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Mexicolore contributor Miguel Gleason

True or false, genuine or fake?

We are most grateful to Miguel Gleason for this intriguing introduction to the story of many pre-Hispanic Mesoamerican artefacts in European collections that suffered from ‘mistaken identity’. In 2002 Miguel Gleason founded the association Mexico in Europe, whose aim is to identify, catalogue and publicise Mexico’s cultural wealth abroad. This has already led to the publication of six multimedia DVDs and culminated in 2015 in his richly illustrated and extensively researched book México insólito en Europa (‘Unusual Mexico in Europe’), with a prologue written by Miguel León-Portilla.

Pic 1: Codex Cospi, Puebla-Mixteca, 1250-1521 CE, 18 x 364 cm, 40 pages painted both sides on deer skin, Biblioteca Universitaria, Bologna, Italy
Pic 1: Codex Cospi, Puebla-Mixteca, 1250-1521 CE, 18 x 364 cm, 40 pages painted both sides on deer skin, Biblioteca Universitaria, Bologna, Italy (Click on image to enlarge)

When an artefact is found outside its original archaeological context, there remains the possibility, however small, that it could be a copy or a fake. Equally, even when we’re sure of the authenticity of a sculpture or other piece of art, commentators can make mistakes in interpreting its meaning. Quite frequently researchers, specialists and collectors find themselves treading a fine line in between truth and falsehood. Some of them end up themselves being the source of incorrect information. For example, the Codex Cospi, of Mixtec origin, which used to belong to the Marquis of Cospi of Bologna, Italy, was recorded in 1665 by its owner as being of Chinese provenance. On the manuscript’s cover you can still see (pic 1) how the Italian word Messico has been overwritten onto the word Cina. Fortunately, in this case, many years after the mistake was made, it was corrected.

Pic 2: Small figure from Texcoco, central Mexico, catalogued as the head of a hippopotamus, green serpentine, National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh
Pic 2: Small figure from Texcoco, central Mexico, catalogued as the head of a hippopotamus, green serpentine, National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh (Click on image to enlarge)

A British collector, travelling in central Mexico during the 19th century, didn’t hesitate to label a small figure, found by or sold to him near the remains of Lake Texcoco, as a ‘hippo’s head’, and it has remained to this day catalogued as such in a museum in Edinburgh. We can only hope, for his good name’s sake, that he was struck by the close likeness of object and animal and not because he actually believed such creatures really existed on the American continent. What our affable friend didn’t realise is that by rotating and lifting the figure it no longer resembles a hippo but becomes the head of the rain god Tlaloc, with his characteristic goggle-shaped eyes (pic 2).

Pic 3: Yaxchilán lintels, Chiapas, stone, late Classic, 600-900 CE, British Museum; lintel 24 (L) 110 x 77 cm, lintel 25 (R) 129 x 85 cm
Pic 3: Yaxchilán lintels, Chiapas, stone, late Classic, 600-900 CE, British Museum; lintel 24 (L) 110 x 77 cm, lintel 25 (R) 129 x 85 cm  (Click on image to enlarge)

One of the principal historical sources we have is the testimonies provided by the codices. But paper wasn’t the only medium to carry written information. In several civilisations glyphs or narratives were painted on ceramic vessels or carved on stelae. The lintels of Yaxchilán in the British Museum, for example, have been key to the process of deciphering Maya glyphs and have allowed us to extend the boundaries of our understanding of the complex culture and writing system of this ancient civilisation (pic 3).

Pic 4: Artist’s impression of a Maya scribe at work - detail from a mural on Maya society by Rina Lazo at the National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pic 4: Artist’s impression of a Maya scribe at work - detail from a mural on Maya society by Rina Lazo at the National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

According to specialist Laura Elena Sotelo we have evidence today of the existence of around 15 pre-Hispanic codices of Maya origin. Most, however, have been found in archaeological settings where the remaining material is so fragile and badly deteriorated that nothing of their original contents is knowable. It is a sad paradox that though we may know where and when they were made and possibly even who they belonged to, we know nothing at all of these codices’ contents. On the other hand there are three Maya codices in Europe today whose contents we do know, but about which how, why and when they came to Europe and where they originally came from we have no idea at all. The contrast couldn’t be greater in terms of our (lack of) understanding of pre-Hispanic Maya codices.

Pic 5: Codex Dresden, Maya, 12th-15th century, bark paper, 39 pages painted on both sides, 356 x 20.5 cm, University of Dresden Library, Germany
Pic 5: Codex Dresden, Maya, 12th-15th century, bark paper, 39 pages painted on both sides, 356 x 20.5 cm, University of Dresden Library, Germany (Click on image to enlarge)

One of these three Maya codices is the Dresden Codex – so named simply in reference to the German city where it now resides. And here we return to the genuine/fake dichotomy: the manuscript is authentic, without the slightest doubt, and yet the image on the final page of the codex (pic 5) gave rise to rumours and predictions concerning the end of the world on December 21st 2012, based on its reference to a devastating flood. To the left, a celestial crocodile showers torrents of water onto the earth; beneath its abdomen more torrents of rain flow from two glyphs representing eclipses; finally, the ancient goddess Chak Chel pours more water from her pitcher. Below, the dark god of the underworld receives the storm blasts. Fears arose, according to specialists, because both deities have connections with world destruction. The date on the old lady’s pitcher is precisely December 21st 2012. Yet nothing happened that day. Commentators proceeded to suggest that the reference was not to the date for the end of the world but rather simply to the end of a major Maya calendar cycle.

Pic 6: Codex Laud, probably from Puebla, Oaxaca or Veracruz, 1250-1521 CE, animal skin, 16 x 398 cm, Bodleian Library, Oxford
Pic 6: Codex Laud, probably from Puebla, Oaxaca or Veracruz, 1250-1521 CE, animal skin, 16 x 398 cm, Bodleian Library, Oxford (Click on image to enlarge)

In ancient Mesoamerica predictions and destinies were determined on the basis of birth dates – a concept akin in other cultures to the signs of the zodiac. One section of the Codex Laud – a Mixtec document now in the Bodleian Library, Oxford – shows how the fate of a couple’s marriage could be predicted by adding the numerical values of the couple’s calendar names (pic 6).

Pic 7: Codex Vindobonensis, Mixtec, 1240-1521 CE, 52 pages (each 26.5 x 22 cm), deer skin, 22 x 1350 cm, National Library, Vienna, Austria
Pic 7: Codex Vindobonensis, Mixtec, 1240-1521 CE, 52 pages (each 26.5 x 22 cm), deer skin, 22 x 1350 cm, National Library, Vienna, Austria (Click on image to enlarge)

Nobody doubts the extensive and ancient wisdom of Mesoamerican peoples: codices, for example, were made in accordion/fan/screenfold format so that they could be unfolded to form a large circle (pic 7). The teacher or shaman, alongside his pupils or audience all seated within the circle, would deliver his auguries or teachings from the centre outwards. This allowed for the whole to be viewed at one time, and for different sections to be consulted with a simple movement of the head. In a traditional European book only two pages can be viewed at one time. The future was predicted and auguries foretold, even though rational analysis may today question their validity.

Pic 8: Fake codex, Mixteca style, possibly bark paper, 65 x 98 cm, Chester Beatty Library, Dublin
Pic 8: Fake codex, Mixteca style, possibly bark paper, 65 x 98 cm, Chester Beatty Library, Dublin (Click on image to enlarge)

Arguments over authenticity surround the only ‘pre-Hispanic’ Mexican manuscript in the major Chester Beatty collection in Dublin (pic 8). In 1931 the famous collector sent the manuscript to the British Museum to be examined. He was informed that the document was in fact post-Hispanic but only just – dating from the first half of the 16th century. Recently, however, experts have cast doubt on its authenticity, arguing that the glyphic content makes no coherent sense. The great codices specialist Juan José Batalla has confirmed that most of it is in fact a copy of the Codex Porfirio Díaz – one of the Borgia Group of codices – and a very clever fake. It may well have been made towards the end of the 19th century by Genaro López, who used not fig tree bark paper but processed coconut fibres. According to Batalla the top left section is a brazen copy of page 60 of the Codex Borgia, with a few small modifications (adapted from the same original page) to make it less obvious. The Codex Borgia is held in the Vatican Library.

Pic 9: Ancient codex? 19th century, paint on leather, 46 x 28.5 cm, Museum of Menorca, Convent of San Francisco Mahón, Balearic Islands, Spain
Pic 9: Ancient codex? 19th century, paint on leather, 46 x 28.5 cm, Museum of Menorca, Convent of San Francisco Mahón, Balearic Islands, Spain (Click on image to enlarge)

The document in the Irish library is a fake, but so well made as to appear authentic. On the other hand other fakes exist which even someone with only limited knowledge of the subject matter would recognize as being of rough, poor standard of reproduction. The dishonesty of whoever sold these objects in Mexico to naïve foreign travellers as original pieces is clear for all to see. How could European collectors be duped into believing these artefacts were authentic?

Pic 10: Ancient codex? 19th century, paint on leather, 36 x 47 cm, National Museum, Dublin
Pic 10: Ancient codex? 19th century, paint on leather, 36 x 47 cm, National Museum, Dublin (Click on image to enlarge)

In fact, the style of two of these ‘pseudo-codices’ (one in the Balearic Islands, the other in Dublin) is similar (pix 9 and 10) – visible, for instance, when comparing the depiction of a character with a red headdress – and the possibility remains that it was the same artist and even the same merchant who sold these dubious works around Europe. The inspiration for the illustrations may well have come from those found in the Codex Durán.

Pic 11: Cihuatéotl, Aztec, c. 1500 CE, stone, 74 x 45 x 42 cm, British Museum
Pic 11: Cihuatéotl, Aztec, c. 1500 CE, stone, 74 x 45 x 42 cm, British Museum (Click on image to enlarge)

Finally we turn to an example that is more strange than true/false. According to anthropologist Anthony Shelton, in 1977 the owner of a Scottish farm and his gardener were at work digging and leveling a boggy stretch of land prior to constructing a road. They suddenly came upon a huge carved stone object: they had unearthed the Aztec goddess Cihuatéotl. Overcoming their initial fright they set to to put the statue to good use, as a scarecrow in the farm’s garden, where she remained for several years before a casual visitor revealed her true identity and she was eventually moved to the British Museum in London (pic 11). The authenticity of the statue is not in question, but how it came to Scotland and why it was buried there remain a mystery. What surprised the Scottish farmer most was the scary and terrifying look of the goddess, embodying as it does concepts totally foreign to Western culture. For the Aztecs Cihuatéotl was a true goddess – for Europeans she was anything but.

Picture sources:-
• All photos © Miguel Gleason, except for -
• Pix 1 & 5: © 1992 Fondo de Cultura Económica, Mexico
• Pic 4: Photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
• Pic 8: © Trustees of the Chester Beatty Library
• Pic 11: © Trustees of the British Museum.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Mar 19th 2016

emoticon Q. What should a librarian do when trying to catalogue a fake codex?
A. A-scribe it to a fraudulent dealer.

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