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Tracing History in Arabian Bountiful

by J. Lee Simons, Bridges editor

Twenty-six hundred years ago, a brisk trade in frankincense put caravans on the desert and ships on the sea. Seagoing vessels sailed within sight of land in the Sea of Arabia, making nightly portal for safety along the eastern coast of Arabia. After a lengthy journey along the caravan routes from Jerusalem, a family completed the last leg of their Arabian trek through the Dhofar, a mountainous region in the south of the modern-day Sultanate of Oman. They arrived at a coastal plain made verdant by monsoon rains blowing off the African coast from southwest to northeast. The family’s arrival was not unusual mid the constant flux of travelers in the region.

In 1998, another, much smaller group traveled east to cross the desert. “I wanted to write a book, but I could not write from the Biblical perspective. I began to read and learn about ancient Arabia,” explained S. Kent Brown, ancient studies director at the Religious Studies Center and professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University. He assembled researchers to contribute from the extraordinary pool of talent at BYU. Accompanying him on that first trip were W. Revell Phillips, emeritus professor of geology and minerals specialist; Terry B. Ball, associate professor of ancient scripture and archaeobotanist; David J. Johnson, associate professor of anthropology and archaeologist; and Arnold H. Green, professor of history and Middle East specialist who speaks Arabic and acted as historian.

Their interest in the fifty-mile long and ten-mile wide strip of Omani territory was not the first. Others had also ventured into this region in search of secrets from 600 B.C. Team-leader Brown’s objectives were two-fold: 1) Develop long-term cooperative research with academics and build relationships with government officials; 2) Produce a clear picture of that 600 B.C. world: plants—what they were and how they were used; people—how they lived and worked; and how the frankincense trade influenced the area.

Coastal Oasis

A third, parallel goal for Brown’s team: See what evidence might indeed corroborate the hiatus of that family so long ago. Lehi, patriarch of the family, left an account of their journey across Arabia—including the geographic keys and directions they took from each point. On the basis of their ancient record, three geographical markers were certain: Jerusalem, the Red Sea, and another sea they approached from the southwest—a land they referred to as Bountiful. Brown summarized, “The only place with honey, fruit, and timbers is the Dhofar—it works.”

Lehi’s family would need a boat for the remainder of their journey. The now mostly deforested mountains would easily have supplied the necessary timber. Brown said, “We expect Lehi’s family left nothing behind. In the best of all circumstances, an inscription would prove conclusively that a people had formerly inhabited a region.

Johnson under frankincense tree.

Tradition claims the incense trail originated in Oman—the ancient land called Sheba [saba]—remembered in scripture for its queen’s [Bilqis] dealings with King Solomon. Biblical references place Sheba in Yemen, but the use of frankincense in ancient society is a matter of historical record. Once used in ceremonial rites, the aroma of frankincense is known to fumigate rooms and freshen clothes, while its medicinal properties were lauded in ancient societies. Also used as an ingredient for embalming, frankincense was found at the site of Solomon’s temple, and it was used for embalming and Egyptian temple rituals. It was burned on the funeral pyre, and Brown noted “Nero burned enough for all the temples in Rome for one year when his paramour died.” The Holy Bible records that it was one of the three treasures transported across the desert by magi as a gift for the Christ child.

“Text writing on metal arrowheads and amulets was known in Jerusalem contemporary with Lehi. They passed through Arabia where writing on plates and stone was accepted practice. Lehi’s son Jacob explained, “We know that the things which we write upon plates must remain; But whatsoever things we write upon anything save it be upon plates must perish and vanish away” (Jacob 4:1–2, Book of Mormon). Archaeologists may not find specific traces of Lehi’s stay in the Dhofar, but there are sure to be noteworthy finds nonetheless when the team begins to excavate in winter 2001 while the weather is cooler and vegetation has died back. They see “real potential for serious work” said Brown , and they are hoping in time to contribute their geological knowledge of mineral deposits to Oman’s government, recognizing that in antiquity, large quantities of copper were mined in northern Oman.

Desert Iron

Phillips looking for magnetite.

A point often questioned revolves around statements that Lehi’s son Nephi made concerning ore he used to build a ship. Professor Revell Phillips formed a geological team consisting of Jeff Keith, professor of geology, and Ron Harris, associate professor of geology—both at BYU. Phillips enlisted Gene Clark, a graduate of BYU, who teaches at Mountain View High School, and Jason Aase, a graduate student at BYU. Clark had the advantage of having spent a number of years in Oman working for Esso.

Johnson and Brown scouting at Wadi Sayk.

While in Oman, the team experienced a false start working with their academic counterpart from Sultan Qaboos University (SQU), in Muscat. The dean arranged for them to work with a graduate student. Talal Al Hosni, we were told, was the best student in ten years or more. He went with us for the last week, and he was a great deal of help,” noted Phillips.

For two weeks in February 2000, the team worked in the Salalah area. They found iron ore near there and at Wadi Sayk to the west on the border. Phillips pointed out, “And Khor Rori is a perfectly good site, but we found iron ore near both of those sites. Nephi could have built a ship in either place. Land Bountiful is a land; it isn’t a specific spot. Undoubtedly, it was along the southern coast. But wherever it was along that coast, iron ore was available, within a matter of a few miles.”

Brown added, “Khor Rori has an inlet bay more than sufficient to build and launch a ship. Wadi Sayk and Salalah are both now silted in. Typhoon rains periodically scoop them out as the rain comes out of the canyons. The ore is very near the coast.” Oman has no iron industry, in fact Brown indicated there is no metal mining at all. Phillips maintained, “Nephi didn’t need a commercial iron deposit with tons of ore at various places, he certainly had an adequate source.”

Ball photographs a snake plant.

Not only was there a source, but the iron ore was of good quality. “We brought some back to BYU, and they have smelted it at temperatures considerably lower than welding. Iron melts at 1600 degrees, but Nephi didn’t need to melt the ore. He simply needed to reduce it, to take the oxygen ore from it, and he could do that in a pit furnace with just charcoal wood in a pit. When forged it is called wrought iron.

Seed head of einkorn wheat from neolithic times.

“And the fact is, all of the iron produced in the Western world up to the time of the Industrial Revolution, up to the 18th century was wrought iron. Iron was not melted prior to that. Nephi had all the technology available to blacksmiths in the American West,” Phillips explained.

He elaborated, “Virtually the whole Dhofar is covered by cretaceous and tertiary limestone. In one area to the east of Salalah and Mirbat, where the limestone has eroded away, we exposed basement rock, a very old pre-Cambrian intruded by granite. We reasoned that any significant deposit of metallic ore should be associated with this basement exposure. And it is—a number of small veins, or dikes, largely calcium-carbonate, but it’s immaculate; it was molten. Carbonatites are relatively rare anywhere in the world. Some of these iron-rich carbonatites are associated with a large diatreme near Mirbat.”

The geology team will present a paper on their Oman findings at a January conference in Muscat. Keith and Harris are applying for grants with the National Science Foundation to continue their work in Oman.

Flora Signatures

For U.S.-based botanists interested in Arabian Peninsula research, the nearest representative herbarium collections have been located in London and Edinburgh. The Monte L. Bean museum is establishing one here at BYU with vegetation collected from Oman. “This will be the most complete collection from this area of Oman in all the U.S. It will serve as a reference collection,” remarked Terry Ball, botany team leader. “The botanical team is also making a collection of plant microfossils produced by flora of the region. These microfossils are called phytoliths and are made of the same mineral as opal.”

Phytolith analysis is a relatively new discipline that Ball indicated “holds great promise as a source for data in archaeobotanical, environmental, and ethnobotanical research.” Phytoliths can be collected from rocks, soil, ceramics, or teeth of herbivores.

Amina al Farsi, curator at SQU, worked closely with Ball and Professors Gary Baird and Loreen Wolstenhulme of BYU, and Professor Shahina Ghazanfar from the University of South Pacific in Fiji. Together, over a two week period, they gathered samples from nearly 500 of the 750 contemporary species in the Dhofar region. The team will return in fall 2001 to try and collect the additional species while they are in fruit or flower.

As part of the ongoing exchange with SQU, Farsi visited the BYU campus this summer to learn how to use a sophisticated Scanning Electron Microscope. She has also been invited to attend BYU for doctoral studies.

Ball is a member of the Society of American Archaeologists and the Society for Phytological Research, which meets annually in the U.S. and alternate years internationally.

New World Map

Scott R. Woodward, professor of biology and relative newcomer to the team, is intent on mapping the world. Not in the traditional sense—he is pushing the fringes of new frontiers. Woodward’s goals are straightforward and in no way limited to Oman. He simply wants to know “What is the genetic makeup of the world population?” His objective is to reconstruct the genealogy of the world through DNA. Lofty as that may seem, if ever there was a man with the required understanding, the drive to accomplish the goal, and the spiritual center to persevere—Woodward is the man.

His part in this project is to attempt to reconstruct the genealogy of the ancient Near East. “People in Oman are interested in who they are. The spirit of Elijah is very strong,” Woodward reported of his visit.

Professor Aisha al Kahyat at SQU, was Woodward’s local contact. They and two graduate students collected hair samples from residents of the Dhofar region. Although blood samples yield thousands of analyses compared to the dozens available from hair, the storage, transport, and processing made blood samples impractical.

Woodward explained that it is possible to reconstruct the current gene pool and identify the ancient pool by building backwards on the interweaving of inherited characteristics of mitochondrial DNA [mother], y-chromosome DNA [father], and ultimately the nuclear DNA, half of which comes from the father and half from the mother.

Woodward participated in a conference last winter to discuss his work. Following the conference, he was approached by Hamdi al Barwani, a mathematician, who told Woodward he did not usually attend biology conferences, but the title of his talk had intrigued him. Barwani said he had a gift to give Woodward, because he felt Woodward would know what to do with his family treasure—this hand-drawn pedigree chart preserving eighteen generations of Barwani’s male lineage. Each leaf contains an Arabic name. The original hangs framed in Woodward’s home; a copy hangs in his office.

The team successfully gathered four generations of tribal affiliations, with 300 samples from Dhofar near Salalah. Woodward will continue on the western coast by the Red Sea, into Sinai and Palestine, Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar and Kuwait on the Arabian Peninsula. He hopes to show how Bedouin tribes are related to each other. One graduate student prepared a master’s thesis on Bedouins in Palestine and the other is working on the genetics of Oman.

Collaboration is ongoing, and they will return in the fall for more samples. They are currently extracting raw data on 120 of the 300 Oman samples. It will take a year to see the whole picture.

6,500 B.C.

Woodward is looking at the modern and comparing with the ancient in Peru, where he is extracting tissue from the Chachapoya. He hopes to establish a genetic link between current residents and the mummies found in the cloud-encased mountains of the region. He recently demonstrated that low birth weights and high infant mortality in the area is related to certain gene types that do better in high altitude over other gene types. His paper was published in June in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology. A BBC documentary will air in the fall. You can learn more about his work at

Daily they are extracting 1,300–1,500 bits of genetic data analyses on the samples from the larger study being conducted here in Provo. Their goals are in place: 4,000 samples by the end of August 2000; 10,000 samples by the end of December 2000; and 100,000 samples in six years. In addition, Woodward has two students at the University of Philippines in Los Banos collecting samples as well.

Desert Repository

Although investigative work was completed in 1998, the archaeological team will not begin their dig until December 2000. Professor David J. Johnson’s team will be there for three weeks digging test trenches at two sites. The first site is at Mughsail; other digs began there in the 1950s. The second site is at Wadi Sayk—a brand new area.

“Our purpose is to understand changes in culture over time. For instance, historic documents show the long distance trade in frankincense and myrrh went from this area by ship to Yemen. Trade is known to exist from sixth century B.C. to the Islamic period 700 A.D. Traders established stopping points at sites on the coast and used storage chambers when they docked nightly,” Johnson explained.

Phillips remarked that it was “Johnson and the other archaeologists who had the greatest difficulty in getting permission” for their projects. “Permission to excavate is a difficult thing to attain,” he added.

Johnson is no rookie excavator. He has been and continues to be involved in archaeological digs in other areas as well. In Yemen, neighbor to Oman, the American Foundation for the Study of Man began original American research in a 1950s excavation. Near the capital city Ma’rib is Awam Bilqis. Awam means sanctuary or temple; Bilqis is the Queen of Sheba [saba] of King Solomon’s record.

This sanctuary was built to the moon god and functioned as a pilgrimage site. The round, circular structure is 350 feet in diameter with walls 30–40 feet high. “There are thousands of dedicatory inscriptions on the wall. Each block is one-and-a-half feet tall. The inscriptions primarily tell that a certain king built this section of the wall and dedicated it to the god [moon]. We don’t know much about their rituals. We do know animals were sacrificed. A piece of the text we uncovered on the last trip states that if an individual’s animal wandered into the temple, they would be fined one out of nine of their animals,” related Johnson. He said the Koran mentions that in the 5th century A.D. a dam broke in the area and many tribes left.

Copper toe found at Awam Bilqis.

In 1998, the excavation began again, and Johnson became involved through a prior association. In 1977, he was a student with the man he now works with on a site in Petra, Jordan. For the last twenty-five years, BYU has had its own project there at Wadi Matah that dates to 10,000 B.C. Johnson and his friend, now a professor at the University of Arizona, work on the Temple of the Winged Lion at Petra. Now they work together on the project in Ma’rib, too.

The trail of Lehi’s family makes its way through this region before reaching the Dhofar coast in Oman. A French archaeologist is credited with locating the town of Nahum. If traveling south from Jerusalem, Nahum is a natural place to turn east toward Ma’rib and then from there northeast to Oman. The ancient record mentions a stop the family made in “Nahom,” where they buried one of their party. Perhaps there will be a connecting link between Yemen and Oman.

American Assistance

Temple wall inscriptions also found at Awam Bilqis.

Brown was quick to attribute any success this venture has had or may have to Rod and Rosalea McIntire, their American contacts in Oman and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “They were wonderful to work with,” Brown added. Employed with Esso, McIntire was also the branch president in Muscat. The McIntire’s arranged meetings with government authorities and professors at SQU in Muscat, for Brown’s team. They discovered that BYU was known to academics at the university, but less well known in government circles. They did meet a government official who was a University of Utah graduate, and they later encountered a Fresno State graduate in an Omani village.

Phillips also remarked on the efforts extended by the McIntires. “Rosalea was so organized.” After that first visit, McIntire’s refinery was purchased, and he found himself out of a job but ready for retirement. He and his family relocated to Provo, Utah. It was not long before he was contacted to set up an oil refinery in Dubai, U.A.E. At first, he was not interested. Phillips reported, “Eventually he agreed to direct the start-up and then turn it over to someone else.”

Regardless of where they traveled, Brown related, “We were very warmly received. They were wonderfully open to our interests and asked only that we keep them informed of our research.”

The proposed title of S. Kent Brown’s book is The End of Lehi’s Trail. “We see this as looking at more than Lehi’s experience. In the end, for Oman and Latter-day Saints, we would like to publish a book about sixth century B.C. and say something about the people and their circumstances.”

This project has been funded in part by the Religious Studies Center, FARMS, and the David M. Kennedy Center for International Studies.

Additional Reading

Aston, Warren P. “The Arabian Bountiful Discovered.” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 7, Number 1, February 1998.

Interview with original Oman team. “Planning Research on Oman.” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Vol. 7, Number 1, February 1998.

Hilton, Lynn M. and Hope. In Search of Lehi’s Trail, Deseret Book, 1976. Journal of Book of Mormon Studies.