The Mayan Codex
September 7, 2018 9:38 AM   Subscribe

Mexican historians prove authenticity of looted ancient Mayan text

Fifty-four years after it was sold by looters, an ancient Maya pictographic text has been judged authentic by scholars.
posted by poffin boffin (11 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
"It was a difficult task establishing the authenticity of the text – which is printed on tree-bark – because there are no other surviving documents from that moment in time to compare it to, the experts explained."

ah, er, welll... um...
posted by mwhybark at 10:06 AM on September 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

Here's the info from Mexico's INAH. In Spanish.
posted by vacapinta at 10:36 AM on September 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

For those, like me, who somehow missed the memo, Mayan glyphs have gone from nearly unreadable (mostly dates plus a few other random clues) to essentially completely deciphered since about 1980.

Wikipedia has an overview, NOVA has a timeline as well as a full documentary (NOVA Youtube). Breaking the Mayan Code, a book by one of the scholars involved, Michael Coe, is highly recommended.

TLDR: Mayans developed the only only complete writing system in Mesoamerica. It was in use roughly 300AD through the Spanish conquest. In one of history's greatest acts of cultural destruction, Spanish Bishop Diego de Landa ordered all written Mayan materials collected and destroyed. Just a small handful of codices survived.

Mayan dates were deciphered fairly early on, but confusion about the type of writing system plus decades of academic infighting stymied much further progress until about the 1980s. Then rapid progress was made and at this point essentially all Mayan codices and inscriptions (of which there are many extant) can be completely read and understood.

Mayan languages still spoken today are the direct descendants of those written using the Mayan script. So the language itself was not lost--only the traditional writing system. And, of course, centuries of history and culture.

Between the decipherment of the Mayan script and a really interesting and significant series of archaeological digs, we're in something of a golden period for rediscovering Mayan history and culture.
posted by flug at 3:58 PM on September 7, 2018 [16 favorites]

Mayans developed the only only complete writing system in Mesoamerica.

I don't have a rigorous understanding of what constitutes a complete writing system so I can't refute this statement, but this article about the Nahua writing system suggests scholarship on the topic is evolving. Recent research from 2008. I myself previously believed the Aztecs didn't really have a writing system whatsoever from a college elective or two.
posted by Mister Cheese at 4:43 PM on September 7, 2018 [3 favorites]

Yes, Nahuatl is now considered a complete language, although not as complex as Maya. The Groilier Codex (which they are now trying to rename to Códice Maya de México) came to light in 1967, and shown at the Groiler Club in New York. It was donated to the Mexican people by the owner in 1974 but only if it was legitimate. From there, it has sat in a vault in Mexico City for 45 years during which a huge debate has raged on whether it was legit. The paper was of the right age, but some thought it was a modern drawing on blank ancient paper. The new analysis essentially tests the age and composition of the ink, and determines that it is real.

Part of the debate is that the Grolier does not introduce much information that we didn't already have. It produces part of a table that appears across five pages in the Dresden Codex (one of the other three Maya codices) for calculating the position of Venus in the sky. The drawings are also very crude in comparison to the art in the Paris, Madrid, and especially Dresden codices. My feeling has been if it was a forgery, it was the worst possible forgery anyone would ever do, so it was likely real. There are the remains of seven other codices from Maya tombs, but nothing is readable on any of them.

The Dresden Codex is on public display in the city it is named for. The Paris, Madrid, and Grolier have been sitting in vaults and can't be seen. I saw the Dresden Codex in July, and it remarkable. They are putting Grolier on display for one month only at the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City starting September 27th. I am going down to see it.
posted by Xoc at 7:12 PM on September 7, 2018 [14 favorites]

If there's an afterlife with hellish punishments, I hope there's a special hell for those who eradicate knowledge.
posted by drewbage1847 at 10:13 PM on September 7, 2018 [6 favorites]

We found a large number of books in these characters and, as they contained nothing in which were not to be seen as superstition and lies of the devil, we burned them all, which they (the Maya) regretted to an amazing degree, and which caused them much affliction.
— Bishop Diego de Landa, 1562.
posted by Nelson at 10:30 PM on September 7, 2018 [2 favorites]

Books were not unusual in the Maya world. There was a letter written by a Jesuit Priest in 1805 that claims that 27 books were burned by de Landa that day. The letter says that de Landa burned "5000 idols of different form and dimension, 13 great stones which served as altars, 22 small stones of various forms, 27 rolls of signs and hieroglyphics on deer skin, 197 vases of all sizes and shapes." The Maya books we have are fan-fold paper made of ficus covered in lime, then painted, so the description here is maybe suspect. The books further north in Mexico were on deer skin.

However, what de Landa took away, he also gave back. In a book he wrote in Spain while awaiting trial for what he did, he gave the nearest thing to a Maya Rosetta Stone that we have. After it was interpreted correctly, it gave the key that lead to the decipherment of Maya writing.

de Landa was acquitted and returned to Yucatan as Bishop until his death.
posted by Xoc at 10:58 PM on September 7, 2018 [2 favorites]

My feeling has been if it was a forgery, it was the worst possible forgery anyone would ever do, so it was likely real.

You'd be amazed at how bad forgeries can be and still passed off as being authentic. Like, I have seen (what apppear to be) nonsense assemblies of Hebrew text copied onto poorly-tanned leather with a gold Sharpie, and described as a 2.000 year old Torah.
posted by Joe in Australia at 2:25 AM on September 8, 2018 [2 favorites]

I read de Landa's Relacíon in English translation as an undergraduate and even though he was writing from his specific perspective as a colonial representative of the Church it was one of the most interesting and sympathetic sources that I recall being exposed to in the material. I guess I would have been studying this right at the moment Coe et al were beginning to publish. I remember distinctly beginning to understand how to read through de Landa's prose and suddenly the text, like, flipped, and the depth of fascination and admiration he had for the Maya, despite the tragedy of his actions, was just crystal clear. A singular reading experience for me.
posted by mwhybark at 4:48 AM on September 8, 2018 [3 favorites]

I know de Landa is the primary anthropological source on the Mayans from this era, thanks to his detailed and intelligent writing. But the reason he's the source is because he destroyed the actual written source materials. And his people conducted a program of genocide and enslavement that decimated the actual culture. I dunno how to weigh all that complexity in the man. But what his people did to the Maya is one of humanity's greatest crimes.
posted by Nelson at 8:28 AM on September 8, 2018 [8 favorites]

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