30 October 2012

Ancient Maya golden tablets lost in Guatemala?

During his recent visit to Utah, Daniel heard about a German researcher who says that texts in ancient Mayan tell of a record on gold tablets. Dr. Lund also mentioned it as part of his keynote address at the recent BMAF conference. Supposedly, gold tablets on which the Maya recorded their laws are now buried under the waters of Lake Izabal in Guatemala. This amazing information comes from writings in the Dresden Codex and was deciphered by Joachim Rittsteig.

A story this revolutionary bears further scrutiny, so Daniel decided to check it out. Described as an expert in Mayan writing and professor emeritus at Dresden University, Joachim Rittsteig has been studying the Dresden Codex, one of only four books in Mayan that survived widespread destruction and book-burning by Diego de Landa and other early Catholic priests during the conquest. After 40 years of study, Rittsteig claims that page 52 of this folded Mayan book, named for the city in which it currently resides, holds the key to the location of 2,156 gold tablets, weighing a total of eight tons and buried in a stone box. Rittsteig believes the tablets were housed at the mythical city of Atlan on the shore that sank into Lake Izabal during an earthquake in AD 1224. Amid a considerable amount of controversy, he headed an expedition in 2011 to the lake, but ended up not finding anything significant.

Joachim is actually a retired math professor, who has had a lifelong interest in Maya history and has written about it. His study of the codex has been on his own, apparently without any formal training. The Dresden Codex was discovered in 1739 in the possession of an anonymous rich man in Vienna. It was donated to the Saxon State Library in Dresden, and is considered the most complete of the Mayan codices and the oldest known book from the Americas. It was written in the 11th or 12th centuries AD around Chichén Itzá and may be a copy of an original text from 300 or 400 years earlier. Many credentialed Maya scholars have condemned Rittsteig and his methods. The general scholarly consensus is that the codices contain religious and calendric information. Its astronomical tables are very accurate and many of its signs are numeric, but no one apart from Rittsteig believes it is a treasure map. Because of damage during WWII and reconfiguring of the pieces, there is some confusion as to the correct page numbering. As best as we can tell, page 52 is shown here.

On the topic of the codices and how much they can tell us of ancient Maya culture, we turn to the words of Michael Coe, a very accomplished and renowned Maya scholar, whose quotes have often been used by critics of the Book of Mormon as evidence against it. In his book, The Maya, he wrote, "Our knowledge of ancient Maya thought must represent only a tiny fraction of the whole picture, for of the thousands of books in which the full extent of their learning and ritual was recorded, only four have survived to modern times (as though all that posterity knew of ourselves were to be based upon three prayer books and Pilgrim's Progress)."

So, did the late-Classic Maya of the Yucatán write their laws on golden tablets that were kept in a city in central Guatemala? Would they have written about it in a book with tables for the Moon and Venus, locations of the Rain God, and ceremonial instructions? That remains to be seen. While we find the whole idea a bit suspect, the the idea of important writing on gold tablets in Mesoamerica from a non-LDS source is worth considering. If not from deciphering the codex, where did he get that idea?

Click here to read an article about Rittsteig and his expedition.
Click here to see a German page with a description of the gold tablets.

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