’s Codex: An Ancient American Book (which should be hitting bookshelves next week), here’s another sneak preview.

The Lamanite city Jerusalem in the land of Nephi was named by Lehite migrants after the Old World site from which their ancestors came (Alma 21:1-4). This settlement was, according to the Book of Mormon, destroyed in a sudden disaster at the death of Christ, during which waters nearby were said to “come up in the stead thereof” (3 Nephi 9:7), drowning the inhabitants. In An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (1985), Sorenson observed that the level of the Lake Atitlan had fluctuated somewhat in historic times. He proposed that the most likely location for the doomed city mentioned in the text would have been along the southwestern edge of the lake, even though he didn’t expect that archaeological evidence for this would have survived.1 In Mormon’s Codex, Sorenson revisits his earlier research and finds additional support for his earlier proposal.

Recent discoveries in the Lake Atitlan basin of the south highlands of Guatemala add to the picture of geological activity that produced a crisis in southern Mesoamerican culture history. Lothrop worked at a site, Chukumuk, that was partly submerged in Lake Atitlan. His work led him to conjecture that other sites might exist at greater depth. In 1999 Benitez and Samayoa reported ruins of stone buildings in the lake that they found during scuba dives. A modest-sized pyramid and a number of stelae have since been located at their city site, called Samabaj. The structures were some 56 feet (17 m) beneath the surface near the south shore.

The Scripps Institute of Oceanography of La Jolla, California (with support from the Reinhart Foundation), subsequently used advanced technology to complete a high resolution map of the lakebed. Ruins of submerged settlements appear to exist at several places. Plans are being made to carry out underwater archaeology at selected points in this complex. An expert has suggested that a volcanic event beneath the lakebed forced it, and thus the water above it, to rise suddenly, engulfing buildings formerly situated near the shoreline. The buildings appear to have been undamaged before their submersion, implying a sudden rise of the water.

Ceramics recovered suggest that these ruins date to the Late Pre-Classic period, probably around the time of Christ. Several unsculpted stelae photographed underwater must date to a pre–Santa Clara period, for such stelae were not erected after the onset of Santa Clara.2

Archaeological discoveries of this nature should be of great interest to scholars, suggesting that we still have much to learn about pre-Columbian history. The potential connection with the Book of Mormon is not proven, but the discovery of an underwater city within miles of Sorenson’s earlier proposed location, and the evidence for its rapid submergence two thousand years ago, is striking.


1. John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1985), 176-79; 223-25.

2. John L. Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex: An Ancient American Book (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book and the Neal A. Maxwell Institute, 2013), 646-47.