A 500-year-old Mexican text dating to just before Hernan Cortez arrived in Mexico with his band of murderous, thieving conquistadors has been discovered written over, underneath another old Mexican manuscript. The documents are in Europe, where researchers are studying the rediscovered text and images to decipher them.The newly discovered document, announced by the Universiteit Leiden in the Netherlands, is beneath the Codex Selden. The Codex Selden, also called the Codex Anute, is a Mixtec document that is in the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford in England. This new manuscript is what is known as a palimpsest, or one book that was erased and written over with another book. It is the first Mexican codex known as a palimpsest.
The Codex Selden dates to approximately 1560 and is one of a few to survive book burnings by Spanish conquistadors. There are only five known surviving Mixtec codices from the area of Oaxaca. In all, there are about 20 codices remaining after colonization by Europeans. “These codices use a complex system of pictures, symbols and bright colours to narrate centuries of conquering dynasties and genealogies as well as wars and the history of ancient cities,” the press release states. “In essence these codices provide the best insight into the history and culture of early Mexico.”Scholars have surmised for about 60 years that the Codex Selden is a palimpsest, or a book that was erased and then written over. Researchers damaged the codex in the 1950s when they scraped a page to uncover an image underneath the visible codex that confirmed their suspicions that the book had an earlier Mexican codex.
Codex Selden is a 5-meter (16.4 feet) long strip of deer hide covered in white plaster consisting of chalk and gypsum. It folded into a 20-page concertina format.
The researchers from the University of Oxford used what they call hyperspectral imaging to uncover the drawings from the codex. They published their finding in the Journal of Archaeology: Reports .
This hyperspectral technique is the first to allow researchers to see the book in a non-invasive manner. The scribe or scribes who created the book used organic paint, which precludes X-ray analysis that scholars use to study more contemporary artworks.
“After 4 or 5 years of trying different techniques, we’ve been able to reveal an abundance of images without damaging this extremely vulnerable item. We can confirm that Codex Selden is indeed a palimpsest,” said Ludo Snijders of Leiden University, as quoted in the press release. He conducted the research with David Howell from the Bodleian Libraries and Tim Zaman from the University of Delft.
Researchers think the Mixtec manuscript represents a king and his counselors, sitting or standing faced in the same direction. The press release says textual analysis reveals that the figures are both men and women. They say the fact that both genders are represented raises interesting questions about what is going on in the tableau.
The king or other type of prominent man is shown repeatedly in the new codex. The researchers say a large glyph of a flint knife and a twisted cord represent him. He may be an ancestor of two family lineages from the Mexican sites of Zaachila and Teozcualco, which are now under archaeological review.
The glyph with the knife and the cord resemble a symbol or character in two other Mexican codices, including the Codex Zouche-Nuttall, which is at the British Museum, and the Codex Bodley, which is also in Bodleian Library at Oxford.