Ancient gold plates in Mesoamerica

By Daniel Johnson

For Mormon Times

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

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."

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