Center Stage: Scholars in 'the land of Bountiful'

The luxuriously green vegetation of Oman's southern coast must have been a welcome sight to ancient travelers who labored over hundreds of miles along the stony desert "Incense Trail."

The frankincense-growing region of southern Oman was the centuries old trailhead of a desert highway. This highway traversed from the bottom of the boot-shaped Arabian Peninsula to Bible lands some 2,000 miles westward.

A group of BYU scholars is opening a multi-disciplinary research of the area because of its ancient significance and because of possible Book of Mormon ties.

The southern coast of Oman is "the same general area where Lehi and Sariah most likely emerged from the vicissitudes of the desert and pitched their 'tents by the seashore' naming the place 'Bountiful,' (1 Ne. 17:6)," said S. Kent Brown, director of ancient studies and professor of ancient scripture at BYU and team leader of the research effort.

The team is composed of Brother Brown and four other scholars, Arnold H. Green, professor of history; Terry B. Ball, assistant professor of ancient scripture and archeobotanist; David J. Johnson, associate professor of anthropology; and W. Revell Phillips, emeritus professor of geology. The team visited Oman in February and met with government officials and received permission and encouragement to study the area.

"It is meaningful, I believe, that we are among the first to propose serious studies in a region that is significant for Oman's ancient past and for its future, as well as holding interest for Latter-day Saints," said Brother Brown.

The team has already developed several subjects for broad research that will be of common interest for the nation as well as for Church members. The goal of the research is to establish a historical and archaeological context from which scriptural and scholarly questions can be answered.

"I think it is important to look for evidence to try to reconstruct the south Arabian world into which Lehi and Sariah emerged soon after 600 B.C." said Brother Brown, former director of the BYU-Jerusalem Center. "We can establish that there are deposits of ores that people could have exploited for making tools. Further, we can determine the kinds of trees that a person could have used to build a keel and a frame for a ship.

"In the larger picture, one of the important dimensions of future work is the effort to uncover more about the ancient incense trail, which has to be one of the most important economic highways of the ancient world."

In so doing, people of the Sultanate of Oman will learn about life during the antiquity of their own past, he said.

Archaeobotanist Ball suggested creating a herbarium at BYU made up of the plants found in the region.

"Dhofar [Oman] is a unique area in that it is relatively isolated, and has only about 750 species of plants," he said. "It is realistic to make a fairly complete and useful reference collection of the plant micro-fossils that archaeobotanists and paeloecologists use to reconstruct past plant use and ecosystems," he said.

He explained a method to reconstruct past plants: microfossils are produced from current plants. By using an acid digestion process, these micro-fossils can then be compared with ancient micro-fossils taken from ancient soils, food residues, pottery and tooth tartar.

Archaeologist Johnson said the exploration of ancient Oman is becoming more extensive as archaeologists study colonies formed millennia ago to extract frankincense. Extensive settlement started at the beginning of the Iron Age (1,000-300 B.C.).

"There apparently was wide-spread settlement at a number of sites along the coast, from Mirbat on the east to Wadi Sayq on the west, itself almost on the Yemeni border."

He said that stations were eventually established along the Oman coast to facilitate shipping because "in antiquity, with certain exceptions, sea journeys typically did not go far from land. These points may have also served as collection points along the coast for materials coming from the interior."

He said watchtowers were erected in many locations "because piracy was always a threat."

Geologist Phillips found magnetite, or iron deposits, in several locations in the region.

"The Omani officials seem pleased at our interest in their country and were willing to help us," he said. "I believe they would welcome a mineralogical investigation of the Jebel Samhan area."

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