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Dr. Claudia Brittenham

Question for September 2017

How many books existed [among the Maya] before the Spanish Conquest? Asked by New Haw Community Junior School. Chosen and answered by Dr. Claudia Brittenham.

Pic 1: Detail of a Maya rabbit-scribe on the Princeton Vase; Kerr 0511
Pic 1: Detail of a Maya rabbit-scribe on the Princeton Vase; Kerr 0511 (Click on image to enlarge)

The ancient Maya likely had many books before the Spanish conquest. Books wouldn’t have been as common as they are now, after the invention of printing, but we can imagine that every royal court had at least a few books - and some perhaps had great libraries. We see images of books on Maya ceramic vases from the first millennium AD (here’s an image of a rabbit scribe at work, pic 1), and archaeologists have reported finding remains of codices in several royal tombs. Almost all of these books are lost today. Hot, humid weather caused many books to decay; others were lost when the great Lowland Maya cities were abandoned in the 8th and 9th centuries AD; and the Spanish burned many more.

Pic 2 Part of the Dresden Codex
Pic 2 Part of the Dresden Codex (Click on image to enlarge)

Only four Maya books survive from the before the Spanish arrived. Three are in Europe: the Dresden Codex (pic 2), the Paris Codex, and the Madrid Codex (codex is a term for early handwritten books). The fourth, the Grolier Codex, is in Mexico City. All four are compilations of divinatory almanacs. The almanacs provide guidance about favorable and unfavorable days in the 260-day divinatory calendar for many activities, including planting, hunting, and making offerings to the gods. Other almanacs track the movement of Venus and other celestial bodies. They offer a glimpse of what must have been a much wider body of Maya knowledge and scholarship.

Picture sources:-
• Pic 1: (top) drawing attributed to Michael Coe, scanned from Códices del México Antiguo by Carmen Aguilera (SEP/INAH, 1979); (bottom) photo courtesy of and ©Justin Kerr, (link below)
• Pic 2: image from Wikipedia (Dresden Codex).

‘Rabbiting on...’ - learn more about the rabbit scribe!


Classic Maya language - Wikipedia

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