This description has two interesting aspects. First, Benjamin apparently builds the tower because he is surprised by the large attendance. The tower is a response to the crowd, not planned as part of the occasion. Second, he should not have had to build it in the first place. Why? The tower elevates Benjamin so that he can see over the crowd and so that his voice will carry over the hum of the crowd. However, temples in Mesoamerica were used for that precise purpose, with some excellent acoustics in some of the ceremonial centers. A person speaking from the steps of the temple could be heard at other temples in the complex or within the ceremonial courtyard. In the Mesoamerican context, then, the temple should have already provided the benefits of a tower. Yet Benjamin built a tower. At this point, Mesoamerican culture may provide a persuasive explanation. If, as I have hypothesized, Benjamin’s speech was occurring as part of a new year/jubilee/new century festival, and if part of Benjamin’s effort to unite the people and build or rebuild temples as part of the renewal of the new century, then Benjamin is standing on the temple site but not in front of a finished temple. It had not yet been built. Benjamin thus constructs a tower because the permanent “tower,” or temple, is not there.
A corroborating detail is that Benjamin’s son, Mosiah, also calls a gathering of all of the people, yet has no need to build a similar tower (Mosiah 25:1–4). By that time, the temple had been finished, and Mosiah no doubt addressed the people from its steps.
Archaeology: The best analysis of the text suggests that Benjamin’s speech took place at a major festival and symbolized a new beginning for the combined Zarahemlaite and Nephite peoples. The best candidate for Zarahemla, according to John L. Sorenson, is the archaeological site known as Santa Rosa. This location is located on the west side of the Grijalva River in Chiapas, Mexico. Sorenson notes:
The archaeological sequence at Santa Rosa is interesting in terms of the Book of Mormon, although the findings will always remain incomplete because the site is now underwater. Major public construction in the form of what seem to have been “temple” or “palace” foundation mounds started on a modest scale at approximately 300 B.C. That coincided with growth in population, which produced the “city” of Zarahemla that Mosiah’s party encountered a couple of generations later. The place remained no larger than a modest town, as we think of size, during the time when Mosiah, Benjamin his son, and Mosiah II reigned. Around 100 B.C. a spurt in the city’s prosperity is evident, and a large number of major public structures were erected. That condition continued for around a century. Except for the site of Chiapa de Corzo far downstream, Santa Rosa became the largest, most significant “city” in the Grijalva basin just at the time when Zarahemla is reported by the Book of Mormon as becoming a regional center.
Even more intriguing for the story of Benjamin is a particular archaeological feature of one of the temples that appears to have been constructed about this time. Santa Rosa was excavated and documented by the New World Archaeological Foundation. As part of the excavation into one of the pyramid mounds the archaeologists discovered an unusual feature. There was a plaster floor over the foundation layer that was intentionally laid and smooth. This, in itself, is unusual because Mesoamerican pyramids are built to demonstrate external volume, not usable interior space. The plaster floor is a location that was intended to be covered over and never seen again. The plaster itself, while interesting, was much more interesting for what it covered. In the words of the excavating archaeologist, Augustín Delgado: “The plaster floor continued in both trench extensions. In contact with it, both above and below, was a thin layer of gravel. That below was of different natures to either side of the medial line of the temple. To the north it was composed of larger fragments of broken stone, while to the south it was natural gravel. The difference was probably due to the source of the material.” Normal construction techniques indicate that labor may have been divided along kinship lines, with differing groups responsible for different parts of the construction. Art historian Linda Schele and archaeologist Peter Mathews describe the probable procedure:
No tax or labor records have survived to identify the workmen who labored on the great public buildings. However, we have other hints about how construction projects worked. Archaeologists consistently find thin walls creating “construction pens” inside pyramids, and often neighboring pens have different fill materials. These pens have been found under courts and plazas, so that they may have served as much to organize labor as to provide containing walls inside a construction. A likely system would have been to assign a certain number of pens to different lineages, who would then be responsible for finding the fill and bringing it to the pens. Each lineage would have fed its own people and perhaps contributed additional food and materials to the main construction project.
What sets the Santa Rosa gravel apart from the construction pens in other temples is not a method of construction, but a methodically constructed feature—one that was intended to be unseen at the bottom of a major temple. The two fill types were carefully separated with the division line running an astrologically significant east to west. Another archaeologist working at Santa Rosa, Donald Brockington, discusses how this particular feature might expand on the normal lineage connections to construction sites: “To the north the gravel was broken and to the south it was rounded. I supervised that excavation and, upon noting the difference, carefully searched the gravel, finding no mixture whatever. Not only does the difference suggest two sources of materials but it may be taken to imply two separate groups, each working on its section. Further, the medial line runs roughly east-west.” The east-west medial line suggests that it represents the path of the sun, symbolically tying this feature to the greater world. These are not multiple lineages represented by multiple construction pits, but two precise layers of gravel, carefully gathered, carefully separated, and carefully plastered over. Brockington also noted that the general settlement pattern “might be interpreted to suggest a clustered village divided into moieties and oriented in relationship to a ceremonial construction.” The social picture that may be extracted from the data suggest two major divisions in Santa Rosa. The east-west median dividing the carefully separated gravel types also suggests the presence of two major groups in the city. In addition, the construction of this particular temple appears to date to around the time of Benjamin’s speech.
This archaeological evidence suggests a very tempting, albeit speculative, scenario. Benjamin’s discourse was given at the temple site where Benjamin built a temporary tower. As part of Benjamin’s coronation of his son, he reidentified his people, making of two a single people. As part of this ceremony, the people symbolized their new unity physically by laying a ceremonial flooring consisting of two different gravels. This representation of division was then plastered over as a representation of unity. The separation was no longer visible. It was symbolically buried in the temple and conceptually buried in the new sacred space. The new temple became the physical embodiment of the covenant.
History: Stephen D. Ricks suggests that the tower is related to the Israelite practices of coronation: “A society’s most sacred spot is the location where the holy act of royal coronation takes place. For Israel, the temple was that site. So we read that during his coronation Joash stood ‘by a pillar [of the temple], as the manner was’ (2 Kings 11:14).”
Ricks then suggests that Benjamin’s tower might correspond to a dais, specifically relying upon a particular understanding of the “pillar” by which Joash stood: “De Vaux connects these pillars with the ‘brasen scaffold’ that Solomon built (2 Chr. 6:13), upon which he stands and kneels ‘before all the congregation of Israel,’ and from which he offers the dedicatory prayer for the temple; further, de Vaux suggests that the phrase near the pillar be translated ‘on the dais.’”
While this possibility is interesting, the text in Mosiah suggests that the tower was for communication, that the structure was temporary, and that it was created after the crowd had assembled. This scenario makes it less likely that the tower acted as a dais. In the context of a Mesoamerican town with an existing temple, the temple itself would be sufficient to serve as such a “tower-dais.” But for Benjamin’s speech, the tower existed as a communications device, not as sacred space. The sacred space was the temple around which they gathered.
Demography: The people of Zarahemla would have come both from the city itself and from the outlying land called Zarahemla. Consequently, the population would have been larger than the number who typically lived inside a Mesoamerican ceremonial center. We have little idea how many would have been present, since the census was not taken. Sorenson suggests 25,000, based on the ability of John Wesley to preach to “20,000 people in the open in England, which suggests that the size of the assembly in Zarahemla was perhaps a little larger.” The larger number is suggested by the next verses’ record that many of the assembled could not hear, suggesting more than those who were able to hear Wesley.