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Ancient gold plates in Mesoamerica

By Daniel Johnson

For Mormon Times

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

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.

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