Come with us on the adventure of a lifetime as we explore the best candidate for Nephi’s Bountiful in Oman. In the next few days, we will give you the details to take you there with us for an armchair journey to a green beach on the edge of the Arabian Sea where archaeologists are digging. Watch for continuing updates in the days ahead.
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This work is sponsored by the Khor Kharfot Foundation and under the direction of Dr. F. Richard Hauck and his Archaeological Research Institute. (ARI). This entire project in Oman is being done by private contributions. To participate, please click here and click on the DONATE NOW button in the upper right.
Overhead a sound like a hive of bees hums as a quadcopter drone takes photos and videos of every possible angle of Khor Kharfot, the candidate for Nephi’s Bountiful that hardly anyone questions. Below in the vast, blue ocean, scuba divers explore underwater for anything left from 2600 years ago.
The month of February archaeologists have descended in this remote, almost inaccessible place to sift the dirt and find its secrets, but this week is the height of activity. Twenty-three of us are here, representing different specialties and skills, to probe this place, asking questions whose answers may lie buried here.
We have two major hypotheses: 1) that Khor Kharfot is Nephi’s Bountiful and 2) that there is an Israelite sanctuary here built with the sacred geometry found in Solomon’s Temple. That geometry is like a signature upon the place and will become even more clear with the work we do over time. Archaeology is a patient process, but new technology is opening doors never before dreamed possible.
The multi-disciplinary group who have arrived here, tools in hand, are particularly geared to search for these answers, but they won’t come easily. Taking test samples, hauling them back to labs for chemical analyses, comparing this with mounds of study done elsewhere will all be required to move these ideas forward in a scientifically sound way.
Those who have come before to study Khor Kharfot have camped in the brutal heat, while the biting midgelys ate us alive, but this time, in a burst of sanity, we are staying in Dhalkut, a small fishing village to the west that is just three miles from the border of Yemen.
Oman is a nation of tolerance and friendliness, a pristine, perfect image of Arabia like you might find at the Epcot Center. Yemen is the heart of al Qaeda, so we are glad to be on this side of the border though word travels that we are here.
Every morning we take on the ocean in fishing boats to travel the six miles in thirty minutes to Khor Kharfot, an inlet that has been uninhabited for a very long time. To land, our fishing boats are rammed at high speed t-boning the shore, overcoming the waves, and we wade to land. Our day in the heat and searing sun has begun.
Different This Time
Khor Kharfot is a mile-long beach, littered with archaeological ruins and divided nearly in half by a wadi and a freshwater lagoon. It is up this wadi where large trees with enormous roots stand, where date palms grow and wildlife plays in the water. Our past expeditions have concentrated in this area that seems so ready for study, but this time our focus is different.
We are concentrating our efforts on a raised plateau on the southwest of the beach where the remains of a most unusual structure stands—something that looks very much like a Hebrew sanctuary, so much so, Dr. Hauck, says he is quite sure it is. Like the temple in Salt Lake City from which every block is measured, so our time here will be centered on this sanctuary.
The archaeologists have been chosen because of their specialties, but most of the rest of us who have joined this expedition have been self-selecting. Khor Kharfot and its possible association as Nephi’s Bountiful called to them. They yearned to be a part of it—or, once they heard of the expedition, they couldn’t get it off of their minds. It dogged them constantly until they signed up.
Some, like us, have already had much association with this place. Shooting photos for a book, Scot and I were the first Latter-day Saints into this place after Warren Aston and his family in 1992 and have come back frequently since. Little did we know that Nephi’s Bountiful would be entwined into our existence, constantly calling us back.
To understand what we are doing this week, you have to meet the people involved and what they are about. Besides the archaeologists, we have people who own major companies, a New York Times bestselling author, men and women noted in their field, all digging holes and sifting dirt in a world where the sun could cook an omelet on the rocks.
One archaeologist who is not LDS asked us, “Why would they do that?” We could only answer, “This means more to all of us than we could possibly explain.”
So meet the crew and what they do:
F. Richard Hauck
Ric Hauck is an archaeologist who has concentrated much of his work in Meso-America and the Book of Mormon connections there. Yet this project at Nephi’s Bountiful may be his favorite of all, so much so that he found, recruited and organized the work of the other archaeologists on the expedition.
His hypothesis that this sanctuary is Israelite is based not only on what he’s studied about the Tabernacle in the Wilderness and Solomon’s Temple, but surprisingly at what he’s seen at two sites in Meso-America, which also have the sacred dimensions the Lord has prescribed for his sanctuaries.
He said, “We have a little window here to look back and see what went on in this very remote place. It’s a very complex picture we can see at this stage. We have more questions than we have any answers, but from all indications, we can tell this is a very special location.
“My connection here is to open the window so that whatever is important for people to know can come out regarding this place and the people who lived here. There’s too much happening here to think this is accidental.”
Linda Scott Cummings
Linda Scott Cummings is a paleo-botanist (a palynologist) who is on site this week to give us a picture of the past vegetation of Khor Kharfot. It is clear that there are sufficient trees today to build a ship and supply food but what did this scene look like in 600 BC? It appears this site at one time had many springs that gushed off the mountain sides, but those have long since dried up and the population they fed abandoned the spot. In Lehi’s time, it appears Khor Kharfot was much wetter and lush than it is today.
What is remarkable is that the picture of the past foliage is not lost to us, but is preserved in pollen samples and phytoliths. Phytoliths are silica bodies that are casts of the inside of the cells of plants. What she will do is take samples of these phytoliths from different strata and then date the sediments where they are found.
She will also test the sanctuary site to see if frankincense and lamb’s blood can be detected in the proper locations they would be found in a temple. The protein residue in blood leaves a signature so that you can detect its presence. The presence of frankincense would also be detectable with chemical testing.
She is the founder and owner of the Paleo Research Institute in Golden, Colorado.
Joe Schuldenrein is a geoarchaeologist who will be sampling and then reading the strata to give us a picture of the changing geology, topography and climate over time. This means he will be able to tell us whether the lagoon now blocked by a sand bar from flowing into the ocean was once an active wadi that flowed year round into the sea.
This matters because it may give us additional ideas about where and how Nephi built his ship.
Schuldenrein’s plan is to go down into the wadi and pull out core samples to look at the sequence of organic deposits that will paint a picture of the changing landscape, the climate, and the evolution in the beaches over the centuries. His work will give us a picture of how the people who lived here, interacted with their landscape, how it changed, and why they left.
He has a Ph.D in anthropology and geography from the University of Chicago and has worked in this field since 1971.
Kimball Banks is working with Hauck to design the long-term research plan for the site and identify the research questions. “The more you look at things, the more questions arise,” he says. “It’s like putting together a big jigsaw puzzle.”
Because the plain with the beach below and the sanctuary above are two very different sites, he says, “It’s a very complicated archaeology.”
Sara Zaia, from Italy, is taking time off from a project in Egypt to survey and map the site. She has put fluorescent flags at key locations and set GPS points as markers, all so that every square inch can be measured and understood in relation to each other. She will be seen each day with a camera in hand, taking photos of the sanctuary and other sites that overlap each other by 60%.
Her remarkable product at the end of the week will be a complete 3d photographic rendering of the sanctuary, a rock shelter, and other spots on the plateau. On the computer you can turn these every way to measure and analyze. These allow the archaeologists to continue working long after they have left the field.
The “High-Flying Photographer”
A quadcopter drone flies out into the ocean and then zooms back toward the wadi. Part of our task while we are here is to do aerial photography of the entire site. It is an essential part of surveying the site. Every time the quadcopter buzzes near us, we feel like we have a little alien watching us from space.
In reality, it is Aaron Foye in control from the ground, who says his skill here is self-taught.
These photos and videos from the air open an archaeological world to us we can’t perceive on ground level, revealing patterns that are only clear from the air. Each of Aaron’s four batteries allows him to fly 17 to 20 minutes, and when he’s not flying, he’s charging them. These photos and videos will allow the archaeologists to continue the work when they are no longer on site.
Security and Logistics:
Unlike the rest of us who are sleeping in cushy beds, Chad Aston, has set up a blue tarp for shade and is sleeping on the site for security purposes, meaning we can leave all of our equipment here day by day and not haul it back and forth on boats. This is not an easy job. He has already tangled several nights with angry badgers that growled so loudly right by his tent, it awakened him. Apparently the badger was mad because he struggled to extract his teeth from the bottle of oil he was stealing from the camp. The badgers also took his entire camelback pack and stuffed it deep into an under-hanging rock for later consumption.
Nobody is more equipped for this than Chad who works with the Australian Federal Police in Jakarta, Indonesia focused on drug-related crimes. Besides that he knows the place better than anyone. The son of Warren Aston, who first found this place and correlated it with Nephi’s Bountiful, Chad has been coming here since he was 15 and first drew the map that we hypothesize is an Israelite sanctuary. He has explored every cave and ledge that is impossible to climb here and keeps a camera trap set up every night to photograph the unwary animal life in the Khor.
He says, “I hope that by the end of this trip, we will have a clear plan of how all the sciences come together to give a complete picture of the Khor. For me, the hope is that we will be able to specifically strengthen the criteria that have been established in a general sense.”
You dive when you are doing archaeology in a coastal region, not just because you hope you’ll find some forgotten artifact buried in the sand, but for something more. Yes, it is possible that anchors could be there that once steadied an ancient ship or that something fell into the sea while a boat was being loaded. It is even possible that ancient people may have flung their discards into the sea.
But, even more important, when you are rebuilding a sense of what changes have come to the beach and the wadi over the centuries, you need information from the ocean floor. Just like the surface needs to be mapped and surveyed, we hope to survey and film the ocean floor.
Is it possible to launch a ship from this site and how would you do it?
After seeing some articles in Meridian about Khor Kharfot, diver Jack Stapley from Arizona wrote asking if he could head up a dive team and organized the first group of three, including Kurtis Kildew and Jeff Burrows. He kept this first group small to iron out the logistics of generators and tanks and diving equipment.
Next archaeological expedition to Khor Kharfot, he hopes to bring 12 divers to carefully investigate the ocean floor. “Could there still be tools, vessels or artifacts there?” Jack asks. He assumes this will become a very popular part of the effort as divers will want to come to dive in this beautiful part of the Arabian Sea.
The Support Team:
The rest of us on the expedition learned how to dig test pits and sift dirt looking for anything important. Digging a test pit is careful business that begins with measuring a meter square and marking it. Then you use a spade and measuring tape to carefully go down only a given number of centimeters so soil samples can be taken.
When one level of dirt is extracted, the next is begun, until we are down to the last 4,000 years of history.
These little samples look benign enough—like ziplock bags filled with dirt. But they are ziplock bags that hold secrets like ancient pollen and key dates that tell the story. We became expert diggers and sifters.
Ron McMillan quipped, “I just love breathing the dust of antiquity,” and, in one of the test pits in the sanctuary, Bonnie McMillan found a shell, drilled with a hole in the end to string on a necklace. This is exactly like a museum piece we saw in nearby Salalah that dates to the Iron Age—Lehi’s time period.
The trickiest of the dirt samples was taken by Chad Aston and his sister Claire Aston Richards in the middle of the night. These samples were taken from beneath the rocks in the sanctuary using a technique that would not expose the samples to any light. Why? Because sand has a surprising quality. The last time it sees the sun, a clock is set until it is exposed again. This allows you to date the last time sand was exposed to light with accuracy.
Brent Heaton has become a regular at Khor Kharfot, his interest irrevocably piqued when he first camped here some years ago. Marty Heaton became so hooked on Oman and Khor Kharfot specifically that he wants to learn the unwritten language Jabbali, the endangered language of southern Oman.
What got him is when he learned that in Jabbali the word for sea is iruminum which sounds surprisingly like “Irreantum”. When Nephi mentions Irreantum he adds, “which, being interpreted, is many waters,” as if this is not his own language. (1 Nephi 17:5).
Scott Gubler and Mark Gubler together own Deseret Laboratories, a business so demanding that one of them shouldn’t leave unless the other is there take the helm. This week they both left at once to dig. Scott said, “I think anybody who has a spirit of adventure couldn’t pass up an opportunity like this.”
Clyde Parker and Danny Parker flew in for two days to represent the Khor Kharfot Foundation. That was 28 hours of traveling for less time on site, but it was worth it. They couldn’t pass up an opportunity like that either.
Special thanks to Mark and Lori Hamilton who made this expedition possible. Donations to this effort in Oman can be made here.