Since the recent events surrounding the seeming forgery of the Jordan Lead Codices, I thought it would be good to bring back to mind the authentic discoveries made within the last century of ancient writings on metal plates. There are literally hundreds of examples of such plates all around the world. I’m indebted to William Hamblin and John Tvedtnes for there scholarship on these findings.
Of course, in Joseph Smith’s day, such discoveries had not been made yet, and so Joseph was mocked for his story of having discovered gold plates with the writings of ancient people inscribed on them.
Today it is becoming commonplace to find such ancient texts, which is why in the dozens of media reports on the emergence of the lead plates this past week, not one questioned the fact that the writings were on metal. In fact, one scholar specifically noted that there were examples of ancient metal tablets made out of copper, bronze, and gold.
This is believed to be the oldest complete multiple page book found in the world. It is made of six plates of gold, each 5 x 4.5 cm, and bound with two rings. It dates to 600 BC.
It was unearthed from a tomb some 60-70 years ago, along the Strouma River in southwestern Bulgaria. It was donated to the Bulgarian National Museum of History in Sofia, Bulgaria, in 2003. The plates contain text in Etruscan characters, and was likely a type of prayer book made for the funeral of an aristocrat.
This discovery is especially interesting to Latter-day Saints because the date places it at the same time as when Lehi and his family left Jerusalem, indicating that this form of bookmaking and bookbinding was practiced in the Mediterranean region at the time. It is similar to the description that Joseph Smith gave of the gold plates of the Book of Mormon.
Pyrgi Gold Tablets, dating to 500 BC
This set of three gold plates was discovered in 1964 in an excavation of a sanctuary in ancient Pyrgi, in Italy. They contain holes around their edges, which indicates that they were likely bound together in some form at one point.
The plates date to 500 BC, and contain a dedication by King Thefarie Velianas to the Phoenician goddess Astarte. Two have Etruscan text, and the third has Phoenician.
William Hamblin notes that these plates are:
…a prime example of the spread of the Phoenician practice of writing sacred texts on golden plates from their original center in Phoenicia, via Carthage, to Italy, and is roughly contemporary with the Book of Mormon’s claim that sacred texts were written on metal plates by the Phoenicians’ closer neighbors, the Jews.
The Pyrgi Tablets are now at the National Etruscan Museum in Rome, Italy.
Copper Scroll, dating to 50-100 AD, reproduction above, actual pieces below, photo of roll above-right
Perhaps the most famous example of ancient writing on metal plates is the Copper Scroll, found among the Dead Sea Scrolls in Qumran by an archeologist in 1952. Its Hebrew text was inscribed on two rolls of coppper, and dates to 50-100 AD.
Because it was found in rolls, and the metal was corroded, it had to be cut apart into 23 strips to be read. Both rolls were part of the same document. The text, interestingly, describes the locations of hidden temple treasures from the Second Temple of Jerusalem. In other words, it’s a kind of treasure map.
William Hamblin notes its similarity to the plates of the Book of Mormon:
…it is a clear example of an attempt to preserve an important sacred record by writing on copper/bronze (Heb. nechushah) plates and then hiding the document.
Unfortunately, no hidden temple treasures have yet been discovered by reading the text.
Korean Diamond Cutter Sutra Gold Plates, dating to 8th century AD
This is a set of nineteen gold plates that was found in December, 1965, buried under a five-storied pagoda in Iksan, Korea. Each plate measures 14.8 x 13.7 cm and was found inside a bronze box inside a stone box. The plates are hinged together, and have two gold bands that wrap around the plates. They date to the 8th century AD.
The plates contain the text of the Diamond-Cutter Sutra. A Maxwell Institute publication by David Honey and Michael Lyon describe it:
The text opens with a group of monks who circumambulate the living Buddha three times and then sit down to listen to his teachings… He warns of a future period called the “Latter Days of the Law” when the oral transmission will have decayed. He prophesies that there will be at least some enlightened beings who will understand and teach his true doctrine. He then promises that the country that preserves and teaches this sutra will have to be honored and worshiped by the worlds of gods, men, and evil spirits. It will become like a chaitya, or temple. It is apparent that this promise was the motivation for Korean Buddhists to inscribe the sutra on gold plates and preserve it under a pagoda.
The plates are part of National Treasure No. 123, and located at the National Museum of Korea in Seoul.
Silver Scrolls, dating to 600 BC
Discovered in 1979, these scrolls were found inside one of a series of burial caves called Ketef Hinnom in a hillside just west of Jerusalem. They were two small silver scrolls, about 1″ x 4″ in size, and much care was taken over a three year period to unroll them to read them. They had archaic Hebrew text on them. They determined that the scrolls date to approximately 600 BC, very near the time that Lehi left Jerusalem.
Amazingly, the scrolls contain the oldest surviving citations of the Hebrew Bible, in addition to the oldest surviving reference to Yahweh (Jehovah or LORD). The text comes from primarily Numbers 6:24–26, which is a priesthood blessing (or ordinance) the Lord instructed Moses to teach Aaron to give to the Israelites.
This shows that the Jerusalem people of Lehi’s time did, indeed, write sacred texts on metal, and provides evidence that the first five books of Moses existed at the time Lehi left Jerusalem, which would have been required if the brass plates were to contain them (1 Nephi 5:11).
Another interesting note is that these scrolls were meant to be rolled up and likely worn around the neck, serving as an amulet, to “provide a blessing that will be used to protect the wearer from some manner of evil forces.”
These plates were found by archeologists in 1938, in Persepolis, near modern day Shiraz, Iran. There were two gold plates and two silver plates in a stone box, written on in cuneiform script. The plates date to 518 – 515 BC.
The text found on each of the plates was the same:
“Darius the great king, king of kings, king of countries, son of Hystaspes, an Achaemenid. King Darius says: This is the kingdom which I hold, from the Sacae who are beyond Sogdia to Nubia, and from Sind to Lydia – [this is] what Ahuramazda, the greatest of gods, bestowed upon me. May Ahuramazda protect me and my royal house!”
The plates are now located at the national museum in Tehran, Iran.
This is a remarkable set of about 35 small pieces of gold foil that have been found in ancient tombs across Greece and Rome. They are inscribed in Greek text, and most date to the fourth century BC.
The text on these plates gives instructions to the dead on how to navigate the afterlife, especially what they should say or do on their journey there. As David Larsen describes them:
… [they] give specific instructions for what the initiate is to do during their journey into the Afterlife, including meeting a number of guardians and gods who will ask them questions and to whom they must give certain passwords.
David Larsen has provided an amazing LDS perspective on these in a series of articles at his blog, HeavenlyAscents.com:
As you can see, there are many examples of modern day archeological discoveries of ancient writing on metal plates, and I only mention a few. These were unknown in Joseph Smith’s time, yet many attest to the fact that writing on metal plates was a practice during Lehi’s day in and around Jerusalem.