Building and Construction
The Jaredite cities and ceremonial centers were built of stone, earth and a minimal amount of wood. The Nephites built principally with wood, with some fortifications of earth, rock and timber. Both Jaredite and Nephite homes were probably constructed of wood, with pole or matting walls and thatched roofs.
The Book of Mormon states that in the later years of the Nephite culture, there were large cities and villages in all quarters of the land. The major cities were encircled by fortified moats or trenches built during the reign of the judges. The people lived in houses of wood and cement (1), and on a more temporary basis in tents. The dwellings in the land southward were likely constructed of light wood with thatched roofs, built upon raised mounds of rock and earth, with cobbled pathways in-between. The account mentions temples, synagogues, sanctuaries, palaces and towers. It is also likely that these were built of wood. The people were skilled in building construction, wood working, metal working, and gold smithing. It is logical to assume that Nephite architecture would be similar to that of the Hebrews of the 6th century B.C.
The record tells us that Nephi built a temple which was patterned after the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. If Solomon's Temple was similar to later temples, it consisted of an inner building constructed of stone walls, with inner walls, floor and roof of wood. This smaller building was surrounded by an inner and outer courtyard where the people assembled, these courtyards were surrounded by a stone wall. This building in no way resembles any of the Mesoamerican pyramids. (A model of Herod's temple from Wikipedia Commons which supposedly was built to duplicate Solomon's.) Nephi states that the workmanship of the his temple was exceedingly fine, but it did not contain as many precious things as that of Solomons. (2Ne.:5:14-17).
Some of the cities were walled such as Lehi-Nephi, Shilom and Zarahemla (Mos.9:6-8). Their cities, dwellings and trade routes were connected by an extensive system of roads, trails and paths. In the land northward they built with cement (1) due to a lack of available timber. Many of their cities were destroyed at the time of Christs crucifiction (33 A.D.) being flooded, covered with earth, burned, etc. The cities of Jacobugath, Laman, Josh, Gad, Kiskumen, and Zarahemla were burned with fire (which suggests wooden construction) (3 Ne. 9:3, 9-10.) Many of these cities were later rebuilt.
From the record, it appears that the Nephite buildings (both residential and public) were constructed of wood whenever trees were available. Their preference for wood is stated or inferred a number of times by the various historians. When sources of wood became scarce, they reluctantly learned to build with "cement", but still retained a preference for wood. Some scriptural references will illustrate this point.
About 570 B.C. Nephi tells us And I did teach my people to build buildings, and to work in all manner of wood, and of iron, and of copper, and of brass, and of steel, and of gold, and of silver, and of precious ores, which were in great abundance (2 Nephi 5:15). He mentions wood and metals, but stone is conspictuously absent from the list.
Later King Noah "built many elegant and spacious buildings; and he ornamented them with fine work of wood, and of all manner of precious things, of gold, and of silver, and of iron, and of brass, and of ziff, and of copper; And he also built him a spacious palace, and a throne in the midst thereof, all of which was of fine wood and was ornamented with gold and silver and with precious things. And he also caused that his workmen should work all manner of fine work within the walls of the temple, of fine wood, and of copper, and of brass." (Mosiah 11:8-10.) Again stone is not mentioned.
In 49 B.C. Helaman tells us And it came to pass that they [the Nephites] did multiply and spread, and did go forth from the land southward to the land northward, and did spread insomuch that they began to cover the face of the whole earth, from the sea south to the sea north, from the sea west to the sea east. And the people who were in the land northward did dwell in tents, and in houses of cement, and they did suffer whatsoever tree should spring up upon the face of the land that it should grow up, that in time they might have timber to build their houses, yea, their cities, and their temples, and their synagogues, and their sanctuaries, and all manner of their buildings [emphasis mine]. And it came to pass as timber was exceedingly scarce in the land northward, they did send forth much by the way of shipping. And thus they did enable the people in the land northward that they might build many cities, both of wood and of cement. (Hel. 3:8-11 emphasis mine). Again in this instance we are told that their homes and cities were built of wood and cement. Stone is still not mentioned. They obviously preferred wood as they would ship it over great distances, to places where stone would have been more readily available. Even when they didnt use wood, they didnt built with stone, but with cement.
Moroni's fortifications during the wars with Amalikiah were principally of earth and timbers (Alma 50:1-4). Although on one occasion he does mention building "walls of stone" (Alma 48:8) but this seems to have been the exception. During the terrible destruction at the crucifiction of Christ, many of the Nephite cities were burned. As mentioned earlier, this would suggest wooden construction.
John Gee (3) makes some good points regarding Nephite buildings. "It is a common trap to assume that because the Maya produced impressive architecture, beautiful artwork, and intriguing writing they must somehow be connected with the Nephites. In the Old World, the Egyptians hold a similar position to the Maya in the New World. By comparison, the Israelites produced less impressive architecture, cruder artwork, and a less elegant script than the Egyptians; they did, however, produce the Bible. The Nephites may not have been that much different from their Israelite ancestors; at least evidence indicates this is the case. Nephite architecture, for example, need not be as elaborate, impressive, or durable as Maya architecture. While the Maya are noted for their limestone-block-over-rubble-core construction with limestone plaster overlays, building with stone is mentioned only once in the Book of Mormon and only for city walls (see Alma 48:8). More common techniques are building with earth (see Alma 48:8; 49:2; 50:2; 53:4) and wood (see 2 Nephi 5:15; Jarom 1:8; Mosiah 11:810; Alma 50:23; 53:4; Helaman 3:911). Cement (limestone plaster?) was used only in the land northward and only when there were not enough trees (see Helaman 3:511). Wood was clearly the preferred Nephite building material, but it does not survive well archaeologically, especially in Mesoamerica."
To re-emphasize Gee's point, if the Nephites built mainly with wood, then such buildings would decompose rather quickly leaving few prominant or obvious ruins.
I seriously question whether the Nephites ever built anything similar to the elaborate temple complexes of Mesoamerica. Such projects undoubtedly required slave labor to construct, involved heavy taxation of the resources of the community, and required a monarchial government to impose such requirements. When you read the account of righteous King Mosiah (Mosiah Ch. 2) who refused to tax his people, working with his own hands for his support, not placing unbearable burdens upon the people, and certainly not placing them in servitude, it is difficult to envision him building huge cities, public works, or monuments beyond the actual needs of the community. But such things were the product of wicked and oppressive monarchs such as Riplaskish (see Ether Ch. 10) who enslaved his people and taxed them to the point that they rebelled against him, all to "build many spacious buildings".
One additional point needs to be made. The Israelites were expressly forbidden to use cut or worked stone in their altars as can be seen from the following references. And if thou wilt make me an altar of stone, thou shalt not build it of hewn stone: for if thou lift up thy tool upon it, thou hast polluted it. Neither shalt thou go up by steps unto mine altar, that thy nakedness be not discovered thereon. (Exodus 20:25-26.) And there shalt thou build an altar unto the LORD thy God, an altar of stones: thou shalt not lift up any iron tool upon them. (Deuteronomy 27:5.) Then Joshua built an altar unto the LORD God of Israel in mount Ebal, As Moses the servant of the LORD commanded the children of Israel, as it is written in the book of the law of Moses, an altar of whole stones, over which no man hath lift up any iron: and they offered thereon burnt offerings unto the LORD, and sacrificed peace offerings. (Joshua 8:30-31.) I assume that the Nephites were under the same restrictions as the Mosaic Hebrews. Yet Maya and Olmec altars are generally fashioned into elaborate symbolic shapes and engraved with ancient script which would violate these commands. Thus I think we can safely assume that they are not of Nephite manufacture.
The Jaredites are assumed to correlate with the archaeological Formative and Olmec era peoples. These people built their ceremonial centers and public buildings with earth and stone. The common housing consisted of wood, bamboo, and thatch built on raised mounds of earth. They used architectural patterns and methods familiar to them from their origins in ancient Sumeria. This included the ziggurat, or stepped pyramid, topped by a small temple. This temple symbolically represented a mountain or high place where one could more ready communicate with the "gods". The Mesopotamian ziggurats were constructed of earth and fired brick. (Only one pyramid in Mesoamerica in known to have been built of fired brick, that at Comalcalco). However, in Mesoamerica the same pattern is used, but the material is different. There the pyramids were constructed of hewn or rough stone, often with an earthen core.
The account indicates that the Jaredites built many mighty cities, and spacious buildings, and that the people covered the face of the earth. (Ether 9:23). Their cities, dwellings and trade routes were connected by extensive roads, paths and trail systems. They were skilled in mining and metallurgy, and left large waste dumps from their mining operations (Ether 10:23). The Jaredites also erected stone monuments (stelae) to memorialize their rulers (at least in the case of Coriantumr, Omni 20-22). They constructed a great city by the narrow neck of land between the land northward and the land southward (Ether 10:20). But (and this is very important), there is no record of any Jaredite city being built in the land southward. The land southward was maintained solely as a wilderness for hunting (Ether 10:21).
The Jaredites (assuming that they were Olmec) used highly stylized and symbolic decorations and designs on their buildings and monuments. These designs are not in any way Hebraic, but closely resemble far eastern oriental design as Paul Shao has clearly demonstrated (2). He has documented a remarkable similarity between Jaredite (Olmec era) and Post-Jaredite (Maya era) architecture and culture, and that of the far east.
Moroni (who was an authority on both the Nephite and Jaredite civilizations) comments that the Jaredites were more blessed and prospered by the hand of the Lord than any other people on the face of the earth (Ether 10:28). However, it is likely that in later years many of their vast building projects were carried out by wicked tyrants, using slave labor and exorbitant taxation (for example the previouly mentioned Riplakish, Ether 10:5-7). Much of the remaining art work and design in the archaeological ruins of the Jaredite and Post-Jaredite peoples was probably the work of an apostate and decadent people, and may even reflect the practices and culture of the secret society.
(1) Regarding references to cement, it is unlikely that Joseph Smith had anything similar to modern cement in mind when he translated the Book of Mormon. At that time the term cement refered to things such as stucco, plaster or mortar. Modern Portland cement was not invented until 1827. In ancient America, materials such as stucco, mortar and plaster were used for flooring, binding or facing masonry, or decorative facades. As far as I am aware, no surviving ruins were completely constructed with cement. In my opinion the cement mentioned in the Book of Mormon is adobe consisting of hardened mud blocks, which are still in wide use among the local people in Central American. A minimal amount of wood is used in the roof, windows and doors of adobe buildings. The finished walls are covered with stucco or plaster which might be considered to be cement. Adobe is a spanish term which was not included in the vocabulary of 1820 New England, so Joseph Smith would not have been familiar with this word. Brian Stubbs (FARMS V.5:1:1-45) points out that "No matter who built the houses of cement, nearly all the Southern UA [Uto-Aztecan] languages have a common word for "adobe" (sami). The word adobe was not in the 1830 edition of Webster's Dictionary, and Joseph Smith may not have been familiar with the term adobe. If not, his use of cement may refer to or at least partly include adobe. And if that is so, could not the pueblo builders, who anciently were as much in Mexico as the US Southwest, be northern extensions of those who built houses of cement?" He also notes "Adobe is a borrowing into English from Spanish, though ultimately from Arabic, Coptic, and Egyptian probably; nevertheless, its first occurrence in print in English is 1834, after the Book of Mormon's publication, and it did not become a commonly used word in English until several decades after Joseph Smith's time."
(2) Shao, Paul, The Origin of Ancient American Cultures. Iowa State Univ. Press. Ames. 1983.
(3) Gee, John. "The Hagiography Of Doubting Thomas," in Daniel C. Peterson, FARMS Review Of Books, 10/2 (1998)