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Ancient gold plates in Mesoamerica

Archaeologists have know for about a century that gold plates with carved writing have been found in Mesoamerica, yet it is still not common knowledge outside their discipline.

It all began with Edward Herbert Thompson.

When he was excavating at Chichén Itzá near the turn of the 20th century, he was enthralled with the sacrificial cenote. Unlike other archaeologists, he believed the Spanish Priest Diego de Landa’s account of offerings at this location. Determined to find them, he began to dredge it in 1904, donning a diving suit to search the muddy bottom himself (Carolyn Meyer and Charles Gallenkamp, “The Mystery of the Ancient Maya,” New York, Margaret K. McElderry Books, 1995, pp. 38-39).

His tireless efforts eventually brought great discoveries to light. What he did not tell Mexican authorities was that for two decades he had been emptying the cenote of its priceless treasures and sending them back to the Peabody Museum at Harvard. When this became known in 1926, the Mexican government confiscated his estate and he returned home.

Because of Thompson, the Peabody has perhaps the best collection of Mesoamerican artifacts outside of the region. However, because of space and financial issues, most of these objects are not on display but rather archived in the museum’s immense storage facilities.

Thompson found carved jade, tools, gold ornaments, copper axes, other obscure metal items and human remains. Many people know about some of these artifacts, but few know about the gold plates he found. Many of them are decorated with images of warfare and sacrifice, showing bearded Toltecs (Simon Martin and Nikolai Grube, “Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens,” London, Thames & Hudson, 2000, p. 229).

Some have Mayan hieroglyphics. The gold came from as far away as Panama, and it is possible that it was brought to Chichen as blank plates to be engraved there (Lynn V. Foster, “Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World,” New York: Oxford University Press, 2005, p. 322). They date to the ninth century A.D. (Linda Schele and Peter Matthews, “The Code of Kings,” New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998, p. 359).

These gold plates are quite remarkable. The detail is astounding, with intricate designs. Upon close inspection, it appears that very precise metal tools would be necessary to do such work. The gold itself is very thin, but quite strong and stiff.

Scholars refer to them as disks and believe they are pictured carried by the Toltecs on the murals of the Temple of the Jaguar. They were important symbols of authority and represented portals into the next world, revelation and prophecy (Ibid., pp. 222-223). Other gold objects include small, rectangular sheets, some flat and some curved. Most of these are plain, but some have designs carved into them.

There are at least 29 of the aforementioned round plates or disks, either entire or in fragments. Some are labeled as gold, but others are described as gold-plated copper or just metal. Jared Cooper, Derek Gasser and I put together the "LDS Guide to Mesoamerica" and arranged for a research visit to the Peabody's archives in April 2007. The curator who showed these items said that they date to 1910, so they must be what Thompson found.

LDS author Diane Wirth has suggested that one of the disk fragments contains a celestial band, with glyphs for the moon and the center of the sky (personal email, Sept., 14 2008). Anthropologist Samuel Lothrop made drawings of them in the early 20th century, but it appears that no archaeological work is currently being done on these pieces .

Dr. John Lund is one of the few LDS authors to mention these plates recently. In “Mesoamerica and the Book of Mormon,” he shows a drawing of one of them and gives a translation of its carvings (See Dr. John L. Lund, Mesoamerica and the Book of Mormon, Is This the Right Place? (The Communications Company, 2007), pp. 83, 92). However, the particular plate in question has no writing on it, and the “translation” is merely a passage from the Popol Vuh.

This religious history of the Quiche Maya in the Guatemalan highlands was written in the 16th century and later translated by a Spanish priest. There is virtually no connection between this record and gold disks from a distant region like the Yucatan that were crafted over 700 years earlier.

Lund also claims that Moroni’s use of gold plates for recordkeeping marks him as a Mesoamerican scribe (Ibid., p. 92). This is an interesting idea, but it has no support; only two of the disks at the Peabody have any glyphs. For the most part, these were symbolic items, not written records. The only known writings from Mesoamerica were carved in stone or written on perishable media like paper codices, skins or painted plaster.

At times, intriguing but often spurious evidence is used by well-intentioned apologists in support of the Book of Mormon. These claims are easily refuted by critics and do not improve our standing in mainstream archaeology. Solid and sound scholarship is essential here.

The current scholarly consensus is that no known Mesoamerican culture used gold as a medium for writing. It is certainly not out of the question that metal plates may have been used for sacred or special records by some indigenous peoples. From time to time, such stories are circulated within the LDS community, but none are accepted as authentic by mainstream archaeologists.

Given the Spanish lust for gold during the Conquest, it is unlikely that such records would have survived to the present day. They would either have been taken and melted down or so well hidden that they were never found. Just imagine what Spanish conquerors would have done had they discovered golden plates!

The only accepted examples of ancient writing on metal plates come mainly from the Middle East. Any Mesoamerican examples are few and far between and date to a much later time period. The fact that Nephites kept their most important writings on metal plates indicates a Semitic or Old World scribal tradition. Keeping records on metal plates is apparently not originally an ancient American practice.

While Jaredites, Nephites and initially the Lamanites valued precious metals, there is no indication that native peoples held them in the same regard. Among the Maya, jade was considered the most valuable substance during Book of Mormon times, primarily because of its color. Green represented vital living forces, like pools of water and young maize plants (Michael J. Snarskis, “From Jade to Gold in Costa Rica: How, Why, and When,” Gold and Power in Ancient Costa Rica, Panama, and Colombia (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2003), p. 161).

Consequently, anything green like jade, quetzal feathers or rare green obsidian was of great worth to the Maya and Olmecs. Precious metals did not make much impact until later. The earliest known gold artifact from the Maya area was found in a cache at the foot of Stela H in Copán and dates to A.D. 730 (Schele and Mathews, The Code of Kings, p. 348). But sometime between A.D. 400 and 700, gold replaced jade as an item of high value in Costa Rica (Snarskis, “From Jade to Gold in Costa Rica: How, Why, and When,” p. 175).

The feminine color of green was supplanted with the masculine gold, which represented the sun and celestial imagery, but this new interest was not the same as European or Eastern traditions that connected gold with wealth (Ibid., p. 183). For Native American peoples, the value of gold was still primarily mystical, not financial.

Why did it take so long for metalworking to be adopted in Central America? That question remains unanswered, but the decline of many Maya centers and the fall of Teotihuacán may have had an impact, cutting off trade routes from north to south. This time period is after the destruction of the Nephites, so that cultural void may have had an impact. These factors could have been the driving force that opened up trade routes from south to north (Ibid., p. 193), allowing for the introduction of metal. Later Mesoamerican metallurgy probably owes more to South American influences than to any Book of Mormon group. The archaeological record supports this connection.

While internal clues in the Book of Mormon support a geographical area like Mesoamerica, the Andean region of South America has a history of metalworking that more closely parallels its time period. Farther away geographically but closer chronologically are the Moche, a people known for advanced art and metallurgy that flourished in northern Peru 1,000 years before the Inca.

In 2006, a mummy was found in a Moche tomb, dating to A.D. 450. This female was buried with two large metal war clubs and was covered with many thin sheets of a copper-gold alloy, wrapped up in the burial cloth (See A.R. Williams, “Mystery of the Tattooed Mummy,” National Geographic, June 2006, pp. 74, 78-79). A similar alloy known as “tumbaga” has been found in later Mesoamerican sites, but this may be the earliest find of the metal, which has been suggested as a likely material for the Book of Mormon. The fact that it has such an early date is also encouraging.

It is assumed that Nephites worked decorative metals like gold and silver, as well as utilitarian metals like copper and iron, without sharing that technology. This knowledge, as well as the practice of keeping records on metal plates, originated in the Middle East. This is one explanation for the lack of advanced metallurgy among the Olmec or Preclassic Maya, but it shouldn't be assumed that metal plates were commonplace among the Nephites or Jaredites, either. A Nephite heading out to the market probably did not engrave a shopping list on a gold plate.

Scholars may never have a complete explanation for the lack of Preclassic metallurgy in Mesoamerica, but there is now more support for Joseph Smith’s claims than in his time. The embossed gold plates from Chichen Itza demonstrate that such technology and skills existed in at least the Yucatán by around 400 years after the end of the scriptural record. In other areas, metallurgy extends back into the Jaredite era. Needless to say, the existence of such artifacts was not even imagined in 1830.

Daniel Johnson is a digital artist, teacher, speaker and principal author of "An LDS Guide to Mesoamerica."