As Latter-day Saints we know something about ancient American writing from what we have read in the Book of Mormon. We can supplement this knowledge with facts that scholars have obtained about the same subject.
The only true writing systems positively known to have been used anciently in the western hemisphere were in central and southern Mexico and northern Central America. In that area more than half a dozen different but related systems have been discovered. For generations scholars have tried with partial success to decipher the ancient American systems of hieroglyphic writing.
Most ancient civilizations used no alphabet. Instead they used a single character either for a syllable or for an entire word or meaning. This latter system is called “ideographic” writings (“idea writing”). An ideographic system involved many hundreds, and even thousands, of distinct signs—one per word or idea. Chinese and Egyptian writing systems were of this type. So was that of the Maya and other New World peoples. Egyptian glyphs numbered around 750, just about the same number as in the early Central American schemes.
Most of these symbols communicated one central idea. A footprint sign could mean “foot,” but a footprint might also stand for “go” or “journey” so that the reader would have to make a judgment as to exactly what the sign meant. The meaning had to be made clear either through the context or by the addition of another symbol. There were characters that represented sounds in something like an alphabetic manner, but that technique, which we use all the time, was never perfected or used extensively. As a result, it took lots of experience and deep knowledge to understand the writing system. Common people didn’t have time to be schooled in such matters; mainly priests and some of the ruling class learned the complex system.
The writing described in the Book of Mormon sounds like an ideographic system with a few symbols representing sounds. Moroni, 400 years after Christ’s birth, reported that they wrote in “characters” that they called “reformed Egyptian.” (Morm. 9:32–33.) This Nephite writing seems to have been complicated and somewhat inefficient. Mormon noted (3 Ne. 5:18): “There are many things, which according to our language, we are not able to write.” His son Moroni complained (Ether 12:24–25) to the Lord, “Thou hast made us that we could write but little, because of the awkwardness of our hands … When we write we behold our weakness, and stumble because of the placing of our words.” As a result, it was difficult work to fully master the system.
King Benjamin emphasized (Mosiah 1:2–4) to his three princely sons how important it was that they become capable “in all the language of his fathers,” which involved “the learning of the Jews and the language (that is, the written characters) of the Egyptians.” (1 Ne. 1:2.) This difficult schooling very likely explains why, at another time, “some were ignorant because of their poverty, and others did receive great learning because of their riches.” (3 Ne. 6:12.)
At first glance it may seem to be a long way from Moroni’s reformed Egyptian to the ancient American hieroglyphs, but Mayan glyphs, after all, worked on the same principles as the Egyptian ones that Father Lehi brought from Palestine. Of course, the specific characters were continually modified—“handed down and altered by us, according to our manner of speech” (Morm. 9:32) as Moroni explained it—yet “reformed Egyptian” is not a bad description.
Our only way of knowing what reformed Egyptian looked like is the Anthon transcript—seven lines of characters supposed to have been copied from the Book of Mormon plates and shown to a Professor Anthon by Martin Harris. We don’t know how accurately they were copied, or even, in fact, which side of the transcript is up. Professor Anthon later described what he had seen:
“The characters were arranged in columns like the Chinese mode of writing … and all sorts of letters, more or less distorted, either through unskillfulness or from actual design, were intermingled with sundry delineations of half moons, stars, and other natural objects, and the whole ended in a rude representation of the Mexican zodiac.”
Another time he repeated the description of perpendicular columns, adding, “And the whole ended in a rude delineation of a circle, divided into various compartments, arched with various strange marks and evidently copied after the Mexican calendar (published) by Humboldt, but copied in such a way as not to reveal the source.” (B. H. Roberts, Comprehensive History of the Church, 1:100–107.)
Since Anthon is the only eyewitness to leave us a description of what he saw, we are forced to conclude that what was on the Book of Mormon plates looked a good deal like an ancient American “codex,” or book, with its perpendicular columns of glyphs.
Father Diego de Landa described the books of Yucatan (Mexico) soon after the Spanish conquest:
“These people also made use of certain characters or letters, with which they wrote in their books their ancient matters and their sciences, and by these and by drawings and by certain signs in these drawings, they understood their affairs and made others understand them and taught them. We found in a large number of books these characters.” (Relacion de las Cosas de Yucatan, a translation, A.M. Tozzer, ed [Cambridge, Massachusetts: Peabody Museum, 1941], pp. 27–28.)
But to Landa and other Spanish priests, these books were of the devil, so they burned as many of them as they could take away from the native people, “which caused them great pain,” for books were among their most valued possessions.
These Mayan books were made of paper formed of the bark of a type of fig tree. A long sheet of this material was folded like an accordion so that part or all of it could be opened up. Each “page” of information was separated from the next on its right or left by a fold. In central Mexico, on the other hand, the documents were usually rolled up like a scroll.
The Book of Mormon described paper books as well as metal plates. In the city of Ammonihah the wicked leaders not only burned alive the men, women, and children who believed in the preaching of Alma and Amulek, but “they also brought forth their records which contained the holy scriptures, and cast them into the fire also, that they might be burned and destroyed by fire.” (Alma 14:8, 14. Note also in Alma 63:12 that metal “engravings” are distinguished from written records, which must have been on paper.)
Dr. Robert Carmack has described the traditional histories kept by the Quichean people of Guatemala. Each lineage had its own book, historian, and scribe. Their book recounted history and legend that explained their origin, their right to rulership, and their relationships to surrounding peoples. The future was also foretold in these sacred volumes. Scores of these traditional histories were preserved in oral form, although only three actual books of pre-Spanish date have been preserved.
All this sounds very much like the Book of Mormon. Nephi and his line of descendants kept not only his record (in two volumes, one for history and one for religious matters—1 Ne. 9:3–4, 2 Ne. 4:14), but also his father’s. The descendants of Laman and Lemuel, who needed Lehi’s record to certify their right to rulership, claimed Nephi had robbed them of the right to rule; consequently they wanted to destroy the Nephites and the Nephite-held records. (See Alma 54:16–24; Enos 1:14.) Then there were separate records of the people of Zeniff (Mosiah 25:5), Alma’s line (Alma 63:16), Helaman’s (Hel. 16:25), and many others, all of which Mormon combined into the volume as we now have it from the book of Mosiah to the book of Moroni.
Of course, not all the writing was on paper or metal plates. Engraved stone monuments (“stelae”) were also familiar to the Book of Mormon peoples. Omni 20 to 22 [Omni 1:20–22] tells of Coriantumr, last king of the Jaredites, who engraved on a large stone an account of his people, the origin of his lineage, and their fate. (Ether 1:6–32 and Ether 10:32 show that the 24 Jaredite gold plates tell the story of only one lineage, not of the whole people.)
In just the last 20 years scholars have demonstrated that the Maya stelae actually deal with “conquest, humbling of captives, royal marriages, and royal descent” (as Dr. Michael Coe recently put it) rather than with astrology and chronology as scholars used to think. Coriantumr’s engraved stone fits very nicely as a history of one kingly line.
Although we still have much to learn about ancient American writings, we know enough to wish for more light and knowledge on this fascinating subject.