A NEW MODEL FOR
BOOK OF MORMON GEOGRAPHY
By James Lee Warr
Local Lands and Cities.
Now it was the custom of the people of Nephi to call their lands, and their cities, and their villages, yea, even all their small villages, after the name of him who first possessed them. (Alma 8:7)
Many visualize Nephite cities and towns as being similar to the magnificent Maya and Aztec ruins which are found in Mexico and Guatemala. In fact most of the LDS artistic depictions of the Nephites are based on this visual image. However, I believe that this notion is incorrect. Nephite cities were much simpler, and as pointed out elsewhere, they were not built of stone. In view of the archeological discoveries made in Costa Rica, they would have been built around a central community area and plaza, with a central residential area for the community leaders. The community buildings and homes would have been built upon elevated mounds and were constructed of pole walls with thatched roofs. Some may think that this would have been very primitive construction, but the fact is that it is ideally suited to this climate and environment. In addition, these materials are readily available, and a house or building can be erected quickly by someone with the proper skills. Although such buildings could be simple, they could also be quite elaborate and large, for example the main building at the site of Guayabo north of Turrialba, which was built on a large mound about 10 high and 60-70 feet in diameter, is estimated to have been five stories high. This site contained community infrastructure such as aqueducts, cobbled roadways, markets, a fortified guarded entrance, etc.
The principle mound or foundation for the main community structure was generally larger, higher and more prominent than the surrounding ones. I believe that a reference from the Book of Mormon relates to this practice of building the main mound or foundation. During the period when Moroni was establishing cities and fortifying the eastern seacoast of the Nephite lands we are told that they "began the foundation of a city" which they called Moroni. And again "they began the foundation of a city" which they called Nephihah (Alma 50:13-14). This is a normal phrase when one is talking of a building, but is rather curious when speaking of a city. However, if they built the principle mound first, as an act of establishing the community as seems to be the case in the archeological ruins in Costa Rica, then the phrase makes sense
Most Book of Mormon communities would have been localized around a central cultural area, but the inhabitants, most of whom would have been farmers, were likely dispersed throughout the surrounding countryside. They probably gathered to the central area during market days, sabaths, and in times of crisis, such as enemy invasions. A general idea of what life was like during this time period can be gained from research that has been conducted on the ancient village of Ceren in El Salvador. Ceren was located in central El Salvador and was frozen in time by a sudden volcanic eruption about 700 AD which buried the village beneath 17 feet of volcanic ash. It has since been excavated giving us a still shot of life at that time. If you are interested details can be found in the book The Ceren Site (17), or at the Internet site http://www.meierweb.us/ceren/CONTENT/INDEX.HTML.