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Maya Codices: Paris Codex, Madrid Codex, Dresden Codex & Grolier Codex

Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday recently earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

How do we know as much as we do about the ancient Maya people? This lesson looks at the last four remaining codices; manuscripts written by the Maya people, and how they were discovered.

Maya Codices

Even today, archaeologists and historians are still trying to understand the history and culture of the Maya people prior to Spanish conquest. One of the challenges to this task involves the loss of so many Maya manuscripts that were intentionally destroyed in the 16th century by Franciscan missionaries who deemed them the work of the devil. Today only four remain, but those few remaining texts provide a wealth of understanding.

Individually called a codex, the Maya codices are written on a special paper made from fig bark coated in a white lime. Beginning with a long strip, the paper was folded into page-size segments, creating an accordion-style book. Some of the pages contain central artwork surrounded by writing while other pages contain writing only. Both language and images use blue, green, yellow, red, and black pigments made from ground plants, soot, minerals, and possibly feathers.

Section of Dresden Codex
Codex

The Maya writing system is sometimes referred to as hieroglyphs, but this term is somewhat inaccurate. Unlike Egyptian hieroglyphs where images directly correlate to words, Maya writing uses images representing syllables that make words in combination. However, the images may also refer to directly to a word, complicating the work of translation. Making it even more complicated, the Maya scribes demonstrated their wit by using the syllable and word images to record messages with secondary meanings and even puns.

The Four Codices

All four codices are pre-conquest, meaning that documents were written before European arrival sometime around the 12th century C.E., but were likely copied from earlier texts. While none of the codices provide historical content, they offer archaeologists a look into Maya religious practices and astronomy, giving detailed accounts of rituals and calendrical guides to celestial events. Testing only recently authenticated the fourth codex, the Grolier Codex in Mexico City. The other three, the Dresden, Paris, and Madrid Codices, were likely sent to Spain as tribute or souvenirs, then distributed to other European cities. Their names come from their current location.

Dresden Codex

The first rediscovered codex currently resides in the Royal Library at Dresden. In 1739, Johann Christian Götze, director of the library, acquired the codex from a private collector in Vienna. Its 39 pages detail Maya calendars, predictions, astronomy, and almanacs and was likely written in the first part of the 13th century in the Yucatan. Unfortunately, the bombing of Dresden during WWII caused water damage to some of the pages. Luckily, detailed replicas still exist from researchers and artists making copies prior to the war.

Dresden Codex
Dresden

Paris Codex

In 1832, a second codex surfaced, acquired by the Royal Library of Paris. However, little mention or study of the manuscript occurred until around 1859 when Léon de Rosny noticed it in a dusty basket, frighteningly near a fireplace, in one of the staff offices.

Paris Codex
Paris

Madrid Codex

The history of the Madrid Codex is the most fascinating story of the three European-residing codices. In 1872, Jose Ignacio Miro purchased a Maya text and sold it to the Museo de America de Madrid. Named the Cortesiano Codex, the 42-page manuscript caught the attention of Léon de Rosny who extensively studied the Paris Codex since he found it improperly stored. Hoping this new codex could help him better understand the codex in his care, he traveled to Spain to study it. Shortly before this time, the museum acquired another codex named the Troano Codex from Don Juan Tro y Ortolano, a paleographer who had kept the document to study prior to gifting it to the museum. When Léon de Rosny studied both codices, he realized they were two parts of the same document. He helped to merge the two into what is today known as the Madrid Codex, the longest one in existence at 112 pages.

Madrid Codex
Madrid

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