Archeological Search Underway In SE Iowa For Ancient Mormon City

Photo courtesy of Heartland Research Group

By Ty Rushing

December 6, 2021

Iowa is known for its rich soil, and a group of Mormon researchers hope that same soil holds the secrets to a lost sacred city.

The Heartland Research Group thinks it may have found the site of Zarahemla—a notable city in the Book of Mormon—outside of Montrose, a small southeast Iowa town located on the banks of the Mississippi River.

John Lefgren of the Heartland Research Group said in his faith, Zarahemla would be comparable to Jerusalem for Christians. The exact location of Zarahemla has not been verified, so being able to pinpoint it would be a milestone.

“Iowa is an important place,” Lefgren said. “In the fourth century, Montrose, Iowa, had the largest city in North America.”

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According to Lefgren, in its heyday of AD 320, Zarahemla had a population of about 100,000 and it was the largest city in the Americas.

“The Book of Mormon takes place at a time in ancient America; great civilizations and great armies are in the book,” Lefgren said. “The conclusion of the book, a nation, a great nation is destroyed. Mainly, it’s a cautionary tale, of course, because they did not keep God’s commandments and they do bad things and they are destroyed.”

The Book of Nephi in the Book of Mormon chronicles the destruction of Zarahemla and its eventual reconstruction. Zarahemla also was the namesake of a settlement founded by Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, in 1839. Smith’s version of Zarahemla would later be incorporated into Montrose.

Lefgren noted this project is not endorsed or supported by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the largest practitioners of the Mormon faith.

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The Heartland Research Group is looking for evidence of ancient Zarahemla underground through Light Detection and Ranging (LiDar), a non-invasive remote sensing technology that can create 3D models and maps of objects and environments. The group is also using other technology including carbon dating, magnetometry, and more to scientifically verify the site.

“We have begun that effort and are not disappointed,” Lefgren said. “Not disappointed in the least, we’re amazed.”

One method they hope can help verify Zarahemla’s location is by finding fire pits. The group theorizes that with a population of about 100,000, there would be one fire pit for every 10 residents within a mile or so of the city center.

“We’ve gone down into the ground with core sampling to get charcoal/carbon from fires that are 1,700 years old,”  Lefgren said. “It’s all serious stuff; all serious stuff right here in Iowa.”

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The samples will be sent to the Vilnius Radiocarbon Laboratory in Lithuania for carbon-14 dating to determine the age of the recovered charcoal.

There have been multiple trips to Iowa as part of this process, most recently the group spent 10 days near Monstrose in November. About 40 people were involved in November’s expedition and they searched about 100 acres of fields with permission of the property owners. Landowners are compensated and part of the agreement is that if they find anything of value, the landowner retains ownership of the item.

The group, which is self-funded and made up of volunteers, is working with Russian scientists on the project including Larisa Golovko. She is the founder and CEO of the Texas-based Landviser which specializes in geophysical research and technology.

Golovko presented her findings from the expedition as part of a presentation for the Soil Science Faculty of Moscow State University on Dec. 1.

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The search for Zarahemla began before Lefgren, who is 77, was born, but he thinks his group might be the ones to find enough evidence to bring it to a close.

“We are very close to being there,” he said. “We’ve moved a hundred times from where we were a year ago just because the technology has allowed us to do things that could have never have been done otherwise.

“We’ll soon have the best LiDar in all of Iowa. We already took the pictures, we paid for it. Thirty-four thousand acres in high-definition LiDar—you can see a beer can on the surface—that’s now being processed.”

Follow along:


by Ty Rushing
Posted 12/6/21

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  • Ty Rushing

    Ty Rushing is the Chief Political Correspondent for Iowa Starting Line. He is a trail-blazing veteran Iowa journalist, an Emmy-nominated filmmaker, and co-founder and president of the Iowa Association of Black Journalists. Send tips or story ideas to [email protected] and find him on social media @Rushthewriter.

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