Oldest known indigo dyed textile found in Peru

September 18th, 2016

In 2009, archaeologists found textile fragments at the Preceramic settlement of Huaca Prieta in the Chicama Valley on the northern coast of Peru. The desert climate preserves organic materials and a great many early textiles made from wild cotton indigenous to the area have been unearthed there. What makes these fragments so significant is the dyed blue threads which are the oldest known indigo dyed textiles in the world, 1,800 years older than the Egyptian Fifth Dynasty textiles previously believed to be the oldest indigo dye.

Occupied between 14,500 and 4000, Huaca Prieta’s large ceremonial mound was first excavated in 1946 by archaeologist Junius Bird, curator of South American Archaeology at the American Museum of Natural History. There he unearthed the oldest known cotton textiles with recognizable figures — humans, birds, snakes — in the Americas. Those textiles are now in the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Bird’s trenches are still being excavated today and a number textile fragments are visible peering through the soil. It was in of those trenches, stratum 44 of trench HP-3, that archaeologists discovered two textiles with blue dye about 6200 to 6000 years old. The fragments are weft twining with warp stripes in different colors: the natural tan of the cotton, yarn woven with a white fiber from a local vine in the milkweed family and the blue. Chromatographic analysis of the textile confirmed the presence of an indigoid dye.

Different plants can be used to make indigoid dyes. What they all have in common is indigotin, the main component in blue dye, and indirubin, an isomer of indigotin. There is no currently available test that can distinguish between the different genera of plants that are sources of indigo dye. Researchers believe the Huaca Prieta dye was derived from plants in the Indigofera genus which are native to South America and still used as dye plants today.

Early examples of the use of blue yarns that were most likely colored with indigo are known, but dye analysis had heretofore been unavailable. The composition of the indigoid dyes identified in the fabrics presented here reflects that of earlier findings in Latin American and Asian contexts, in that proportions of indirubin relative to indigotin are significantly higher as compared to European productions. To date, there is no firm evidence to explain these differences, but plant species, harvesting, dye preparation, and actual dyeing, as well as differential conservation processes of essential dye components, may have, alone or in combination, contributed to this observation. One interesting hypothesis, requiring further confirmation, is that ancient vat dyeing technologies favored the formation and uptake by the yarn of indirubin. This would have resulted in a more purplish hue produced by a reddish indirubin and a bluish indigotin.

The textile fragments are now in the Cao Museum in Trujillo, Peru.

3,000-year-old pot contains burned cheese residue

September 17th, 2016

A clay pot discovered during an archaeological excavation near Silkeborg in central Jutland, Denmark, in 2012 has the residue of 3,000-year-old burned cheese coating the interior. The pot was found upside down in a garbage pit. Museum Silkeborg archaeologists were excited by the find because the pot was intact and in near mint condition, a rare find for a Bronze Age vessel made between 777 B.C. and 588 B.C. They didn’t realize until they cleaned the soil off of it that the crusty remains of some whitish yellow food substance were stuck to the inside walls.

The color and texture were not something the archaeologists had seen before. Charred grains and seeds are a more common sight in ancient cookware — the ever-tricky porridge has been getting burned to the bottom of pots for thousands of years — but the yellowish film was a mystery. Samples of the crusty substance were subjected to macrofossil analysis at the Moesgaard Museum in the hope it might identify any plants, meat or fish. The results were inconclusive. The test found the substance was a foamy, vitrified material, possible the residue of oil or sugar.

Museum curators sent samples to the Danish National Museum next, where chemist Mads Chr. Christensen used mass spectrometry to identify the substance. He was able to narrow it down to a product made with the fat of a ruminant, likely bovine. With no similar sample to compare the mass spectrometry results, he wasn’t able to get more specific than that.

“The fat could be a part of the last traces of curds used during the original production of traditional hard cheese. The whey is boiled down, and it contains a lot of sugars, which in this way can be preserved and stored for the winter,” says [Museum Silkeborg curator Kaj F.] Rasmussen.

“It is the same method used to make brown, Norwegian whey cheese, where you boil down the whey, and what’s left is a caramel-like mass that is turned into the brown cheese that we know today from the supermarket chiller cabinet,” he says.

When things don’t go according to plan and the cheese burns to the pot, the smell is pungent, to put it charitably, and attempts to scrape the foul crust off the clay pot doomed to failure. It’s easy to picture a Bronze Age cheesemaker dumping the whole mess into the trash.

I’m not familiar with brown Norwegian whey cheese. It sounds … interesting. Has anybody tried this delicacy?

Unique figurine of woman found at Çatalhöyük

September 16th, 2016

Archaeologists excavating the Neolithic urban settlement of Çatalhöyük in central Turkey have unearthed the figurine of a voluptuous woman in excellent condition. More than 2,000 figurines have been found at Çatalhöyük, but very few of them intact like this one. Several of them were also Mother figures; this is the first one to be found intact and with finely crafted details. It is also unusual in that it was discovered under a platform next to a piece of obsidian where it appears to have been deliberately placed likely for ritual purposes rather than discarded in garbage pits where archaeologists have found many broken statuettes, mostly made of clay. The beautiful Seated Woman of Çatalhöyük, for example, who is herself a zaftig female archetype seated on a throne and captured in the very act of giving birth, was found missing her head and the right hand rest in the shape of a leopard or panther head.

The figurine is 17 centimeters (6.7 inches) long, 11 centimeters (4.3 inches) wide and weighs one kilo (2.2 pounds), a large, heavy piece for Çatalhöyük. (The Seated Woman is 12 centimeters high.) Her hands and feet are small, markedly out of proportion to her large breasts, belly and buttocks, and her hands are placed under the breasts. She would not have been able to stand vertically on those small feet. The figurine is made of marble, another rarity, and was shaped by extensive polishing of the stone. Details — slanted eyes, a Modigliani-like flat nose, mouth, navel, etc. — were then incised on the figure.

It dates Neolithic occupation of the site, between 7100 and 6000 B.C., so the figurine is at least 8,000 years old. The exaggerated female features — breasts, hips, thighs — of such figures, carved by people for more 40,000 years, have often been interpreted as mother or fertility goddesses, but recent scholarship suggests some of them may represent venerable high status older ladies of the community.

Çatalhöyük is a fascinating site, founded in a period of transition between highly mobile hunter-gatherers and settled farming communities. No identifiable public buildings have been found thus far, just domestic structures built so close together than people had to use roofs and ladders to move between them. Residents grew a few different kinds of plants and kept cattle — not domesticated yet, mind you — for milk and meat. Large cattle horns were popular decorative features incorporated into the homes. The dead were buried under the houses; there was no dedicated cemetery or burial ground.

The Çatalhöyük Research Project has been excavating the settlement since 1993, combining excavation with in situ conservation and curation of artifacts to ensure the long-term preservation of this extraordinarily signficant site. Full details about the newly discovered figurine will be published in the team’s 2016 Archive Report later this year.

World’s oldest snowshoe found in Italian Dolomites

September 15th, 2016

On August 5th, 2003, Simone Bartolini, cartographer and head of the State Borders division of Italy’s Military Geographical Institute, was in the Pfossental Valley in the Italian Dolomites doing a topographical survey of the border with Austria when he came across an old snowshoe made by hand out of birch and twine. A birch stick about 1.5 meters (five feet) long had been shaped into a rough oval closed with twine, and then more twine stretched taughtly across the middle to support the foot. One of the twine supports was broken in the middle, but otherwise it was in excellent condition.

Bartolini thought it was maybe a hundred years old, the rudimentary work of a local farmer perhaps, and hung it on the wall of his office in Florence as a charming curiosity. That’s where it remained for 12 years until 2015 when Bartolini attended an exhibition of artifacts found in the glaciers at the Archaeological Museum of Bolzano. After a conversation with museum director Angelika Fleckinger, it dawned on him that his snowshoe might be a lot older than he had realized, so he gave it to the Office of Archaeological Heritage of Bolzano for further study.

Researchers had it radiocarbon dated by two independent laboratories and their results were the same: the snowshoe was made in the late Neolithic, between 3800 and 3700 B.C. That makes it 5,800 years old, by far the oldest known snowshoe.

“The shoe is evidence that people in the Neolithic period were living in the Alps area and had equipped themselves accordingly,” said Dr Catrin Marzoli, the director of the province’s cultural heritage department.

It was unclear why people were travelling through such an inhospitable region, she said. They may have been hunting animals, fleeing enemies from a rival tribe, or visiting pagan sites of worship.

If you live in an environmentally challenging region, you adapt. People gotta move sometimes for any number of reasons. The snowshoe was found at an altitude of 3,134 meters (10,280 feet) in the Gurgler Eisjoch pass which has been used by mountain travelers for thousands of years. Ötzi the Iceman, whose naturally mummified body was found just a few miles west of the snowshoe in 1991, was treading that well-worn trail between what are now Italy and Austria when he was killed, and microscopic evidence in his bones and digestive system indicate he had trod that path many times in his life. Ötzi died 500 years after that snowshoe was made.

The snowshoe will now join the Iceman on display at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano.

HMS Terror may have been found

September 14th, 2016

Not basking in the success of its search for HMS Erebus, the flagship of Sir John Franklin during his last doomed voyage to find the Northwest Passage, Parks Canada continued its research on the Franklin expedition this season, studying the Erebus with sonar and seeking out any remains of the second ship, the HMS Terror. One of its partners in the endeavour is the Arctic Research Foundation whose vessel Martin Bergmann carries Parks Canada underwater archaeologists, side-scan sonar equipment and a remotely operated vehicle.

On September 3rd, the crew of the Martin Bergmann found a large three-masted shipwreck at the bottom of, believe it or not, Terror Bay. The sonar data was confirmed by video from the ROV which allowed the team to compare the wreck to the plans of the HMS Terror. They found the ship’s bell, but couldn’t see the name of the vessel on it. One key feature that indicates this is the Terror is the exhaust pipe which is in the same location as the smokestack on the ship’s plans. It was added to HMS Terror to vent exhaust from the locomotive engine installed in the ship’s hull so it could cut through sea ice.

The Terror was long believed to have been crushed by the hard, cold embrace of sea ice, but if this is the ship itself, it appears to be in excellent condition. Its three masts are broken, but it sits level on the sea floor about 80 feet below the surface, indicating that it sank gently. A long rope, still threaded through a hole in the deck, may have been used as an anchor line. The metal sheeting on the hull is intact. It seems the crew battened down the hatches, so to speak, as the ship was closed up tight. Of the four glass windows in the stern cabin, only one is broken. That bodes very well for the preservation of the contents.

On Sunday, a team from the charitable Arctic Research Foundation manoeuvred a small, remotely operated vehicle through an open hatch and into the ship to capture stunning images that give insight into life aboard the vessel close to 170 years ago.

“We have successfully entered the mess hall, worked our way into a few cabins and found the food storage room with plates and one can on the shelves,” Adrian Schimnowski, the foundation’s operations director, told the Guardian by email from the research vessel Martin Bergmann.

“We spotted two wine bottles, tables and empty shelving. Found a desk with open drawers with something in the back corner of the drawer.”

As with the discovery of Erebus, here too Inuit knowledge of the area played a pivotal role. The Martin Bergmann was headed to the north end of Victoria Strait to join the other ships on the Parks Canada mission when one of the crew members, Sammy Kogvik, told a story about how on a fishing trip six years ago he saw a large vertical piece of wood poking through the ice covering Terror Bay. He took some pictures of himself hugging the mast-like timber but lost the camera on the way home.

Taking the loss of the camera to be a bad omen — the Inuit have thought King William Island to be plagued with bad spirits since the death of everyone on the Franklin expedition — Kogvik told nobody of his find until he told Adrian Schimnowski on board the Martin Bergmann. Breaking from the lost history of explorers discounting Inuit evidence, the crew decided to take a detour from their destination and check out Terror Bay.

So it seems the Inuit are two for two on the Franklin expedition ships. Nice stats for people Lady Jane Franklin contemptuously dismissed as “savages” and their information, now proven to be accurate on pretty much every point, as “gossip” that should never have been repeated because it included reports of survival cannibalism among the crew.

The identification is not a sure thing yet. This ship was found a full 60 miles south of where the Terror was thought to have been destroyed based on the only known official records of the expedition ever found: an Admiralty form in a cairn at Victory Point on King William Island that noted the coordinates of where the two ships had been abandoned to the sea ice. But then again, Erebus was found much further south than expected too. Jim Balsillie, co-founder of the company that created the Blackberry and founder of the Arctic Research Foundation, has an idea of why this might be.

“Given the location of the find [in Terror Bay] and the state of the wreck, it’s almost certain that HMS Terror was operationally closed down by the remaining crew who then re-boarded HMS Erebus and sailed south where they met their ultimate tragic fate.”

Sounds reasonable. Parks Canada is circumspect about the find. They’re excited about it and recognize the significance of the find particularly in highlighting the inestimable value of the Inuit contribution, but they aren’t ready to call the Terror found until they’ve examined the details and confirmed it’s the real deal.

This CBC News story includes video of the shipwreck taken by the remotely operated vehicle.

Studies of Brazilian fauna by 17th c. Dutch artist found

September 13th, 2016

In 1636, Johan Maurits, Count of Nassau-Siegen, (if the name rings a bell it’s because his house in The Hague is now the magnificent Mauritshuis museum) was appointed the Dutch West India Company (DWIC) governor of what was then the Dutch colony of Brazil. His mission was to stabilized the new colony, wrested from Portugal after nine years of war, expand its territories and increase the number of sugar plantations putting money in the DWIC’s coffers. He landed in Recife in January of 1637 with a large retinue including scientists and artists to document the people, environments, plants and animals they came across.

One of those artists was Frans Post. Born in Haarlem in 1612, he was the son of a noted glass painter and brother of one of the premier architects of the age both of whom taught him to draw and paint when he was a youth. His brother helped him secure a post at court where he spotted by Maurits who invited him to join him in Brazil. Post traveled throughout Dutch Brazil until 1644, sketching and painting landscapes, flora and fauna. He was the first European artist (professional anyway) to paint New World landscapes.

He only completed six paintings (later gifted by Maurits to Louis XIV of France) while still in Brazil, but he continued to paint Brazilian landscapes after his return to the Netherlands for another 25 years. They were very popular and sold briskly, eventually entering the collections of several museums. Art historians suspected that Post must have used studies done during his time in Brazil to create the paintings made in the Netherlands, but not a single sketch or drawing of Brazilian flora or fauna by Post was known to exist.

That changed in 2010 when Alexander de Bruin, curator of the image collection of the Noord-Hollands Archief in Haarlem discovered 34 previously unknown drawings by Frans Post. He found them in a 17th century album of bird drawings by Pieter Holsteijn the Elder and the Younger that he was looking through for a digitization project. The album had been donated in 1888, but nobody noticed the pencil sketches and gouaches of capybaras, jaguars, tapirs, sloths, caymans and other South American animals until de Bruin.

Because the discovery was unprecedented, experts from the Noord-Hollands Archief, the journal Master Drawings, and the Rijksmuseum put their heads together to confirm that the really were the long-suspected Frans Post Brazilian studies. They compared the subjects — individual animals captures in 24 watercolor and gouache drawings and 10 graphite ones — to animals in finished paintings and found that they were indeed studies used in his landscapes. One of the paintings he did in Brazil, for example, now in the Louvre, prominently features a capybara who appears in both a graphite sketch and a gouache. The graphite sketches are captioned in Post’s own hand; the gouaches in an unknown 17th century hand which assures us that armadillo tastes like chicken.

Alexander de Bruin on the find:

“These drawings with their inscriptions have a immediacy about them that makes you feel as if you were looking over Frans Post’s shoulder, as he recorded the fascinating fauna of the New World. The animal studies provide the missing link between Post’s seven-year Brazilian adventure and the paintings he produced on his return to Haarlem.”

The drawings will go on display for the first time in the upcoming Rijksmuseum exhibition Frans Post. Animals in Brazil. Six of his paintings and all of the studies will be exhibited alongside taxidermied specimens from the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden of the animals Post drew. The exhibition opens October 7th and runs through January 8th, 2017.

22 ancient inscribed gold plates found in Java

September 12th, 2016


Construction workers in the Indonesian province of Central Java have unearthed 22 inscribed gold plates from the 8th century. The crew was digging for an aquifer project in the village of Ringinlarik when they came across a stone box in a rock pile. A small container at 14 centimeters (5.5 inches) long, 13.5 centimeters (5.3 inches) wide, and six centimeters (2.4 inches) high, the box was intact with its lid still on — one of the workers thought it looked like a jewelry box — and its contents apparently undisturbed.

Gutomo, an official with the Central Java Heritage Conservation Agency (BPCB) confirmed the gold found was 18 carats. Each plate has an inscription in ancient Javanese letters. The inscriptions are names of cardinal and ordinal directions of Dewa Lokapala’s wind Gods.

The inscriptions are names of cardinal and ordinal directions of Dewa Lokapala’s wind Gods.

“We recorded eight names of wind Gods. We have also declared the location as a heritage site,” Gutomo said.

Dewas, also known as devatas or dewatas, are minor Hindu deities that govern specific areas of nature and humanity. The Devata Lokapala are the Guardians of the Directions, overseers of the four cardinal points — Indra (east), Yama (south), Varuṇa (west) and Kubera (north) — and four ordinal points — Agni (southeast), Nirṛti (southwest), Vayu (northwest) and Īśāna (northeast). Javanese Hinduism includes a ninth member of the party, representing the center point, and calls them the Dewata Nawa Sanga, or Nine Guardian Gods.

The Guardians are often found painted or carved on the walls and ceilings in Hindu temples, but Java has an even stronger historical connection to these deities because they appear on the Surya Majapahit, a symbol associated with the great Majapahit Empire which ruled over what is now Indonesia from 1293 to 1500. (Old time readers might recall the wonderful Majapahit piggy banks made centuries before pigs became a popular home savings motif in the West.) The Surya Majapahit has been found carved on many Majapahit structures, enough that archaeologists believe it was an emblem of the empire. It’s an eight-pointed star representing the rays of the sun with the major Hindu deities in the circular center and the Guardians on the outer perimeter next to the rays that point in the cardinal or ordinal direction they guard. The plates predate the Majapahit Empire by at least five centuries so they’re not related, but they do attest to the regional significance of the deities.

It’s not clear on what grounds the gold plates have been provisionally dated to the 8th century, but one big clue is a discovery made at the same work site earlier this year: the remains of a candi, the Indonesian word for a stupa, a Hindu or Buddhist temple. The use of volcanic rock and the structure of the temple indicated to archaeologist that it was younger than the Candi Prambanan, a 9th century Hindu temple about 40 miles southwest of Ringinlarik. Metal plates inscribed with incantations and prayers were placed in containers and buried under the foundation of temples along with other offerings to bless the temple, so it’s highly probable these 22 plates were in place when construction on the candi began.

CBS This Morning to preview National Museum of African American History on Monday

September 11th, 2016

CBS This Morning will broadcast live from the Smithsonian’s new National Museum Of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) on Monday, September 12th. The much-anticipated and hard-won museum doesn’t officially open until September 24th and the crowds are certain to be enormous for the forseeable future, so this is a chance to get a preview tour of the museum, and a thorough one at that. Guests include museum director Lonnie Bunch, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Civil Rights icon Representative John Lewis, former Secretary of State General Colin Powell, historians and donors.

The 2-hour broadcast will be presented with limited commercial interruptions and feature interviews with lawmakers, historians, and curators who were part of bringing the museum to life.

Viewers will get a preview of the roughly 36,000 artifacts highlighting African American life, music, sports, and politics.

“It’s going to take you on a historical journey. They’re going to have a slave house. Slave ships. Emmett Till’s coffin. So you go from that, to the election of President Barack Obama all in one building,” said host Gayle King.

CBS This Morning streams live here. I don’t know if the full broadcast will be made available on the website after broadcast or if they’ll save it for CBS’ subscription streaming service.

The museum will be throwing a three-day music festival on the grounds of the Washington monument the weekend before the opening. Freedom Sounds: A Community Celebration features musicians from a panoply of African American musical traditions including jazz, gospel, R&B, brass band and hip-hop. The lineup includes Public Enemy, The Roots, Living Colour and Meshell Ndegeocello. The food concessions look to be scrumptious too.

Tickets to the National Museum Of African American History and Culture on grand opening weekend (September 24-25) are no longer available. Free timed passes were offered through ETIX, but they flew off the proverbial shelves. Because interest is so high and the crowds sure to be huge, the museum is continuing to issue timed passes through the end of the year to ensure visitors can enjoy the experience without being crushed and buffeted in the traffic. Starting Monday, September 26th, visitors can get a timed pass at the museum when they show up on the day, but of course they’ll have to wait until their allotted time, and that’s no guarantee they won’t have a long line to wait in or that they’ll be ushered in the doors precisely on schedule. Advanced passes for September and October released on September 6th, and have already all been snapped up. ETIX only has passes available now for November and December.

The NMAAHC’s website was redone recently and is excellent, with large swaths of its collection digitized. Very much worth a long, leisurely browse.

Unique 3rd c. epitaph of Jewish woman translated

September 10th, 2016

An Egyptian epitaph from the 3rd century A.D. has been recently translated revealing a unique combination of descriptors. The epitaph is part of a collection of Greek and Coptic artifacts in the University of Utah’s J. Willard Marriott Library. The collection was donated to the library in 1989 after the death of the collector, Doctor Aziz Suryal Atiya, an eminent Coptic historian who taught history at the University of Utah and founded the university’s Middle East Center in 1959. The Aziz S. Atiya Middle East Library, an internationally renown center for research in Middle Eastern history with the fifth largest collection in the United States, has hundreds of thousands of books, manuscripts and rare artifacts.

The inventory note for the epitaph described it as a “Coptic inscription, dating from the dawn of the use of the Greek alphabet, not earlier than the second century, but not later than the third.” The small limestone slab, seemingly unremarkable, was left untranslated for more than 25 years until it caught the eye of Brigham Young University adjunct professor of ancient scripture Lincoln H. Blumell. He realized the description was wrong, that the inscription was in ancient Greek, not in Coptic using Greek letters.

The inscription reads:

In peace and blessing Ama Helene, a Jew, who loves the orphans, [died]. For about 60 years her path was one of mercy and blessing; on it she prospered.

It’s the combination of the honorific “Ama,” a title used to describe Christian women, mainly nuns, in late ancient Egypt, with her Jewish identification that is unprecedented.

“I’ve looked at hundreds of ancient Jewish epitaphs,” Blumell said, “and there is nothing quite like this. This is a beautiful remembrance and tribute to this woman.” [...]

Considering the unique use of dual-faith identifiers and the timeframe alone, the epitaph is unique with no known parallels.

Additionally, Blumell notes there is even more to the inscription. Scholars have noted from other inscriptions that Egyptian women during this timeframe had a life expectancy of 25 years. To live 60 years, as noted in the inscription, was incredible. Also, during a time when any sort of social programs were unavailable to orphans, taking care of them was seen as a very noble pursuit. Serving the widows and orphans is a common call to action in the New Testament.

I had doubts about that life expectancy statistic. I thought it might be a misinterpretation of average life expectancy, an average which is extremely low in places and times when infant and child mortality was high. The average age of death skews far younger because so many children died young. Once people managed to survive to adulthood their real life expectancy was significantly higher. I was wrong. According to ancient census data from Egypt in the first three centuries A.D., fully 61% of women were dead by the age of 30. Men had it only slightly better with 59% dying before they hit their 30s. Helene was one of fewer than 6% of Egyptian women from this period who lived to see 60.

Blumell has published his findings in the forthcoming issue of the Journal for the Study of Judaism.

Long-disputed Grolier Codex is genuine

September 9th, 2016

A new study of the Grolier Codex, a pre-Hispanic book of Maya hieroglyphics whose authenticity has been in doubt since it first came to light under extremely shady circumstances in 1971, has determined that it is genuine and may even be the oldest of only four ancient American codices known to survive.

The earliest conclusively dated Maya text, painted on pyramid walls in San Bartolo, Guatemala, dates to 300 B.C., and since the writing system was well-developed by then, it goes back even further. There is evidence of Olmec writing and paper production from the first millennium B.C. Murals and carved reliefs are most of what remains today, even though for centuries Maya scribes recorded astronomical observations, histories, religious texts, mathematical calculations, calendars and much more on pages made of the inner bark of fig trees. The Spanish conquistadors were suspicious of what they didn’t understand, so naturally they destroyed it, sending the Maya’s long, rich literary tradition up in smoke.

Diego de Landa Calderón, future bishop of Yucatán, saw heresy and idolatry everywhere among the freshly converted and in their mysterious hieroglyphic texts. When he and his inquisitors weren’t torturing literally thousands of Maya nobles and commoners alike, they were burning their books.

We found a large number of books in these characters and, as they contained nothing in which were not to be seen as superstition and lies of the devil, we burned them all, which they (the Maya) regretted to an amazing degree, and which caused them much affliction.

He wasn’t alone in his zeal. On top of that, the Spanish occupiers outlawed the production of paper, ensuring that what was lost could not be easily recreated. A handful of Maya codices were sent to Europe as curiosities. Today three of them are extant: one in Dresden, one in Madrid and one in Paris.

In 1971, a previously unknown Maya codex was displayed at the Grolier Club in New York City. Eleven pages of fig bark paper, each stuccoed on both sides but painted only on one, had numerical and calendrical glyphs on the left side of every page and a single large illustration of a figure on the center right. The text describes the movements of Venus.

The codex was part of an exhibition curated by archaeologist Michael Coe who had a crazy story to tell about how he managed to get his hands on such an incredible rarity. A friend told him that Mexican collector Josué Sáenz had acquired what seemed to be a genuine Mayan codex in 1966. Coe went to Mexico City, met with Sáenz and examined the codex, ultimately finding it plausibly authentic. He asked the collector how he had found it and Sáenz told him quite the origin story.

Someone had contacted Sáenz, goes the tell, offering to sell him an ancient codex if he would fly to an unnamed destination to see it and tell nobody. So, accompanied by two men, he clambered into a tiny plane whose compass was covered with a cloth. This rudimentary device to hide the location failed because Sáenz recognized the destination as the foothills of the Sierra de Chiapas. (Blindfolds, people. Have TV and movie kidnappings taught us nothing?) There he was shown the codex, a wooden mask and a sacrificial knife the sellers claimed to have found in a dry cave somewhere undetermined. Even though his expert considered the codex and artifacts fakes, Sáenz went with his gut and bought them.

Eventually the Mexican government made a legal claim on the codex and Sáenz donated it to the nation. It has been kept at the National Museum in Mexico City ever since, out of public view for its own protection.

The only pre-Hispanic codex found in the 20th century, the discovery of one that survived the conflagration without having been shipped across the Atlantic was explosive, but immediately its authenticity was questioned, and indeed how could it not be when it sprang up out of nowhere courtesy of looters, and that’s assuming the cloak-and-dagger background story was accurate. There were anomalies in the document as well. The figures are drawn in Mixtec style with Toltec attire, and the numbering system is inconsistent. Also, none of the three confirmed authentic codices are painted only one side of the pages.

Radiocarbon dating of the bark paper found it was made around 1230, so it was definitely genuine, but it was always possible that looters had found blank pages and had someone draw something Mayanesque on them to make them saleable. Michael Coe published the results of his investigations into the codex in 1973 (pdf).

The debate has raged ever since. Now researchers, led by Brown University’s Stephen Houston, have reexamined everything about the codex in an attempt to answer all the questions raised about it.

The Grolier’s composition, from its 13th-century amatl paper, to the thin red sketch lines underlying the paintings and the Maya blue pigments used in them, are fully persuasive, the authors assert. Houston and his coauthors outline what a 20th century forger would have had to know or guess to create the Grolier, and the list is prohibitive: he or she would have to intuit the existence of and then perfectly render deities that had not been discovered in 1964, when any modern forgery would have to have been completed; correctly guess how to create Maya blue, which was not synthesized in a laboratory until Mexican conservation scientists did so in the 1980s; and have a wealth and range of resources at their fingertips that would, in some cases, require knowledge unavailable until recently. [...]

The codex is also, according to the paper’s authors, not a markedly beautiful book. “In my view, it isn’t a high-end production,” Houston said, “not one that would be used in the most literate royal court. The book is more closely focused on images and the meanings they convey.”

The Grolier Codex, the team argues, is also a “predetermined rather than observational” guide, meaning it declares what “should occur rather than what could be seen through the variable cloud cover of eastern Mesoamerica. With its span of 104 years, the Grolier would have been usable for at least three generations of calendar priest or day-keeper,” the authors write.

That places the Grolier in a different tradition than the Dresden Codex, which is known for its elaborate notations and calculations, and makes the Grolier suitable for a particular kind of readership, one of moderately high literacy. It may also have served an ethnically and linguistically mixed group, in part Maya, in part linked to the Toltec civilization centered on the ancient city of Tula in Central Mexico.

The study has been published in the journal Maya Archaeology. It includes a facsimile of the entire codex.

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