Leyden plaque

The Leyden plaque, sometime called Leiden plate or Leiden plaque, is a jadeite belt plate from the early classic period of the Maya civilization. Although the plate was found on the Caribbean coast of Guatemala, researcher think it was made in Tikal. The plate is now in the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden, Netherlands, hence its official name.[1][2][3] It is one of the oldest Maya objects using the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar.[4]


The plate was discovered by chance by a Dutch engineer, S.A. van Braam, in 1834.[5] He was part of a team employed by a lumber company to dig a canal near Puerto Barrios in Guatemala, in the lower Motagua Valley. The team accidentally knocked down what looked like an ancient Central-American funeral mound.[5] There he found many objects in bronze and in jadeite, the little jade plate amongst them.[6][7] The plate was brought back to the Netherlands in 1864 and was gifted to the National Museum of Ethnology.

The first scientific description of the plate was made by Leeman in 1877, and many others followed, notably Holden in 1880 and Valentine in 1881, who started deciphering the inscriptions.[5] A lot of ground work on the dating of the plate was done in 1938 by Frances and Sylvanus Morley. Their study remains one of the more conclusive made on the plate.[8]

The date on the plate was used to study time and calendar in the Maya world, and the plate remains one of the earliest examples of the usage of a cyclical calendar in the Central-American world.[6] It is remarkable for being the oldest known usage of a Maya ordinal zero,[9] which symbol (graphically derived from the drawing of a sitting man, typically representing a king's crowning) appears two times, one to form the date "0 Yaxkin" from the first day of the seventh month of the festive year in Haab' calendar, and one to denote the Moon-Bird king accessing its throne on the other side of the plaque.


The plaque is a small rectangular object of pale green jadeite measuring 21.7 by 8.6 centimeters.[10][11] Its faces are carved with both drawings and glyphs. A hole at its top hints that it was used as a pendant, probably as a waist plate. While it was found far from its probable original location of Tikal in a post-classical archeological context,[12] it dates from the ancient classic era. It poses as an example of precious object preserved and used several centuries after its making, which is common in Central-America.

The front face has a picture the a figure of richly dressed man. His head and the lower part of his body are seen from profile, but his breast is turn toward the front, with the feet placed one behind the other.[13] It represents a victorious lord, generally accepted as a ruler of Tikal,[11] wearing six celts and some trophy heads around his waist, standing with bound captives he vanquished.[14][8] He also carries an atlatl, or two head serpent, in his hand.[15][14] The serpents have a human head in their mouth, a characteristic feature of the Sun God.[13][5] The posterior face is engraved with an inscription bearing traces of cinnabar, documenting the crowning of a king on 17 September 320 (Gregorian) in Long Count calendar. The other face of the plate bears some glyphs giving one of the earliest registered dates of the Maya Classic period.[11] These inscriptions are composed of fifteen glyphs neatly carved in one column.[10] The date written is 320 A.D. and the name of the ruler is also provided as "Moon Zero Bird.[3] It was proposed that the plate represented the ascension of a ruler and that the glyphs gave the name and the date of his ascension.[8] The motif of the ascension of a ruler depicted on the Leiden Plate isn't uncommon at all, and similar carvings were found on stelae and other celts around the Maya world, a subject often used in Old Empire stelea.[10]

For a long time authors considered this king, nicknamed "Moon-Zero-Bird", to be one of the first kings of the Tikal dynasty.[16][17] This interpretation is contested in recent publications: though the plaque is likely to be tied with Tikal, there is no hard evidence of this,[18] and "Moon-Zero-Bird" does not appear in Tikal dynastic listings.[19]

The Leyden plaque today

The Leyden plaque is now displayed in the Central-American gallery of the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden, the Netherlands. It is the most recognisable object of the museum collection, with replicas gifted to museum, politicians and organisations around the world.[6] Its image is also featured on the one quetzal bank note, the Guatemalan currency unit, after it was chosen as one of the national symbols of Guatemala in 2006.

Controversies remains regarding the return of the original Leiden plate in Guatemalan soil.[6] During a Maya exhibition in the Kimberley Museum in Texas in 1986, the National Museum of Ethnology of Leiden asked for a Declaration of Immunity From Public Seizure in order to protect the plate from being seized by a third party.[20]

See also


Éric Taladoire & Brigitte Faugère-Kalfon, Archéologie et art précolombiens: la Mésoamérique, École du Louvre, 1995

Notes and references

  1. "Pre-classic and Classic Periods of Pre-Columbian Civilisation". Britannica. Retrieved 22 August 2017.
  2. "Leiden Plate (Leiden Plaque)". Yale Library Digital Collection. Retrieved 22 August 2017.
  3. "Leiden Plaque". Mesoweb. Retrieved 22 August 2017.
  4. Michael D. Coe, The Maya (7th ed.), Thames & Hudson, 2005, p. 87
  5. Morley, Sylvanus (1938). "The Age and Provenance of the Leyden Plate" (PDF). Mesoamerica. from Contribution to American Anthropology and History no. 24. Retrieved 22 August 2017.
  6. Van Broekhoven, Dr. Laura N.K. (2013). "Authenticity and Curatorial Practice". Creating Authenticity: Authentication Processes in Ethnographic Museums. Sidestone Press. pp. 152–161. ISBN 9789088902055.
  7. "The Leiden Plate". Uitgeverij Micromys. 29 April 2012. Retrieved 22 August 2017.
  8. Thompson, Mark (Fall 1996). "CORRELATION OF MAYA LITHIC AND GLYPHIC DATA". Lithic Technology. 21: 120–133. JSTOR 23273068.
  9. André Cauty, Jean-Michel Hoppan, Et un, et deux zéros mayas, in Pour la science, Dossier mathématiques exotiques, April/June 2005.
  10. Morley, Sylvanus (1938). "The Age and Provenance of the Leyden Plate" (PDF). Mesoamerica. from Contribution to American Anthropology and History no. 24. Retrieved 22 August 2017.
  11. Schele, Linda; Miller, Mary Ellen (May–June 1986). "The Blood of Kings: A New Interpretation of Maya Art". Archaeology. 39 (3): 60–63. JSTOR 41730354.
  12. Èric Taladoire & Brigitte Faugère-Kalfon, Archéologie et art précolombiens: la Mésoamérique, École du Louvre, 1995, p. 155
  13. Spinden, Herbert Joseph (1976). A Study of Maya Art, Its Subject Matter and Historical Development. England: Dover Publications. pp. 172–173. ISBN 978-0486212357.
  14. "Leiden Plates – Linda Schele Drawing Collection". FAMSI ressources. Retrieved 22 August 2017.
  15. Parsons, Lee Allen (1986). "THE ORIGINS OF MAYA ART: MONUMENTAL STONE SCULPTURE OF KAMINALJUYU, GUATEMALA, AND THE SOUTHERN PACIFIC COAST". Studies in Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology. 28: 1–145, 147–216. JSTOR 41263466.
  16. Robert J. Sharer, The Ancient Maya (5th ed.), Stanford University Press, 1995, p. 176
  17. Linda Schele & David Freidel, A Forest of Kings. The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya, Quill William Morrow, p. 143
  18. Simon Martin & Nikolai Grube, Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens (2nd ed.), Thames & Hudson, 2008, p. 27
  19. Robert J. Sharer, The Ancient Maya (6e éd.), Stanford University Press, 2006, p. 311
  20. Crossley, Mimi (18 May 1986). "The Mayan Field at the Kimbell". The Washington Post.
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