As part of the cultural catalogue of his people—later important in differentiating them from the Lamanites—Nephi instructed them in building construction, wood-working, and metal-working. Guatemala is blessed with extensive hardwood forests, and woodworking is archaeologically attested. In fact, woodworking was presumably more widespread than the surviving samples, since the Mesoamerican climate and the passage of millennia since Nephi’s time would destroy most wooden items.
Metal-working is problematic from both a textual and archaeological viewpoint. The translation of the text into English may not accurately represent the underlying text. In the KJV, for instance, Ezekiel 1:4 and 27 translate as “amber” the word that appears in other places as “bronze” or “brass.” While the presence of “brass” in the KJV might be taken as an accurate description of that alloy based on the model of the brass plates, the translation issues for the Old Testament suggest that we cannot even be certain that the brass plates were brass and not bronze.
Modern Guatemala has a small mining industry, extracting gold, silver, copper, lead, and zinc. Most of the modern mining is in the area around Cobán, which would be north of the proposed Nephite presence in the area around modern Guatemala City. There is no evidence of either metal-working or trade in metals during Nephite times. At present, it is not known how the Book of Mormon references to metal working fit with the time period. For these references to make sense, we must posit trade in goods manufactured from these “precious” materials, but at present, the evidence for that trade has not been discovered.
What has been found, however, is evidence of trade in other goods considered precious in Mesoamerica. Jeremy A. Sabloff, an archaeologist at Harvard University, notes:
By Late Preclassic times [500 B.C.–A.D. 250] there already was active trade with the Maya highlands. The similarities in ceramic designs and forms between the Maya lowlands and the Southern Highlands of Guatemala and El Salvador, particularly in the centuries just before and after the time of Christ, suggest that there were close contacts between the two areas. The highlands also traded obsidian, a volcanic glass used for sharp-edged tools, as well as jade, which was worn by the Maya elite in the form of bracelets, necklaces, and earplugs and was an important symbol of their rank and power.
The best evidence for this trade comes after the time of the Nephites in the city of Nephi, but the later heavily traveled routes are indicative of earlier beginnings. The interesting part of this trade is what is being considered precious at that time—obsidian and jade, not silver and gold. It is possible that the precious ores mentioned in the Book of Mormon may have suffered some translation distortion similar to Ezekiel’s “amber” instead of brass or bronze (translating the color more than the material). Joseph may have understood that there were precious stones, and “translated” them into the modern value system of gold and silver, when the “original” might have been obsidian and jade. Although possible, there is no way to demonstrate that this was so, and we would still have the question of how Nephi could have taught working in such materials. The only way to reconcile Nephi’s statement that he taught the working of the precious materials, if those precious materials were obsidian or jade, is that he had somehow acquired that skill. Obsidian would require specialized knowledge and practice that was not part of Nephi’s Old World culture. In the end, the Book of Mormon’s references to metal-working remain without obvious attestation in the New World for that time and place. (See commentary accompanying 2 Nephi 5:11.)