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Conference on Mesoamerican Manuscripts Oxford 2016 flyer

Conference on Mesoamerican Manuscripts 2016

Mexicolore Directors Graciela Sánchez and Ian Mursell attended the special conference ‘Mesoamerican Manuscripts: New Scientific Approaches and Interpretations’, held at the Weston Library, Oxford, 31st May - 2nd June 2016. Convened - and organised superbly - by Virginia Lladó-Buisán (Head of Conservation & Collection Care, Bodleian Libraries) and Dr. Maarten M.E.R.G. Janssen, Professor of Mesoamerican Archaeology and History, Leiden University, the conference brought together a clutch of world class scholars to share their recent findings on the making and historical significance of the Bodleian’s and other early pictorial Mesoamerican manuscripts. (Written by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: 4 of the 5 Bodleian manuscripts on view, with a close-up of the display label of the Codex Añute (Selden)
Pic 1: 4 of the 5 Bodleian manuscripts on view, with a close-up of the display label of the Codex Añute (Selden) (Click on image to enlarge)

For the first time in the history of the codices’ centuries-long residence at the Bodleian, five priceless manuscripts (Codex Mendoza, Selden, Bodley, Laud screenfolds and the Selden Roll) have been on display together - part of a special exhibition titled ‘Mexico’s Painted Histories’. In an important gesture in support of the growing campaign to re-name ancient Mexican codices around the world - to reflect their communities of origin and significance rather than the names of their transient ‘owners’ in Europe - the manuscripts were captioned in the exhibition with their more authentic names (conventional European names in brackets): Codex Añute (Selden), Codex Ñuu Tnoo Ndisi Nuu (Bodley), Codex Mictlan (‘Book of Death’ - Laud), and the Roll of the New Fire (Selden Roll).

Pic 2: (L) Prof. Maarten Jansen, Ludo Snijders and Dr. Bruce Barker-Benfield (curator of the manuscripts at the Bodleian); pioneering collaboration between scholars at Leiden University and the Bodleian was clearly evident at the conference
Pic 2: (L) Prof. Maarten Jansen, Ludo Snijders and Dr. Bruce Barker-Benfield (curator of the manuscripts at the Bodleian); pioneering collaboration between scholars at Leiden University and the Bodleian was clearly evident at the conference (Click on image to enlarge)

One of the many strengths of the conference was the fusion of a) hot-off-the-press developments from the latest non-invasive scientific research on the materiality of these original manuscripts, b) interpretive papers on a wide range of aspects of Mesoamerican iconography (with major emphasis on the Codex Mendoza), and c) some fairly combative appeals from experts determined to bridge the gap between academia and indigenous communities intent on recovering their cultural heritage. The result was, in the words of Professor Rosemary Joyce (one of the discussion moderators) a true ‘community of practice’, to which we all expressed a commitment and in which we all feel we are participants.

Pic 3: Photo-Thermal Tomography (PTT) is just one of the hi-tech modern tools in researchers’ hands
Pic 3: Photo-Thermal Tomography (PTT) is just one of the hi-tech modern tools in researchers’ hands (Click on image to enlarge)

Delegates were treated to a veritable feast of technical data resulting from state-of-the-art research techniques (reflectography, florescent imaging, microscopy, spectroscopy...) revealing for the first time secrets of the physical structure and manufacture of Mesoamerican codices that are invisible to the naked eye. Teams from Holland, Italy, Mexico, France and Britain are collaborating ever more closely in order to shed light on such intriguing topics as:-
• the provenance and dating of these codices
• the extent of use of organic and inorganic dyes and pigments
• the steps involved in the preparation of the manuscript backgrounds
• the existence of ‘family groupings’ of codices based on common style/content/provenance
• the possible presence of older codices hidden underneath existing manuscripts (‘palimpsests’)...

Pic 4: Maya glyph for book, with jaguar spots clearly depicted (L) and a jaguar’s head
Pic 4: Maya glyph for book, with jaguar spots clearly depicted (L) and a jaguar’s head (Click on image to enlarge)

Scientific scholars Prof. Antonio Sgamellotti, Dr. Costanza Miliani, Prof. Davide Domenici, Dr. María Isabel Álvarez, Prof. José Luis Ruvalcaba Sil, Tim Zaman, Ludo Snijders, David Howell and Fabien Pottier revealed, inter alia:-
• The Codex Añute (Selden) IS a palimpsest (more below...)
• The Codex Mictlan (Laud) has spots of jaguar pelt on both sides - showing that codices from Central Mexico as well as their Maya counterparts were originally covered in jaguar fur, presumably to empower them with sacred force; spots - as opposed to circles - are ONLY found on the top of a jaguar’s head, adding extra symbolic value
• The only truly common colour found across the codices is carbon or lamp black (from charcoal)
• Cochineal and true Maya blue (indigo and palygorskite) are common to many codices (including all the Bodleian ones)
• The Codex Mendoza shows beautifully how Nahua scribes progressively innovated with inorganic pigments (easier to obtain but less vibrant) such as cinnabar (used for red in colonial period manuscripts) whilst retaining the traditional organic dyes...

Pic 5: Evidence (not all as easy to spot as this example in the Codex Bodley!) is emerging of alterations, corrections, intentional damage and physical repairs to the codices over the years...
Pic 5: Evidence (not all as easy to spot as this example in the Codex Bodley!) is emerging of alterations, corrections, intentional damage and physical repairs to the codices over the years... (Click on image to enlarge)

• Backgrounds (usually gypsum) were always added on both sides at the time of manufacture and not at the time of painting
• Connections between groups of codices are now much more apparent: eg, there is a strong material similarity between the Laud and the Fejérváry-Mayer
• The Maya, whilst influenced by and aware of Central Mexican calendrics and knowledge continued to limit the colours they used to four, presumably for symoblic/sacred reasons (four cardinal directions?)
• Whilst DNA tests would help to date codices these remain off the table due to their invasive nature; in the meantime, non-invasive tests can help: the Codex Borbonicus, for instance, was painted exclusively with dye-based organic paints - no European influence (in terms of material used) have been found
• Evidence for the gender (surface contamination includes occasional human hair...) and age (eg, shaky hand!) of the scribe and whether (s)he was left- or right-handed is emerging - from what Tim Zaman called a ‘full body scan’ of a codex. Many pieces are still missing, but the puzzle is steadily being assembled...

Pic 6: Ludo Snijders holds his hand-made facsimile of a section of the Codex Añute (Selden) with the original in the background, bottom left
Pic 6: Ludo Snijders holds his hand-made facsimile of a section of the Codex Añute (Selden) with the original in the background, bottom left (Click on image to enlarge)

Researchers in the Netherlands went to the lengths of replicating by hand a 2-page section of a Mexican codex (the Añute/Selden) in order to subject it physically to rigorous testing - though it’s impossible to obtain exactly the same materials, or to reproduce four centuries of handling and aging. It took Ludo several weeks just to make this section. Under the direction of David Howell (Head of Heritage Science, Bodleian LIbraries) the Dutch team worked extensively on the original in Oxford, suspecting, from studies made in the 1950s, that the Codex contained a palimpsest. 60 years ago the researchers used highly invasive tests: by scraping and soaking the back of the manuscript (considering it unimportant) in solvents such as xylene they would have removed entire layers of material and may have inadvertently seen right through to glyphs on the front! The back of the document, we now know, is without doubt a palimpsest. Further studies are needed to determine if the front is too...

Pic 7: Professor Frances Berdan entertained the conference with the story of her pioneering 12-year project to bring the Codex Mendoza fully into the public domain: in the 1970s she had had to travel 160 miles each time she wanted to study a copy...
Pic 7: Professor Frances Berdan entertained the conference with the story of her pioneering 12-year project to bring the Codex Mendoza fully into the public domain: in the 1970s she had had to travel 160 miles each time she wanted to study a copy... (Click on image to enlarge)

Whilst the technical whizz-kids stressed the importance of examining these manuscripts physically from different lighting perspectives and angles, in the second half of the conference the word ‘perspective’ - along with ‘value’, ‘memory’, ‘connection’, ‘story’ and a host of other key words - took on a whole new level of meaning. As Élodie Dupay García pointed out, even the colours in the codices are not ‘inert materials’, they and the codices are living objects with luminosity, full of tonalli (life force and much more), ‘objects in motion’ in Leonardo López’s words - treasures (‘sacred skins’ to the ancient Mixtec) that reach out to past and present alike, passing on their wisdom down the generations. The first page of the Codex Añute (Selden) begins with an image of ancestral grandparents in the sky, and Alessia Frassani presented us with the first real-life example of this respect for ancient wisdom alive today: a Mazatec chant dedicated to ‘My Grandfather, Escribano [Scribe]’ (grandfather of the underworld).

Pic 8: Mexica (Aztec) parents (left) seek the wisdom of ‘tlamatque’ (‘people who have knowledge’) about their baby’s future. Codex Mendoza fol. 57r (detail)
Pic 8: Mexica (Aztec) parents (left) seek the wisdom of ‘tlamatque’ (‘people who have knowledge’) about their baby’s future. Codex Mendoza fol. 57r (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

This theme of (re-)connecting ancient narratives with indigenous communities and the sacred landscape that surrounds them - and, at the same time of actively rejecting negative, offensive and discriminatory terminology (such as ‘witch’ to refer to a native healer) so often used in the past (starting with the Spanish) to attack native traditions - was taken up strongly by researchers from Leiden University Manuel May Castillo, Paul van den Akker, Raúl Macuil Martínez, and Omar Aguilar Sánchez - two of whom gave introductory greetings in Nahuatl and Mixtec. Indigenous researchers with the help of spiritual and community leaders can make huge contributions to the ongoing tasks of restoring dignity and identity, ‘returning the knowledge’, ‘reintegrating cultural memory’, social engagement through education, and the whole unfinished process of decolonisation. By building on the profoundly respectful ‘flowery speech’ of the ancients and a return to holistic thinking, a new ‘dialogue of respect’ - so often missing today - can grow, building bridges between academic scholars and native communities.

Pic 9: The sacred relationship with land. Could the Codex Dresden (R) with its depictions of sacred waterfalls and rain deity, have a protective message for today’s world? Lake Atitlan is known to be in danger from severe pollution...
Pic 9: The sacred relationship with land. Could the Codex Dresden (R) with its depictions of sacred waterfalls and rain deity, have a protective message for today’s world? Lake Atitlan is known to be in danger from severe pollution... (Click on image to enlarge)

Far from being a dry, static manuscript, several speakers stressed the ‘ethical vision of the tlamatque’ - wise community elders - depicted in the Codex Mendoza (pic 8) and still present today in the teachings of spiritual leaders. Jorge Gómez Tejada - editor of a new facsimile edition of the Mendoza due at the end of 2017 - drew a stark contrast between these ancient community values and virtues and the racist perspectives of the Spanish.
As well as ethical teachings, the codices contain many references to sacred places still used today for rituals associated with origin narratives, gods, ancestors - and... rain! Not only do individuals have nahuales (animal companion spirits) but so do mountains and rivers. Indeed, as Maarten Jansen explained, according to Mixtec beliefs, the nahuales help the Rain God by collecting water and bringing it to the House of Rain (a hillside cave and shrine near Ocotepec).

Pic 10: The original Codex Mendoza; featherwork shields are clearly visible as part of a tribute list (folio 22)
Pic 10: The original Codex Mendoza; featherwork shields are clearly visible as part of a tribute list (folio 22) (Click on image to enlarge)

The Coidex Mendoza is of course well known in part for its detailed tribute lists - rich flows of precious goods to the imperial capital that the Spanish were keen to maintain long after 1521. Leonardo López Luján and his archaeology team at the Templo Mayor have carefully matched many dozens of these objects listed in the Codex with those they have found buried in ofrendas under metropolitan Mexico City. Precious few original Aztec featherwork artefacts still exist, and Laura Filloy Nadal has been privileged to lead scientific analyses of three of them. Able to document production techniques that even the best Spanish chroniclers (such as Sahagún) missed, her team have been able to speculate not only on the length of time (several days) and high level of cooperation (between skilled craftmakers) needed for a single such item to be made but also on the vast number of feathers involved: the highly fragile feather shield held in the castle of Chapultepec required some 42,000 individual feathers to complete!

Pic 11: The presentation of the Codex Añute to the local community in Jaltepec in 2013
Pic 11: The presentation of the Codex Añute to the local community in Jaltepec in 2013 (Click on image to enlarge)

A call was made at the conference for us to rise to the challenge of taking all this rich material and wisdom - both in book and digital format - out to the wider world, inspiring others to contribute to this ‘universalisation of knowledge’. Professor Jansen and his team have already made a superb start: taking out dozens of facsimile copies of the Codex Añute and showing, explaining and distributing them to local audiences (pic 11) in Jaltepec, and there is talk of inviting community members in the future to come to see their painted history as guests of the Bodleian Library. A true dialogue of respect! We were left in no doubt that these priceless ancient manuscripts have much to teach future generations, not just in Mexico but all round the world...

Pic 12: The Mexicolore team amongst friends...
Pic 12: The Mexicolore team amongst friends... (Click on image to enlarge)

NB: The conference concluded with a workshop ‘How to read a Mixtec pictorial manuscript’, led by Prof. Jansen. We will be uploading a report on this workshop in due course...

Photos by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore
Printed codex images:-
• Pic 8: Scanned from our own copy of the James Cooper Clark facsimile edition of the Codex Mendoza, London, 1938
• Pic 9 (R): Detail of plate 74 scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition of the Codex Dresden, Graz, Austria, 1975.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Jun 05th 2016

Exhibition website
Read the August 2016 report from the University of Leiden on the discovery of the palimpsest
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