Evidence #139 | January 19, 2021

Headplates

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Scripture Central

Abstract

The Book of Mormon contains several descriptions of combatants using “headplates” in battle. Headplates (or helmets) were also an important piece of protective armor in ancient Mesoamerica.

Headplates in the Book of Mormon

During a war between the dissident Zoramites and their Lamanite allies, the Nephite armies under the leadership of the chief captain Moroni introduced a system of defensive armor which included “head-plates” (Alma 43:38, 44). This form of armor—which is mentioned seven times in the Book of Mormon (Alma 43:38, 44; 46:13; 49:24; Helaman 1:14; 3 Nephi 4:7; Ether 15:15)—appears to have been a form of helmet designed to shield or protect the head during battle.1

Military Headgear in Ancient Mesoamerica

Pre-Classic Warrior Figurine with Studded Helmet. Image via arizonamuseumofnaturalhistory.org

William Hamblin has shown how descriptions of headplates in the Book of Mormon text are consistent with evidence for helmets from pre-Columbian Mesoamerica.2 Helmets worn by elite warriors consisted of a wooden base that framed the face, protected the head and the ears, covered the cheeks, and sometimes included a chin guard.3 Helmets of Aztec warriors, according to Spanish descriptions, were often covered with cotton or animal skin to give it the appearance of a fierce animal head with the face of the warrior gazing out from the jaw.4 According to one early conquistador,

To defend the head they wear things like heads of serpents, or tigers, or lions or wolves, and the man’s head lies inside the animal’s jaws as though it were devouring him. The heads are of wood covered on the outside with feathers or incrustations of gold, and precious stones, and are something wonderful to see.5

The protective wood pieces (sometimes bone), which covered the head, could be elaborately ornamented depending on the status of the warrior,6 but any such decoration was incidental to the practical defensive purpose of the helmet. At its basic level, “the headgear was not primarily decorative, but was a functional protective piece of the combat uniform.”7

Polychrome vessel depicting a Mesoamerican warrior wearing a helmet. Image via Maya Vase Database. Photo by Justin Kerr. 

Vulnerabilities

While headplates seem to have been a useful element of Nephite armor, the text indicates that they could be split and broken during close fighting with a strong and determined enemy. At one critical point of a battle, the Lamanites fought so fiercely that “they did smite in two many of the head-plates” (Alma 43:44). While metal helmets would not tend to split in this fashion, this description does make sense for helmets constructed of wood and bone, as they were in Mesoamerican.

Dating

Representations from pre-Columbian art show that the use of helmets goes back at least to the Pre-Classic period in Mesoamerica, which is during Book of Mormon times. Monument C at the Tres Zapotes in Veracruz, which dates to the late Pre-Classic period, portrays several warriors bearing weapons and donning helmets in the shape of animal heads.8 According to Ross Hassig, “the adoption of cotton body armor and helmets had a significant effect on combat practices” at Teotihuacan.9

This Olmec statue depicts a king or ruler in some type of head dress, possibly a helmet. Image via thoughtco.com.

Elite and Commoners

Historians of pre-Columbian warfare point out that not all warriors had helmets. Hassig notes that among the Aztecs, “only distinguished warriors were entitled to armor, and war suits were awarded by merit.”10 Helmets, like other pieces of armor, could be costly to make or maintain, and only the elite could typically afford to invest the resources needed to have them made. The lack of such armor “points to a heavy skewing of combat wounds and fatalities toward the lower classes and novice warriors.”11

Sculpture of a warrior wearing a jaguar helmet, from Classic-period Veracruz. Image via https:metmuseum.

Moroni’s innovation during the Zoramite conflict may have been significant, not so much for the use of headplates themselves, but for the fact under his leadership, the Nephites were able to make headplates and other body armor more widely available, leading to fewer fatalities among non-elite soldiers.12

Conclusion

Descriptions of the use of headplates (helmets) in the Book of Mormon are consistent with what is known about pre-Columbian helmets in Mesoamerica, stretching back into Pre-Classic times. The usefulness of this ancient piece of armor for protecting the head is apparent, and its vulnerability to breakage, due to its having been made of wood or bone, provides further credibility to the Book of Mormon account.

William J. Hamblin, “Armor in the Book of Mormon,” in Warfare in the Book of Mormon ed. Stephen D. Ricks and William J. Hamblin (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1990), 400–424.

John L. Sorenson, Images of Ancient America: Visualizing Book of Mormon Life (Provo, UT: Research Press and FARMS, 1998), 130–133.

Alma 43:38Alma 43:44Alma 46:13Alma 49:24Helaman 1:143 Nephi 4:7Ether 15:15

Alma 43:38

Alma 43:44

Alma 46:13

Alma 49:24

Helaman 1:14

3 Nephi 4:7

Ether 15:15

Footnotes
  • 1 On the use of the English word “headplates,” see Royal Skousen, The History of the Text of the Book of Mormon: Part Three. The Nature of the Original Language (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2018), 4449–451.
  • 2 William J. Hamblin, “Armor in the Book of Mormon,” in Warfare in the Book of Mormon ed. Stephen D. Ricks and William J. Hamblin (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1990), 409, 413–414.
  • 3 Prescott H. F. Follett, “War and Weapons of the Maya,” Middle American Papers, Middle American Research Series, Publication no. 4 (New Orleans, LA: Tulane University, 1932), 398.
  • 4 Manuel Aguilar-Moreno, Handbook to Life in the Aztec World (New York, NY: Facts on File, 2006), 116.
  • 5 Patricia de Fuentes, ed., and trans., The Conquistadors: First Person Accounts of the Conquest of Mexico (Norman and London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993), 169.
  • 6 Ross Hassig, Aztec Warfare: Imperial Expansion and Political Control (Norman and London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988, 90; Ross Hassig, War and Society in Ancient Mesoamerica (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1992, 83, 40; Follett, “War and Weapons of the Maya,” 397–398.
  • 7 Hassig, Aztec Warfare, 291, n. 119. See also Follett, “War and Weapons of the Maya,” 398.
  • 8 Hassig, War and Society in Ancient Mesoamerica, 31.
  • 9 Hassig, War and Society in Ancient Mesoamerica, 83.
  • 10 Hassig, War and Society in Ancient Mesoamerica, 140.
  • 11 Hassig, Aztec Warfare, 116.
  • 12 For a brief summary of Moroni’s innovations in armor and fortifications, see Book of Mormon Central, “Why Was Moroni’s Young Age an Advantage? (Alma 43:17),” KnoWhy 151 (July 26, 2017).
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