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Woman scribe writing a codex, Codex Telleriano-Remensis fol. 30r (detail)

What did scribes write WITH?

Book-writing has a long, venerable - but also fateful - history in Mesoamerica, going back at least a thousand years before the arrival of Columbus. Much has been written on the status of scribes, on the content, format, style and purpose of ancient manuscripts; we know what materials scribes wrote on, and we know the sources of the inks and dyes they used to paint with. What is far less known is: what instruments did they use to write WITH...? (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: A Mexica scribe; Codex Mendoza, fol. 70r (detail)
Pic 1: A Mexica scribe; Codex Mendoza, fol. 70r (detail) (Click on image to enlarge)

The image (top) of la pintora (‘the painter’) - a detail from folio 30r of the Codex Telleriano-Remensis - is singularly important since, as far as we currently know, it is the only documented illustration of a woman scribe (of high status too - she was one of the wives of the Aztec ruler Huitzilihuitl). She holds a large (clearly drawn out of proportion) writing implement: what on earth is it? A similar portrayal of a Mexica scribe can be seen in the Codex Mendoza (pic 1). At first glance, it looks to us like a giant needle from a century plant. Thankfully, there are other depictions of scribes at work that give us better clues. However, there is no simple answer to the question, as Professor Joyce Marcus (author of the classic work Mesoamerican Writing Systems explains (personal communication):-

Pic 2: A Mixtec scribe, with brush in his left hand, and artists’ tools* - copper chisel, chisel, paintbrush - in the Codex Vindobonensis (L: pl 48, detail; R: pl 18, detail).
Pic 2: A Mixtec scribe, with brush in his left hand, and artists’ tools* - copper chisel, chisel, paintbrush - in the Codex Vindobonensis (L: pl 48, detail; R: pl 18, detail).  (Click on image to enlarge)

‘Since we have not recovered the actual writing implements (the pens and brushes were presumably made of perishable materials), we must speculate a bit from the few depictions in which scribes are shown in the act of painting and writing (sometimes using a shell as an ink pot with black ink made from soot/charcoal). I think some Mesoamerican scribes/painters had multiple writing and painting implements, depending on how fine a line was needed and on the kind of surface or medium they were painting (e.g., writing hieroglyphs on murals, on pottery, on bark paper, on plaster, etc.). Some depictions of the Mixtec scribe look like a brush [see pic 2]. Some depictions for the Maya look like a pen with a fine point. Some scholars speculate that a reed or cane was held in the hand and that animal hair was attached to the end of the reed or cane... I am not sure about this. In some Mesoamerican languages the words for ‘painter’ and ‘scribe’ are the same. In sum, it seems likely that scribes/painters had more than one pen or brush to meet all their needs. Maybe we will recover such writing implements in a cache in a dry cave...’

Pic 3: An Aztec scribe at work; Florentine Codex Book XI
Pic 3: An Aztec scribe at work; Florentine Codex Book XI (Click on image to enlarge)

Early colonial chroniclers, such as Diego Durán, Bernardino de Sahagún and Bartolomé de las Casas, whilst dwelling on the description of the native colours and their preparation, mention only in passing the scribe’s use of a ‘brush’ (pincel in Spanish). But is a set of brushes, however finely crafted, comprehensive enough? Brotherston talks approvingly of ‘brushes so fine that their line is difficult to emulate with a pen even today’; yet some scholars raise the possibility of other tools, such as ‘what looks like a reed pen’ (Boone), fibre brushes and ‘stylus-like implements’ (Reents-Budet) or even quills made of bird feathers (Coe). Reed pens have the disadvantage of being stiff, not ideally suited for the most delicate of illustrations.

Pic 4: Commercially available rabbit hair brushes
Pic 4: Commercially available rabbit hair brushes (Click on image to enlarge)

Some researchers (Batalla Rosado, personal communication, Gutiérrez Solana) are sure that scribes used rabbit hair brushes - still sold today as ‘calligraphy tools’ (pic 4). Perhaps it’s significant that one of the best known images of a scribe from the Maya area (follow link below to see it in detail) portrays a rabbit-scribe - though ironically, Coe suggests that what he is writing with is ‘obviously not a brush pen’.
In fact it is the Maya who have left us with possibly the best clues of all, with codex-style imagery on polychrome vases, sculptures, even incised onto bone...

Pic 5: ‘Hand with brush pen emerging from the jaws of the Bearded Dragon, incised bone from the tomb beneath Temple 1, Tikal’
Pic 5: ‘Hand with brush pen emerging from the jaws of the Bearded Dragon, incised bone from the tomb beneath Temple 1, Tikal’ (Click on image to enlarge)

Coe shows us the clearest example of what IS a brush pen, incised on a bone from a tomb at Tikal. ‘The hand delicately holds a slightly curved pen, in this case, surely a brush pen, the only definite representation of such an instrument in Maya art’ (pic 5). Coe was writing in 1977. What may well be the same thing - but frustratingly the very end of the instrument is missing in both cases - is represented a) in the Maya hieroglyph for an ah-ts’ib (scribe - ‘he of the writing’), on a polychrome dish, and b) alongside this, Reents-Budet shows something very similar, taken from a 9th-century ceramic vase, with a scribe painting a codex (pic 6).

Pic 6: ‘Maya artist/scribes holding stylus-like painting implements (drawings by Barbara MacLeod)
Pic 6: ‘Maya artist/scribes holding stylus-like painting implements (drawings by Barbara MacLeod) (Click on image to enlarge)

Reents-Budet observes in her examples shown here (pic 6) that, ‘unlike the paint brushes, this stylus-like instrument usually is held by the thumb and forefinger on one side of its shaft and by the three remaining fingers stabilising the stylus on its other side.’
Oddly, though she includes examples from Maya art of curved writing instruments in her (hugely impressive) book, the three categories she presents of writing/painting instruments all have straight shafts - logical if one thinks of a simple wooden brush, reed or stylus. Here we return to Coe’s work, in which he speculates that the artists (he suggests they’re deities) shown at work on Maya vases holding curved writing tools (pictures 7 and 8) are actually using bird feather quills. It’s worth quoting his reasoning in full:-

Pic 7: Maya artists (or deities?) paint a mask (above) and a codex (below); polychrome vase, K717
Pic 7: Maya artists (or deities?) paint a mask (above) and a codex (below); polychrome vase, K717 (Click on image to enlarge)

‘I am informed by Arthur Miller of an experiment performed by Felipe Dávalos G., artist for his project recording the murals of the Postclassic sites of Tancah and Tulum on the east coast of Yucatan. Dávalos was struck by the fact that in late Maya murals, the artist had been able to draw extremely long lines without the ink running out or diminishing width of the line. A brush pen would not have this effect. By trial and error, Dávalos was able to reconstruct the Maya line with feather pens, using the feathered rather than the quill end, and established that the best of all such pens was a turkey feather. The fineness, suppleness, and elasticity of a trimmed turkey feather might well account for the “whiplash line” which is the hallmark of Maya graphic artists of the Classic Period. I feel sure that it is the feather pen which our artists carry on this fine vase.’

Pic 8: ‘Monkey-Man Gods holding ink pots and feather brushes’ - details from the ‘Vase of the 31 Gods or Grolier 37’ (Coe)
Pic 8: ‘Monkey-Man Gods holding ink pots and feather brushes’ - details from the ‘Vase of the 31 Gods or Grolier 37’ (Coe) (Click on image to enlarge)

Again, it’s worth noting in passing that turkey feathers are still sold today - and recommended, despite being hard work to cut - as quills and that of course the turkey is native to Mesoamerica. Incidentally, Felipe Dávalos is the same fine Mexican artist who we commissioned, many years ago, to design our set of twenty Aztec calendar/day signs (a tiny example of which you can see up in the top right-hand corner of this page, as today’s date!) Notice, by the way, the depiction of a stylised conch shell ink-pot resting above the closed codex. ‘This cut conch will be seen to be distinctive of Maya artists and scribes in pictorial ceramics.’ They feature again prominently in the two drawings in Picture 8.

Pic 9: ‘Gods with inkpots and pens, from the Madrid Codex’
Pic 9: ‘Gods with inkpots and pens, from the Madrid Codex’ (Click on image to enlarge)

Coe goes on to give yet more examples, in illustrations taken from the Madrid Codex (pic 9) of gods holding pens: ‘They are very crudely drawn, but they seem to be at least partly flexible, and curve to a fine point on the end charged with ink’ - these he claims are ‘specially prepared feathers’, and he concludes his study by giving the quill prime status: ‘Classic Maya scribes and artists used feather pens and perhaps brush pens, and they are shown painting masks and writing in folding-screen books with covers of jaguar skin. Ink and perhaps other pigments were held in conch-shell containers.’

Pic 10: A contemporary Mexican scribe uses a modern stylus to draw fine lines on one of her hand-made reproductions of Mesoamerican codex pages
Pic 10: A contemporary Mexican scribe uses a modern stylus to draw fine lines on one of her hand-made reproductions of Mesoamerican codex pages (Click on image to enlarge)

It seems only sensible to deduce that Mesoamerican scribes had access to a full set of professional drawing instruments, each appropriate for a specific purpose, and each carefully crafted and no doubt treasured by its owner. And what stunning work they produced!

* NOTE: Dr. Manuel Hermann has kindly identified these (instruments in Pic 2, right) as follows: double-ended chisel with copper blades possibly for scraping or engraving on wood; elongated chisel with a bird’s-beak handle ending in a ‘burin’ - a fine engraver’s stylus, possibly for outlining figures in black ink; paintbrush.

Main sources:-
Painting the Maya Universe: Royal Ceramics of the Classic Period by Doris Reents-Budet, Duke University Press, Durham, 1994
• ‘Supernatural Patrons of Maya Scribes and Artists’ by Michael D. Coe, chapter 15 in Social Process in Maya Prehistory edited by Norman Hammond, Academic Press, London, 1977.

Also consulted/recommended:-
Mesoamerican Writing Systems: Propaganda, Myth and History in Four Ancient Civilizations by Joyce Marcus, Princeton University Press, 1992
Stories in Red and Black: Pictorial Histories of the Aztecs and Mixtecs by Elizabeth Hill Boone, University of Texas Press, Austin, 2000
Mexican Painted Books by Gordon Brotherston, University of Essex/British Museum, 1992
Codices of Mexico and their extraordinary history by María Sten, Panorama Editorial, Mexico City, 1990
Códices de México by Nelly Gutiérrez Solana, Panorama Editorial, Mexico City, 1992.

Picture sources:-
• Main: image scanned from our own copy of Codex Telleriano-Remensis, edited by Eloise Quiñones Keber, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1995
• Pic 1: image from the Codex Mendoza scanned from our own copy of the James Cooper Clark facsimile edition, London, 1938 (original in the Bodleian Library, Oxford)
• Pic 2: images scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition of the Codex Vindobonensis, Graz, Austria, 1974
• Pic 3: Florentine Codex (original in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence): image scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994
• Pic 4: photo downloaded from https://alexnld.com/product/calligraphy-writing-pen-art-painting-brush-specification-rabbit-hair-brush/
• Pix 5, 8 & 9: illustrations scanned from ‘Supernatural Patrons...’ (see above)
• Pic 6: illustrations scanned from Painting the Maya Universe (see above)
• Pic 7: photo by Justin Kerr, downloaded with permission from Kerr’s unique digital image archive mayavase.com (ref.: K717)
• Pic 10: photo by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore.

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on May 03rd 2020

emoticon Even the most masterly scribe made the occasional error. What would (s)he have said, shrugging shoulders after an error had been spotted?
’With the best quill in the world...’

‘Rabbiting on...’

‘Where do you wear your paint-pot?’ by Justin Kerr
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Mexicolore replies: We’re sorry, but this isn’t our field so really have no idea! Good luck though...
Mexicolore replies: Thank you, Professor, for your guidance on it.