Ancient gold plates in Mesoamerica

By Daniel Johnson

For Mormon Times

Published: Saturday, April 30 2011 3:30 a.m. MDT

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.

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