Think Ancient

by David Swingler
In the Book of Mormon we read of many cities but few villages.  How many people did it take to call a settlement a city?  We read of armies with "huge numbers", populations that "covered the whole face of the land."  In the Book of Ether we read of war casualties numbering in the millions.  In Alma 11 we read that Amulek was offered six onties of silver by Zeezrom if he would deny the existence of a Supreme Being.  When analyzing the money system adopted by King Mosiah, we calculate that six onties is only about six weeks' pay for a judge; hardly the huge amount "of great worth" it states in the text.  How we view these qualitative words used in our Book of Mormon determines our vision of the size and probable location of Book of Mormon lands.

The following is by archaeologist David Swingler who believes we must change our perceptions of size in ancient times.

All of us take a daily inventory about who we are and what we've done by the end of the day. My observation is that when most people think of ancient times and how different they may have been, they focus on those things which in fact are not so changed - kinds of work, emotions, needs, the day's tasks. Seldom do people imagine in their visualizing the greatest difference - population size and city sizes - and distances between habitations because villages and towns and cities were so few by comparison.


This visualization came to me over years of actually visiting the Mediterranean and Middle East.  I have been  to Italy studying its ancient places and remains - 48 times. I have been 17 times to Palestine, and 28 times to Egypt. It was about 25 years ago - when I was in my later 30's - that I began to, with some shock, notice and then study just how small the populations were 2,000 and more years ago. I discovered that non-quantitative terms in ancient writings - "a great host," "covered the face of the land" were utterly subjective and had to be re-interpreted in actual comparative sizes and numbers, not the sizes and numbers WE think of by these non-quantitative terms, which, giving no actual numbers at all, leave us entirely to interpret what these mean by what reference we have. 


As I began to increase my consciousness of this fact, I paid special attention to ancient texts which included numerical quantitatives aside generic allusions of huge numbers - and learned that to ancient peoples, a few was an enormous number. It all has to do with our reference. If we have always seen 10, 50, 80 people and no more, to suddenly see 2,000 is a staggering vision and boggles the mind. In our modern frame of reference of millions and tens of millions and billions, this is our reference, and we forget: to an ancient person, who has never seen more than a few hundred people at a time in one place, a thousand is an unforgetable host, multitudinous beyond counting. 


And that is one of the last issues to awaken in my perceptions: ability to count numbers.


Today we talk huge numbers, but do we really visualize them? A million? A billion? A trillion? These are in our news today, every day. Yet we really cannot visualize them, though we think to ourselves we can and do. We do not. We see "a great host." "a multitude" and it is but a little bigger than the great host and multitude of our ancestors. When we go to express it in figures, we have at our familiar command huge numbers never used by our ancestors. 


Most ancient peoples did not have good numerical systems. 


The Hebrews did not. Try counting in ancient Hebrew, which used letters assigned a value. Try counting in ancient Egyptian, the same. Ancient Greek, the same. Most ancients did not have easily-used numbers. They used letters, and nothing as sophisticated as Roman Numeral letters system. Try using the Roman Numerals just a little to express today's large-number calculations - it gets utterly confusing very quickly. 


Ancient texts seldom record numbers over 1,000 and even Roman texts talking about citizens of wealth whose fortunes were valued in millions of sesterces are very few, and use verbiage, not numbers in their descriptions. This is not only because the number systems were difficult, it is also because few people knew how to count very high. We speak of illiteracy among ancient peoples - mathematical illiteracy was even worse. Few knew how to cipher, at all. 


Mathematical texts with numbers are so few in all ancient writing systems that they are considered the rarist and most precious due to their uniqueness - we just don't find them.  When we do, we find that quantities were small. 


A number over 100 was very big.  Over 1,000 was very, very big.  10,000 was a quantity beyond most ancient people's understanding.


Those few priests, shamans, astronomers and mathematicians who knew and could use and calculate large numbers were a very few, an elite class, whose gnosis was not shared with the masses and does not represent the majority of ancient population masses. 


Again, this is why so often even in scripture we find no figures used, but rather, expressions like "a numerous people" and dozens of other expressions; it is also why so frequently in ancient writings - including scripture - we find "formulaic numbers" used repeatedly to indicate an idea of size, rather than to represent an actual count. This is true in scripture, where, for example, we repeatedly find events that we are to understand as having been "a lot of days" as being 40 days. Formulaic numbers - as words, not figures - were used because few people could cipher, number systems were crude, clumsy and difficult to use, exact counts were seldom made, estimates were commonly used, and, to express a concept of time or size, certain numbers became popular as denoting "small," "medium" and "large." Societies in which a majority of people were illiterate, and of those few had learned their own system of figures to know ciphering, used formulaic number terms to convey numbers without using numbers. Generic numbers, we would say today, for visualizing something.


It is this visualizing that is so subjective; these subjective terms are what trip us up today because we have a totally different frame of reference, not to mention mathematical capability wherein to us, the term "big numbers" has jumped from 50 to billions and trillions.


(Materials, concepts, maps or conclusions presented at our forums, appearing on this website, or emailed to BMAF members and guests are the sole responsibility of the contributing author(s) and do not necessarily imply that members of the Board of Directors or members of BMAF agree with all or any part of the subject matter and are not sponsored in any way by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.)




Swingler, David