Códice Maya de México
Getty Conversations

A conversation between Dr. Andrew Turner, Senior Research Specialist, Getty Research Institute and Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank, Dean of Content and Strategy, Smarthistory, in front of the Códice Maya de México. Installation views courtesy of and © 2022 J. Paul Getty Trust. Images: Códice Maya de México, Maya, about 1100. Mineral and organic pigments on bark paper prepared with gesso. Biblioteca Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Secretaría de Cultura-INAH-México. All rights reserved.

Around 900 years ago, a Maya scribe made Códice Maya de México, a sacred book that tracked and predicted the movements of the planet Venus. Today it is the oldest book of the Americas, one of only four surviving Maya manuscripts that predate the arrival of Europeans. A remarkable testament to the complexity of Indigenous astronomy, Códice Maya de México is on display in the US for the first time in 50 years.

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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:04] We’re at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, in front of the oldest book ever found in the Americas. This is the “Códice Maya de México,” made between the 11th and 12th centuries.

[0:16] Given how few Mesoamerican books made prior to the Spanish invasions exist, whether due to environmental issues like rain and humidity or even the targeted destruction by Spanish friars and conquistadors in the wake of the invasions in the early 16th century, it is truly amazing to be in front of this Maya book today.

Dr. Andrew Turner: [0:38] This book has a controversial history. It was long considered to be a fake due to the strange circumstances in which it surfaced.

[0:45] It appeared in a private collection in Mexico City in the mid-1960s. The story is that it was found looted in a cave in the state of Chiapas or Tabasco, Mexico. When this book was finally to shown to specialists, they quickly discounted it as a fake because it didn’t look like other existing Maya books, of which there are only three others.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:02] This is the only Maya book made prior to the Spanish invasions that still remains in Mexico.

Dr. Turner: [1:10] In 2017 and 2018, independently working groups of specialists gathered together to analyze different aspects of this book to determine once and for all whether or not it was an extremely sophisticated forgery or if it was, in fact, one of the four surviving Maya books made before the arrival of the Spanish.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:26] This doesn’t look like a bound book that we might find in a library or a bookstore today, and yet this was a typical way of making a book in Mesoamerica. What is really striking to me is how thick the pages are.

Dr. Turner: [1:42] This book was made using long strips of the inner bark of a fig tree. Then those strips were stacked on top of each other in three layers, and then thin layers of plaster were put over it, leaving little hinges in between the pages. This book could fold up like a screen, or almost like an accordion.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:57] If we look to some of the other surviving Maya codices, they are so detailed. Here, what I find so immediately captivating is how the artist or the scribe has provided the fundamentals. I can easily see all the forms because they’ve been so carefully articulated.

[2:16] One of the other important aspects of this codex is that we can also still see some of the preparatory drawings that the artist laid down onto the page before placing the paint onto the page itself. If we look at page four, for instance, we can see these thin red lines, and we can also see the artist felt liberty to alter what they had initially laid down on the page.

Dr. Turner: [2:42] The color palette is spare. The white background of the plaster shows through, and reds and blacks. There’s one instance in the book where you see a small patch of blue. The black [is] made from charcoal. There’s a brick red made from hematite.

[2:54] Then there’s another red made from an insect called cochineal that’s only found on cactus. That color of red was not local to the artist that made this book. The blue color that shows up on page ten was an exotic rare material called Maya Blue.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:08] It demonstrates that there was an interest in using some of these more precious materials that would have been costly and sourced from far away. Yet, they’re used here as a way of further highlighting the importance of this particular codex.

[3:22] Books were important repositories of knowledge. While this dates to the 11th, 12th centuries, we know that bookmaking practices extend farther back in time. This is a very a important cultural tradition among peoples in Mesoamerica.

Dr. Turner: [3:38] Each page of this book follows a common design scheme. You can break down each page into four parts. On the left-hand side, there’s a column of glyphs. Those are calendrical dates in a 260-day calendar that the Maya used and continue to use today.

[3:52] In the upper center, there’s a circular red object with a knot on top, which contains a number. The way you read numbers for the Maya is a bar is five and a dot is one, so you add up the numbers. There’s a deity that stands facing to the left-hand side of the page. That deity is confronting, restraining, or killing a captive or an object.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [4:11] Why the scribe or artist would have followed these particular conventions is because this is a book that is relaying information about the cycle of the planet Venus.

Dr. Turner: [4:22] Venus was extremely important in Mesoamerica because it was considered a dangerous planet. Venus is always close to the sun. It either rises before the sun does at dawn, when it’s the Morning Star, or it follows the sun into the Earth as it sinks into the western horizon, when Venus is the Evening Star.

[4:38] Venus has four phases, and it’s got an extremely difficult pattern to observe and predict. Ancient Maya astronomers were really careful observers of this phenomenon. They were among the only ancient cultures that recognized Venus as the Morning Star and Venus as the Evening Star as being the same planetary body.

[4:54] This book follows the cycle of Venus and its 584-day cycle over a course of 104 years. Each page predicts when one of the four phases of Venus is going to start.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [5:05] This goes back to the logic of having these established conventions on each page, is that it’s following a particular cycle that is very consistent, that the Maya are observing and documenting, and so having that consistency allows you to track that cycle of Venus very clearly.

Dr. Turner: [5:21] One of the important functions of this book would be to determine when to do or to not do certain things when Venus would appear in one of its phases.

[5:29] Other sources tell us that the first appearance of the light of Venus could be either favorable or unfavorable for things like warfare. It could cause droughts. It could cause famine and harmed crops. It could cause harm to people and to children.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [5:41] Let’s look more closely at page four. Most of the page is devoted to the deity governing this part of the cycle, along with a captive.

Dr. Turner: [5:51] This particular page deals with the Morning Star.

[5:53] On these particular dates of the first appearance of Morning Star, the deity in charge is this deity with this long curling nose. He’s called K’awiil and he’s the god of lightning. He’s also a god of rulership.

[6:04] He’s associated with flint knives and axes, because he’s holding the spear that’s got these wavy lines on the blade, and that says that it’s made out of flint.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [6:12] Showing him in the act of capturing and defeating an enemy is related to larger ideas about the cycle of Venus. The deities governing this cycle could be perceived as dangerous, or these could be times where bad things could happen.

[6:27] Showing a scene of captivity, showing a scene of defeat, is pointing or signaling to how people felt about these different phases. It’s not so much showing us what would happen, but what could happen during these phases.

[6:42] Page six, it’s where we see a skeletal deity overseeing a different moment in the cycle of Venus, and this is Evening Star.

Dr. Turner: [6:50] And Evening Star here is governed by a frightful skeletal deity that has a flint knife sticking out of his nasal cavity. He’s holding a giant jagged blade up with his left hand. He’s holding the hair of a captive whose head he’s freshly severed from its neck, and there’s large gouts of blood spilling out.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [7:07] We see also a fleshless mouth. We see the teeth that have been exposed.

[7:10] If we look at the lower portion, we even see these squiggly lines that terminate in a circle, which is a convention for bone. We’re getting the impression that we have a skeletal or a partially defleshed being that is terrifying.

Dr. Turner: [7:25] Formerly, it was believed that only the first appearance of Morning Star was a dangerous time, but this scene makes it clear that other phases were also dangerous.

Dr. Kilroy-Ewbank: [7:33] Used by a community priest or a community elder or someone with the knowledge to use this as a tool of prognostication, or a tool of planning for what’s to come, this book would have been a powerful tool in a particular Maya community.

[7:49] While we don’t know exactly which community this was used in because of that history of how it was found in the 1960s, the “Códice Maya de México” can still be so useful for us today to have a lens into what the Maya of the 11th, 12th century were thinking and how they were recording information, and also gives us a brilliant insight into what amazing astronomers they were.

[8:14] [music]

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Andrew D. Turner, ed., Códice Maya de México: Understanding the Oldest Surviving Book of the Americas, exh. cat. (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2022).

Cite this page as: Dr. Andrew Turner and Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank, "Códice Maya de México
Getty Conversations," in Smarthistory, May 17, 2023, accessed July 13, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/codice-maya-de-mexicogetty-conversations/.