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Dr. Benjamin Pykles: Bearing Witness through the Past


April 27, 2015

During his career, Dr. Benjamin Pykles has uncovered ruins of the 1910s in Iosepa, Utah and researched the rise of historical archeology of the 1930s. Now he’s using his skills to uncover the past of the pioneers in the early nineteenth century.

Pykles, as part of the Department of Geological Sciences’ Quey Hebrew Memorial Lecture, illustrated the value of remote-sensing technologies ranging from specially-trained canines to ground-penetrating radar at the Priesthood Restoration Site, Historic Nauvoo, Haun’s Mill, Far West Burial Grounds, and the original Provo Tabernacle.

Pykles started his presentation by talking about his work at the Haun’s Mill Massacre Site and the Far West Burial Grounds, both in Missouri. The two projects are still in progress, and the two sites have offered ideal opportunities to test a variety of new technologies.

“We set out to investigate this eighty-acre parcel [the Far West Burial Grounds] using a variety of remote-sensing techniques,” Pykles said. “We used some very specially trained dogs, magnetometry, and ground-penetrating radar. We followed that with excavations.”

A lot of people wonder why the Church places such importance, time, and resources into restoring these sites, Pykles said.

“The easiest way to speak of this is to think of two verbs that characterize our covenantal relationship to God . . . witness and remember,” Pykles said. “We see the historic sites of the Church as three-dimensional witnesses of the reality of the restoration of the gospel in this last dispensation.”

Pykles has worked as a professor of anthropology at the State University of New York at Potsdam and is the author of Excavating Nauvoo: The Mormons and the Rise of Historical Archaeology in America, which won the Pettit Best First Book Award from the Mormon History Association in 2011. Currently, he works for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the church history department as a historic sites curator.

In addition to Pykles’ work at the Missouri sites, Pykles has done work at Nauvoo and at the Provo Tabernacle. His team’s efforts were very successful at both sites. At the Provo Tabernacle in particular, Pykles and his team found the fascinating remains of the 1860s structure.

Directly north of the current Provo City Center Temple site laid the foundation of the older Provo tabernacle, and to the west of that, on the same city block, were the foundations for an old baptistery and the caretaker’s cottage. The city block used to be used exclusively for the worship of the saints in the surrounding country, and Pykles and his team were able to bring that heritage to light.

“With the completion of the Provo City Center Temple, the use of the city block over time will represent the entire spectrum of Latter-day Saint worship, from baptism and weekly congregational worship to sacred temple ordinances,” Pykles said.

Pykles feels very passionate about the work that he and his department are doing.

He places great importance on representing these historic sites accurately. He and his team do their research to ensure the Church can recreate the buildings in the exact places they were originally built on over a hundred years ago.

“These are the very spaces where the restoration of the gospel unfolded, in some instances where God himself appeared,” Pykles said. “We do the best we can to recreate the environment so these sites are empowered to do what they are designed to do, which is to bear witness.”