By Ross T. Christensen


The founding of the Society and its first 20 years of existence are tied more closely to the name of M. Wells Jakeman than to any other. The article which follows therefore has to do particularly with his training and the role he has played in developing the BYU program of archaeology, including the SEHA.


The Newsletter and Proceedings has never before reprinted one of its own articles. The following, however—an early statement by the present editor--could scarcely be improved upon in 1969 as an account of the qualifications which Dr. Jakeman brought to the task of building the BYU archaeology program and his record up to the time it was written. It was first printed in Newsletter 37, dated September 5, 1956, when he had just been replaced as Society president and elected an Honorary Member (“elective Life Member” under the present constitution; see Article IV, Section 3).

After founding the University Archaeological Society and directing its affairs for more than seven years, Dr. M. Wells Jakeman has been released [1956] from his presidency and elected an Honorary Member of the Society by a grateful membership (Newsletter, 37.02). It is now time to review his record and evaluate the extent of his contribution.




Dr. Jakeman’s undergraduate study was done at the University of Utah, where he majored in history [with a minor in Latin and classes also in anthropology, and graduated in 1931 magna cum laude with the Bachelor of Arts degree].  At the University of Southern California, in 193 1-32, he earned the Master of Arts degree in history, with specialization in ancient history and Near Eastern - biblical archaeology. He then transferred to the University of California, at Berkeley, where he did further postgraduate work in ancient history and Near Eastern archaeology, the latter in the field of cuneiform studies or Assyriology.


At this point his interest was challenged by the Book of Mormon claim that the ancient civilizations of the New World were of Near Eastern origin. He therefore decided to undertake an extensive test of this claim on the basis of his Near Eastern training. This entailed changing his field of specialization to ancient American studies, particularly the early chronicled history and archaeology of Mexico and Central America, which is the area of the earliest high civilizations of the New World, those apparently dealt with in the Book of Mormon. This required, besides further classes in history, archaeology, and anthropology, years of study in the famed Bancroft Library and travel and study in Mexico. In 1938 the University of California awarded him the Doctor of Philosophy degree.


His doctoral dissertation was written on the ancient history of the Mayas. The early Indian and Spanish chronicles [of Mexico and Central America], the source materials for this study, are largely documentary, hence the sort of material with which historians deal. But the subject matter, [the history and culture of] an ancient native people of the New World, is the sort with which archaeologists and anthropologists deal. Hence, in mastering the field of his doctoral dissertation, Dr. Jakeman was obliged to master not only historical but also archaeological and anthropological methods, and in particular the field of American archaeology and anthropology.


To our knowledge Dr. Jakeman was the first Latter-day Saint ever to earn a doctor’s degree in history with specialization in the ancient American field. He also appears to have been the second to take the master’s degree in the Near Eastern field (the first being Dr. Sidney B. Sperry, University of Chicago, 1926).




In October, 1938, Dr. Jakeman and other students of archaeology in California founded the Itzan

Society, the aim of which was to investigate “the origins, …history, and religion” of the “civilized pyramid-building peoples of ancient America,” particularly the Mayas and [other ancient peoples of Mexico and Central America]. Two issues of a Bulletin were published with Dr. Jakeman as editor. World War II dispersed its members and the Itzan Society was disbanded, but Dr. Jakeman has since then felt this early organization to have been the forerunner of the UAS.


There followed a period of additional Middle American research including fieldwork in Mexico and Central America and studies in important libraries and museums of eastern United States. Some of the results are contained in his scholarly book, The Origins and History of the Mayas (Los Angeles, 1945).




In 1946, Dr. Jakeman was named by Pres. Howard S. McDonald of Brigham Young University—on the recommendation of the late Dr. John A. Widtsoe and others—to fill the newly-created chair of archaeology (Newsletter, 33.1). On December 17, a regular academic department of Archaeology was established and Dr. Jakeman appointed chairman.


In our opinion, no better selection could have been made. Not only was Dr. Jakeman trained in the [subject matter] of Near Eastern and American archaeology and related studies (those especially involved by the great historical claims of the Scriptures), but had also acquired a mastery of archaeological, historiographic, and anthropological theory and method. In addition to all this, he was a solidly grounded Latter-day Saint and a deep student of the scriptures upon which his faith was built.


[To the present date, 1956], about 4,500 students have passed through classes offered by the BYU Department of Archaeology, many of them taught by Dr. Jakeman himself.




Coincident with the founding of its Department of Archaeology in 1946, BYU purchased the famous William Gates Collection of Early Middle American Literature. This . . . is believed to contain 98% of all known early manuscripts in the native Indian languages of Mexico and Central America. Its possession gives BYU the opportunity of becoming one of the world’s leading research centers in such problems as the decipherment of the Maya hieroglyphics. Dr. Jakeman evaluated the collection and served as the agent for BYU in negotiating the purchase.




On April 18, 1949, Dr. Jakeman and seven of his students met in the archaeology office at BYU and founded the University Archaeological Society (Newsletter, 34.1). After seven years, the Society now claims a membership of some 500 archaeology enthusiasts located throughout the world, including six chapters in the United States and Mexico.


Five issues of the Bulletin of the University Archaeological Society, containing 17 separate articles, several written by Dr. Jakeman himself, have come out under his editorship. Of particular significance was his article in Bulletin 4, March, 1953, entitled, “An Unusual Tree-of-Life Sculpture From Ancient Central America.” We have called this sculpture “ . . . the most direct and striking evidence in support of the Book of Mormon which has yet come forth from the science of archaeology.” It has been said that future generations may come to regard it as “the Rosetta Stone of New World archaeology.” The sculpture was discovered by a Smithsonian expedition at Izapa, southern Mexico, but it remained for Dr. Jakeman to discover that it represented Lehi’s vision of the Tree of Life (I Nephi 8).


Thirty-seven issues of the UAS Newsletter have appeared under his watchful eye as president of the Society, with a number of its articles also written by him.


The first issue of the Society’s “Special Publications,” a 347-page book entitled Discovering the Past, an introductory text to the science of archaeology, was edited and published by him (Newsletter, 19.3).


Three important publications in the Middle American field, the first three numbers of the “Brigham Young University Publications in Archaeology and Early History,” have been issued by the Department of Archaeology under Dr. Jakeman’s authorship or editorship (Newsletter, 30.3).


It was Dr. Jakeman who founded the Annual Symposium on the Archaeology of the Scriptures in 1947. Nine symposia have been held to date [1956] at which numerous significant papers have been read. In addition, a considerable number of important contributions have been delivered before the Society’s Spring or Fall Round-Tables, usually held in Salt Lake City, which were also instituted by him. Dr. Jakeman himself read many of these papers.




In 1948, 1954, and 1956, Dr. Jakeman headed BYU expeditions to Central America which have uncovered highly important evidence on the location of Book of Mormon cities, particularly Bountiful and Zarahemla (see especially his articles in Bulletin 3, August, 1952, and Newsletter 22, August 23, 1954). These investigations were undertaken in a most difficult terrain and in part at his personal expense.




Dr. Jakeman retires from the presidency of the UAS with the Society on a more solid footing than ever before. Archaeology has now become an established academic subject at BYU and is widely recognized as an approach of great potentiality with which to study the scriptural foundations of the Latter-day Saint faith. The essential geographic and historical framework of the Book of Mormon has now been identified in American archaeology to the satisfaction of leading students of the subject. A number of enthusiastic university students are now following their leader to a professional career in the field. Book of Mormon archaeology has now become a recognized and valid scholarly discipline among informed persons [though not among most members of the archaeological profession, who are generally uninformed as to the historical claims of the Book of Mormon and the possibilities of archaeology as a means of checking them. Ed.]


There is probably no other person who could have accomplished what Dr. M. Wells Jakeman has accomplished. It is altogether fitting, therefore, as he leaves his active leadership of the UAS, that the Society should bestow upon him its highest recognition by declaring him an Honorary Member and that he should take his place with other pioneers which the Society has so honored: Dr. John A. Widtsoe, Dr. Sidney B. Sperry, Dr. Howard S. McDonald, and Asa S. Kienke.






1954  Discovering the Past; Introductory Readings and Visual Studies in Archaeology. Arr. and ed. Provo, Utah. xii, 347 pp.; 389 illus.


1957  The Races of Man; Readings in Archaeology, Physical Anthropology, and Ethnology. With Special Attention to the Problem of the Racial Classification of the Ancient Peoples of the Bible and the American Indians, According Mainly to the Evidence of Archaeology (Skeletal Remains and Ancient Art Representations). Arr.and ed. Provo, Utah. vii, 231 pp.


(In Near-Eastern and Especially Mesopotamian and Biblical Studies)


1935  “Recent Light from Cuneiform Tablets,” The Deseret News, Church Section, June 22, 1935, pp. 3, 7.


1959  “‘The Flood,’ the ‘Tower of Babel,’ and Other Studies; an Important New Series in the Field of Biblical Archaeology,” UAS Newsletter, No. 56 (February 11, 1959), pp. 1-3. (Bibliographic note and partial review; reprinted, somewhat revised and enlarged, in Ross T. Christensen, ed., Progress in Archaeology; an Anthology, 1963, pp. 12-16)


(In Americanist and Especially Mesoamerican and Book of Mormon Studies)


1938  “Present Trends in Maya Research,” The Deseret News, Church Section, August 27, 1938, pp. 1, 7-8.


1940 “Who Were the Mayas?,” The Improvement Era, February, 1940, pp. 78-79, 117, 119-120. (Reprinted in A Book of Mormon Treasury; Selections from the Pages of The Improvement

Era, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1959, pp. 157-166)


1940 A Map of the New World at the Close of the Native or Pre-Columbian Age (Showing the Location of the Principal Nations and Tribes and their Political Territories, Cities, Populations, Racial Types, Languages, and Cultures, According to the Latest Findings of American Historical and Anthropological  Research). 2 x 3 ft., on heavy paper. Los Angeles.


1943  “The Time Perspective in Ancient Mexico and Central America,” The Improvement Era, August, 1943, pp. 470-471, 504-505.


1945  The Origins and History of the Mayas; Introductory Investigations. Los Angeles. xxv, 203 pp.; 10 pls. A “most excellent and scholarly” work.—Sylvanus G. Morley, Carnegie Institution of Washington, letter of July 3, 1945.


1946 “The Identity of the Itzas,” American Antiquity, Vol. 12, pp. 127-130.

1947  The Ancient Middle-American Calendar System; its Origin and Development. (Brigham Young University, Publications in Archaeology and Early History, Mesoamerican Series, No. 1). Provo, Utah. v, 36 pp.


“In many ways [this paper] seems to me the most useful presentation of [the Maya calendar system] that has ever appeared and should be very useful for advanced classes in Middle American archaeology.”—Alfred V. Kidder, Carnegie Institution of Washington, letter of January 31, 1956.


1952  “An Archaeological Reconnaissance of the Xicalango Area of Western Campeche, Mexico,” Bulletin of the University Archaeological Society, Provo, Utah, No. 3, pp. 16-44.


1952 The “Historical Recollections” of Gaspar  Antonio Chi; an Early Source-account of Ancient Yucatan. Ed. and trans. (Brigham Young University, Publications in Archaeology and Early History, Mesoamerican Series, No. 3). Provo, Utah. iii, 45 pp.


“This work contains important data for knowledge of Maya religion and customs.” —Review in Tlatoani (a Mexican journal of Mesoamerican studies), Vol. 1 (1952), p. 91. “A classic of its kind.” —H. B. Nicholson, University of California at Los Angeles, letter of November 20, 1955.


1953  “An Unusual Tree-of-Life Sculpture from Ancient Central America,” Bulletin of the University Archaeological Society, Provo, Utah, No. 4, pp. 26-49. (Analysis and interpretation of Stela 5, Izapa)


“I was surprised and glad to see [this] article on the Izapa stela. I too have thought that this piece is exceptionally significant in the matter of Old World relationships.” —Gordon F. Ekholm, American Museum of Natural History, personal letter.


1954  “The Relacion de Motul; a Sixteenth-century Account of Some of the History, Customs, and Religious Beliefs of the Ancient Mayas,” ed. and trans., ibid., No. 5, pp. 22-29.


1954  “The Book of Mormon Civilizations in Space and Time,” UAS Newsletter, Provo, Utah, No. 22 (August 23, 1954), pp. 1-2. (Reprinted, revised and enlarged, in Ross T. Christensen, ed., Progress in Archaeology; an Anthology, 1963, pp. 81-88)


1954  “Progress of Archaeology in Book-of-Mormon Lands,” ibid., pp. 2-4. (Reprinted, somewhat revised, under the title “The Main Challenge of the Book of Mormon to Archaeology; and a Summary of Archaeological Research to Date Giving a Preliminary Test of Book-of-Mormon Claims,” in Ross T. Christensen, ed., Progress in Archaeology; an Anthology, 1963, pp. 99-103)


1954 “The City of Bountiful Found?,” ibid., pp. 4-6. (Reprinted, somewhat revised and enlarged, in Ross T. Christensen, ed., Progress in Archaeology; an Anthology, 1963. pp. 178-181)


1957  “Review of Hugh Nibley, An Approach to the Book of Mormon,” ibid., No. 40 (March 30, 1957), pp. 1-11. (Some further views on Book of Mormon eeoeraohv and archaeology)


1957  “Recent Progress in Deciphering the Ancient Maya I-lieroglyphs,” ibid., No. 44 (September 27, 1957), pp. 2-4.

1958  The Complex “Tree-of-Life” Carving on Izapa Stela 5; a Reanalysis and Partial Interpretation. (Brigham Young University, Publications in Archaeology and Early History, Mesoamerican Series, No. 4). Provo, Utah. vii, 47 pp.; 11 figs. (A more detailed study of this sculpture than the 1953 article [see above] , designed for the archaeological profession)


“The subject of this monograph is a stone monument designated as Stela 5 uncovered at the site of Izapa in southern Chiapas, Mexico. Since its discovery some years ago there have been numerous efforts to interpret the particularly unique tableau etched in low relief on its surface. In the present work Dr. Jakeman offers the most detailed and reasonable analysis thus far published, and his conclusions regarding possible analogies between the lzapa stela and similar representations found in the Old World—always a controversial though undeniably tempting area of speculation—are presented with refreshing objectivity.” —Charles Gallenkamp, review in Science of Man, Vol. 1, No. 2 (February, 1961), p. 63.


“For those who have not seen this publication, and that will likely be most people, this may come as a surprise. This is Mormon archaeology at its best, scientifically presented with little or no advocacy. Some people may be disturbed by Jakeman’s parallels between certain New and Old World elements, but he is very cautious, and after all the parallels are there. Recommended.” --Carl B. Compton, review in The Interamerican (a newsletter), Vol. 7, No. 7 (July-October, 1960), p. 5.


1958  Stela 5, Izapa, Chiapas, Mexico; a Major Archaeological Discovery of the New World. Detailed Commentary on the Carving. Provo, Utah. 88 pp.; 8 pls. (An analysis and interpretation of this sculpture and its comparison with the Lehi tree-of-life story in the Book of Mormon, for Latter-day Saint readers)


“For myself, strictly as a personal opinion and speaking as one who has no special competence to judge in this field, and also as a non-Mormon, I rather incline to Dr. Jakeman’s side. Leaving the question aside of the identification with the incident in 1 Nephi 8, the whole stela seems extremely Middle Eastern in all its aspects, so much so that I wonder how and why it is that more notice has not been taken of the highly non-Mayan beards and turbans on the figures.” —Andrew E. Rothovius, secretary of the New England Antiquities Research Association, in a letter, 1968.


“These findings are breathtaking in their implication and deserve the attention of all archaeologists.” —Charles Sloca, dean of the faculty at Parsons College, in a letter, to the editor of the international Protestant periodical, Christianity Today, 1964.


1961  “The BYU-UAS Middle-American Expedition of 1961,” UAS Newsletter, Provo, Utah, No. 75 (May 26, 1961), pp. 3-7. Co-authored with Ray T. Matheny. (Reprinted with title altered as above in Ross T. Christensen, ed., Progress in Archaeology; an Anthology, 1963, pp. 184-191).


1961  “Izapa Stela 5 and the Book of Mormon,” The Instructor, December, 1961, pp. 410-411, 427.


1964  “A Possible Remnant of the Nephites in Ancient Yucatan,” Papers of the Fifteenth Annual Symposium on the Archaeology of the Scriptures (a Brigham Young University extension publication), Provo, Utah, pp. 110-1 19 and fold, map.


1967  “Stela 5, Izapa, as ‘the Lehi Tree-of-Life Stone’; a Reply to Recent Attacks,” Newsletter and Proceedings of the SEHA, No. 104 (November 29, 1967), pp. 2-11.


116.3  ADDITIONAL REFERENCES. On the Society’s 20th anniversary members may find useful further reading about the activities, history, and purposes of the present BYU program in archaeology. A number of additional titles follow:


1. Newsletter and Proceedings of the SEHA (formerly UAS Newsletter), 22.03, 33.1, 44.00, 44.03, 47.0, 48.0, 54.4, 56.0, 56.2, 56.31, 59.2, 64.0, 66.09, 69.1, 89.1, 89.2, 100.1, No. 102 (see “Explanatory Notes” at the end of the Society constitution appended to this issue), and 110.0.

2.  Some Views on Archaeology and its Role at Brigham Young University (SEHA Miscellaneous Papers, No. 19, 1960). By Dr. Christensen.

3. Progress in Archaeology, pp. 1-4.

4. Department of Archaeology, Brigham Young University, (The Messenger, Vol. 23, No. 5), 1948. By Dr. Jakeman.

5. Various extension publications, Brigham Young University. See Book of Mormon Institute, paper by Dr. Christensen; Papers of the Thirteenth Annual Symposium on the Archaeology of the Scriptures, articles by Dr. Crockett and Dr. Jakeman; Papers of the Fourteenth Annual Symposium, article by Dr. Christensen; Papers of the Fifteenth Annual Symposium, articles by Dr. McDonald and Dr. Kirkham..

6. Deseret News, Church Section, issues of March 27, 1948; April 12, 1958; and July 29, 1961.

7. Improvement Era, February, 1950.