Ancient Writing on Metal Plates


An exciting feature of almost any large European museum for Latter-day Saints is the surprisingly large number of metal plates or tablets with writing engraved on them. On a recent four-month tour I, my wife, Millie, and my assistant, Eloise Campbell traveled through Europe and Asia, from the Vatican Library and the Louvre to Seoul; we saw literally hundreds of examples of messages engraved on metal.

Not all of these messages have been translated; in some cases, the language is so ancient that translations are still uncertain. In other cases, the language can be read but there are simply so many examples of the same kind of writing that no one has gone to the work to make a translation. Most of the examples seem to be of treaties, laws, or religious texts.

The languages range from Akkadian, dating from about 2450 B.C., to such comparatively “modern” dead languages as Greek and Latin.

But in the New World, examples of writing on metal plates are only now beginning to emerge. Part of the reason is that archaeology in America has been important only since the turn of the century. Since less study has been applied, less is known about the languages of the pre-Columbian Indian. Also, fewer artifacts have been unearthed than in the richly storied lands of Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean, for example. However, as early as 1851, Mariano Eduardo de Rivero, director of Lima’s National Museum, and his associate, Juan Diego de Tschudi, asserted that there were two kinds of ancient Peruvian writing: “The one and surely the most ancient consisted of certain hieroglyphic characters; the other of knots made with strings of various colors. The hieroglyphs, very different from the Mexican ones, were sculpted in stone or engraved in metal.” (Antiquidades Peruanas, Vienna: Imprenta Imperial de la Corte y del Estado, 1851, vol. 5, p. 101.)

Several examples of engraved plates have recently been discovered in Central and South America and are under investigation. The two shown here are indicative of the treasures that we hope may yet be discovered in America. That writing systems were known in America can be seen in the brilliantly colored Mayan codices (manuscript books) and stone stelae (carved commemorative stone pillars or slabs) that still fascinate tourists today.

The examples of ancient writing shown here, however, give us a glimpse into an ancient world of complex people and purposes. We learn much about a culture when we see writings that were considered so important that the scribes went to the labor of preserving them indefinitely. Thus we learn of the ancient world that gave us the Book of Mormon.

Silver scroll

This eerily beautiful silver scroll, dating from approximately 400 A.D., was discovered in Bethany in 1968, inscribed in Greek and Coptic. Measuring 7 1/4 by 2 1/8 inches, it contains a magical text from a gnosticlike group around Jerusalem. (Visitors’ Center South, Temple Square, Salt Lake City.)

One of the tiniest engraved tablets (here, enlarged many times its size) is this gold wafer measuring one-sixteenth of an inch thick and under two inches in length (1 5/8″ by 1 1/16″). Discovered in 1920 near the headwaters of the Tigris, it has been identified as the Tablet of Shalmaneser III, and comes from Kalat Shergat, the ancient city of Assur in modern Iraq. The tablet itself has not been dated, but Shalmaneser reigned about 842 B.C. (Oriental Institute, University of Chicago Museum, Chicago.) In the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem is another tiny gold foil strip from the Roman period measuring 2 1/2 by 1 inches. Its inscription says, “Take courage, Gozmos”; such plaques were commonly placed over the mouths of the deceased before burial.

The Plates of Darius I, ruler of Persia from 518–515 B.C., are the closest parallel to the Book of Mormon yet discovered. Two tablets, one of gold and one of silver, were placed in each stone box to be buried at the four corners of his palace. They describe the boundaries of his kingdom, praise Ahuramazda, “the greatest of all the gods,” and pray protection upon Darius “and my royal house.” They were discovered by an archaeological team in 1938. (National Archaeological Museum, Tehran, Iran.)

Controversy surrounds most of the examples of writing on metal in the New World and more study will be required to document their authenticity. This gold disc, the only completely authenticated piece of New World writing on metal, was exhumed by a 1950s expedition at Chichen Itza on the Yucatan peninsula. Found in the sacred well at the site, it has a Mayan inscription around the edges. (Peabody Museum—Harvard University. Photograph by Hillel Burger.)

A gold plate, measuring 4 by 8 inches, is said to have been found in a tomb in the Lambayeque area of northern Peru; its eight symbols have not been identified or translated but they have been claimed to be similar to writing of ancient Cyprus. (Hugo Cohen collection, Lima.) Copyright © Pres. and Fellows of Harvard College 1979. All rights reserved.

These gold Pyrgi Plates measure 7 1/2 by 5 1/2 inches, and were originally fastened with nails to the wooden lintel of the temple of Astarte in the Etruscan city of Pyrgi, now in Italy, about 500 B.C. The text, written in Phoenician and Etruscan, begins with an invocation to Astarte by Thefarie Velianes, the king who constructed the temple. (National Museum of Villa Guilia, Rome.)

Among the records discovered at Qumran near the Dead Sea in 1952 were two rolled copper scrolls, once riveted together but now separated. The brittle oxidized copper, dating from the second century B.C., was carefully sawed into longitudinal strips in Manchester, England, then reassembled and deciphered. They catalogue a still-buried treasure of gold, silver, coins, earthen and metal vessels, and various offerings worth several million dollars at today’s prices. (National Museum, Amman, Jordan.)

This startlingly vivid codex is an undisputed example of pre-Columbian American hieroglyphic writing and one of only sixteen to survive contact with western civilization. It is named the Codex Borgia for the famous Italian family who purchased it for their collection and later gave it to the Catholic church. Thought to have been produced in Western Oaxaca in southern Mexico in the fourteenth century, it consists of thirty-nine skin leaves, brilliantly painted on both sides, and screenfolded into a book containing a 260-day ritual calendar used in religious ceremonies. The leaves measure approximately ten inches square. (Vatican Library, Rome.) These codices have not been dated precisely, but recent archaeological excavations have uncovered three more. One, dating from about A.D. 450, was discovered in 1970 by the BYU-New World Archaeological Foundation at Mirador, Chiapas, in Mexico. It was too badly decayed to be unfolded and therefore cannot be deciphered. Finds which also appear to be remains of ancient codices dating perhaps as early as the first century B.C. have been reported from excavations at Altun Ha in Belize and Cerro de las Mesas in Veracruz, both in Mexico.

This small gold plate, 2 1/2 by 1 1/2 inches, is named for Djokha Umma, Iraq, where it was discovered in 1895 by an Arab and acquired the next year by the Louvre. Dating from 245 B.C. and written in Akkadian, it is one of the oldest examples of writing on metal and was found in the foundation of a sacred building erected by Djokha Umma’s queen. (Department of Oriental Antiquities, the Louvre, Paris. Several other metal plates with writing are on display in the same museum.)

Here is one graceful example of an American stone box dating to A.D. 650–900. Discovered at the base of the temple of Kulkulcan at Chichen Itza in Yucatan, Mexico, in the late 1800s, where it is exhibited, it measures approximately 2 1/2 by 2 by 2 feet, exterior. The box is carved out of one piece of stone, the rounded lid out of another. In this box were found masonry tools; other stone boxes containing jewelry and precious textiles have been found throughout Mexico and Central America. Many of them are on exhibit in the Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City. (See Cheesman, “The Stone Box,” Improvement Era, Oct. 1966, pp. 876–78, 900.)

An especially lovely example of ancient writing on metal plates is the Korean Keumgangkyeongpan, nineteen golden plates containing the Diamond Sutra from Buddhist scriptures engraved in Chinese calligraphy. Measuring 14.8 by 13.7 inches, they were hinged and could be folded on top of each other, then secured by two golden bands wrapped around the plates. During the eighth century, they were placed in a bronze box and buried under a five-story pagoda at Wanggungni, Chollabuk province, South Korea, where they were discovered in December 1965. (National Museum, Seoul.)

This bronze plaque, carefully inscribed on both sides, contains the laws for distributing land dating from the sixth century B.C. It was discovered near Naupaktos, Greece. Measuring 1 1/2 by 2 feet, it was clearly designed to be displayed in a public place. It is on display in the National Archaeological Museum, Athens, where are also displayed some of more than 400 small lead plates dating from the fourth century B.C. Discovered in an earthenware vessel near Styria, Greece, in 1860, they seem to be private letters, the oldest Greek letters extant.

Paul R. Cheesman is director of scripture studies in the Religious Study Center, Brigham Young University.