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.