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Grolier Codex ruled genuine: what the oldest manuscript to survive Spanish conquest reveals

Pages from the Grolier Codex, rare surviving fragments of the Maya past. Enrico Ferorelli

The Maya were, at their height, one of the world’s great civilisations. In the “classic” period, from AD 250–900, Maya cities with monumental architecture and huge populations spread across a large area through what is now Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and western Honduras. Extensive trade networks connected the Maya to the rest of Mesoamerica, producing the dynamic landscapes and bustling ports reported in early Spanish accounts.

Much of what we know of the Maya comes from codices – screenfold books made of paper from the bark of a fig tree. Pages were coated in a white stucco wash and then painted by scribes with text, which was often accompanied by images. The Spanish in the 16th century reported a flourishing manuscript tradition comprising histories, prophecies, songs, genealogies and detailed information on the movements of the heavenly bodies.

Of the thousands of books produced throughout the Mayas’ long history, however, only three Maya codices were known to have survived, all written in the “postclassic” period after AD 900 and brought to Europe sometime after the conquest. They are named after the cities where they were archived: Dresden, Madrid, and Paris. Now, after years of debate over its authenticity, we can add a fourth manuscript – the Grolier Codex.

The last Maya codices

Information in the surviving codices is presented as either tables or almanacs. Tables record historical events in the absolute calendar system used by the Maya, known as the Long Count, in which time is reckoned after a fixed date. Our Gregorian calendar reckons similarly in that years are counted after the birth of Christ. The Maya counted from a day which in the Gregorian calendar is August 11, 3114 BC. Almanacs on the other hand are organised around the 260-day calendar used throughout Mesoamerica for keeping track of named days for various events. Unlike the Long Count, this 260-day calendar is cyclical, like our own repeated cycles of named weekdays and months.

Of the surviving codices, the Dresden is the most finely executed and best preserved, containing astronomical tables as well as almanacs. Some scholars have speculated that the Dresden was in the spoils of conquest sent by Cortes to Charles V, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. About eight inches high and 11 feet long when unfolded, some of the Dresden’s content is believed to have been copied from Late Classic sources, but most of it seems to have been written just before the Spanish conquest.

Six sheets of the Dresden Codex, showing the sequence of eclipses, multiplication tables and the flood. SLUB

At 56 pages, the Madrid Codex is the longest of the surviving manuscripts. It is believed to have been written in the Yucatan region of Mexico or perhaps by Yucatec speakers living in Guatemala in the 17th century. The Madrid Codex contains about 250 almanacs concerned with a range of activities related to agriculture, rituals associated with the coming of the rains and the rain deity Chaak, the cycle of the solar year, deer hunting and trapping, the killing of war captives, carving images of the gods, and beekeeping.

The Paris Codex contains histories that have so far eluded translation, but also includes pages devoted to deities, dates, and unique set of pages devoted to constellations. Its origins are unknown, but scholars agree that the book was in use at the time of the conquest and was very likely produced in Mayapan in Mexico, around AD 1450.

A new survivor

A page from the Grolier codex. Justin Kerr/

The fourth codex came to light in 1971, when the Grolier Club in New York City exhibited a manuscript reportedly found in a cave in Mexico. Because the manuscript was recovered by looters, rather than archaeologists, and then passed into the hands of a private collector, its authenticity has been questioned. A major critic was the famous British Maya scholar Sir J Eric S Thompson, who maintained that the codex was a forgery - modern painting on Pre-Hispanic paper.

Recently, four Maya scholars carried out an exhaustive study of the Grolier codex, bringing together and thoroughly analysing all available data on the manuscript. The overwhelming conclusion is that the codex is authentic, making it the oldest known Mesoamerican manuscript. It is believed to have been written between AD 900 and AD 1250, when Classic traditions were fast disappearing and the scribes of the Maya area were becoming heavily influenced by artistic styles associated with central and southern Mexico. As someone who works at Maya sites that thrived during this period (Lamanai in northern Belize, and Marco Gonzalez on Ambergris Caye), the relatively early date of the manuscript makes it especially exciting to me.

The manuscript’s authenticity has been supported in several ways. Details in the Grolier Codex of astronomical tables and gods are what would be expected for the early Postclassic period. The manufacturing of the paper and the book all match what we know about Maya paper-making traditions, and radiocarbon analysis dates the codex to the end of the Early Postclassic period, around AD 900–1250. The appearance of red sketch lines beneath the black ink of the final version matches what is known of Maya painting methods, especially methods in use at Chichen Itza in the Yucatan. The proportions and conventions of the way bodies are drawn match works that span the period from Chichen Itza’s peak until the conquest.

The Grolier contains astronomical Venus tables and day signs, but the later Dresden, Madrid and Paris codices are marked by more complex grammar, explanatory texts and denser imagery. It seems the Grolier is a scaled-down work meant for use by individuals less skilled in reading and writing, but capable of keeping time and linking the days, the gods and their significance to the cycles of Venus.

That so few Maya books have survived is partly owing to the humid tropical climate, which is not conducive to preserving paper. Only rarely are codices encountered by archaeologists – and then as unreadable stucco fragments. In the 16th century, however, the Spanish invaders described vast numbers of books on a range of topics in use by the Maya. Their loss is attributable to the Spanish friars, who believed all Maya books promoted heresy and burned them. The most zealous was Diego de Landa, a Franciscan friar who served as bishop of Yucatan, who burned thousands of books. It is a tragedy that has left just four remaining, with the Grolier Codex taking its place as the oldest of these remarkable manuscripts.

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