Iron Ore Occurrences in Oman

On 5 April 2000 three BYU geology professors and a professional geologist reported on their work of evaluating the presence of iron ore in southern Oman. Titled “Nephi’s Tools: An Overview of Iron Ore Occurrences in Oman,” the session featured reports by Ronald A. Harris, Eugene E. Clark, Jeffrey D. Keith, and W. Revell Phillips. Their recent work in Oman is part of the university’s larger effort to learn more about the history and culture of ancient southern Arabia.

Harris, a professor of geology at BYU, discussed the tectonic setting of ore deposits in Oman. He explained that mineral deposits are not randomly distributed, but are concentrated by thermal and stress gradients along the edges of the earth’s crustal plates. Oman has occupied the northeastern edge of the African plate for much of geologic time and therefore has an abundance of ore deposits. However, most of these deposits are buried beneath a thick cover of sedimentary rocks. The Dhofar region is one of the few places throughout the Arabian Peninsula where the ore deposits are exposed. The isolated occurrences of these deposits, as well as the lush vegetation of the Dhofar region made possible by high coastal mountains that induce precipitation, is due to geologically recent uplift of the edge of Arabia as it separated from East Africa to form the Gulf of Aden.

Formerly employed by Exxon and Standard Oil, Clark is familiar with the geological features of the Dhofar region of Oman. He pointed out that although there are some 230 springs or seeps in the region, only a dozen or so flow year-round. Investigators who see springs and farming areas and assume those areas have always been fertile are often mistaken, Clark said, because those areas are relatively new, made fertile with the advent of electricity for pumping water from distant areas. On the other hand, some of the dry wadis used to carry water have recently been capped in order for the water to be transported to the towns. He said that most of the soils in the area are quite poor but that the best soils are found in the Salalah area.

Keith, a BYU geology professor, reported on iron ore discoveries in the Dhofar region. The team found deposits of iron-rich carbonate, goethite, and hematite, which can be crushed, mixed together, and heated to make a very usable form of iron ore. These deposits occur in two areas along the southern Omani coast in concentrations sufficient to have enabled Nephi to make tools for building his ship, Keith said. The team extracted some of this ore material, brought it back to BYU, and made iron out of it.

Phillips, a BYU emeritus professor of geology specializing in minerals, discussed metal technology in ancient times. He said that iron was abundant in all levels of society during the time of Nephi, who well could have used a pit furnace and bellows to make iron tools at relatively low temperatures. Inland from the Omani coast are copper deposits that were mined thousands of years ago and from which Nephi could have made bronze tools to build his ship if he did not use iron, Phillips said. He went on to explain that although bronze is not mentioned in the Book of Mormon, brass (an alloy of copper) is. Critics fault the Book of Mormon for its mention of brass, which was not invented until Roman times. However, Phillips noted that the term brass, as used during the period when the King James Version of the Bible was being translated (the Book of Mormon followed that same usage), referred to all forms of copper alloys, including bronze, and that the term bronze was not introduced into English until the 18th century.

The session was moderated by S. Kent Brown, a BYU professor of Ancient Scripture who is directing the parent project, referred to as “The End of Lehi’s Trail.” Under way for two years, the long-term project has several components, including fieldwork in the areas of botany, archaeology, minerology, geology, and DNA research. “We believe that field studies in these disciplines will tell us much that is relevant to our objectives,” Brown stated in an interview. He explained further: “The frankincense that grows in southern Oman gave rise to one of the most important economic highways in the ancient world. That incense trail has drawn our attention. Hence, our research efforts focus on learning about the world in which the frankincense trade flourished as well as the ancient inhabitants who have given to Oman much of its distinctive character and history. The region locally called Dhofar is also the likely place of Lehi’s Bountiful. It is the only area along the southern coast of the Arabian Peninsula that fits Nephi’s description of where the party of Lehi and Sariah emerged from the desert. Thus, our second purpose connects with Lehi’s Bountiful, that is, to learn as much as we can about that area as it was in the first millennium B.C.”

The project is sponsored by several BYU entities: the Religious Studies Center, Ancient Studies, FARMS, the David M. Kennedy Center for International Studies, Near Eastern Studies, and the Department of Geology. “I anticipate that other sponsors will join in assisting the projects as we continue our work,” Brown said. Initial work in examining the plant life and minerological deposits in the region has already been completed, and DNA analysis with a view to learning about the origins of tribes and clans there has also begun. Archaeological excavations are being planned for December 2000.

This multipronged investigation in southern Arabia is expected to generate detailed studies that will be published in professional journals and elsewhere, including the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies.