Image - Maya Scribe With Codex - K5768 - Photo © Justin Kerr MAYA HIEROGLYPHIC WRITING
The Ancient Maya Codices

Images from pages of the four Maya Codices


The word "codex" refers to a manuscript volume. The name derives etymologically from the Latin "caudex" meaning trunk of a tree, wooden tablet, book, code of laws (Oxford English Dictionary, CD-ROM version 3.0, 2002). The term has been applied to Mesoamerican hand-written books. There are four (or three) Maya Codices, or fragments of Maya Codices, that are extant in somewhat readable form. They are commonly called the Dresden, the Madrid and the Paris Codices (named for the cities where they are currently kept), and the Grolier (named for the Grolier Club of New York City, where it was first exhibited). There are still some Mayanists who dispute whether the Grolier is real or fake; hence the statement "there are four (or three) Maya Codices…"

For years the codices were thought to have been made from maguey fiber, but in 1910, R. Schwede studied the codices more thoroughly, and determined that they were made from a process using the inner bark of fig trees. This was then treated with a lime or lime-like coating on the surface, which surface was then written on by ink, with brushes. The black ink was carbon-black from soot, reds were made from hematite (iron oxide), and lovely bright blues, greens and yellows were also present. The codices were written on long strips of this paper, and folded in accordion style. The codex pages are roughly 4 by 9 inches (or 10 by 23 cm) in dimension.


To have only a meager four codices to work with seems very sad indeed, and sad it is. But it is also lucky that these four were able to escape the ravages of the damp climate of much of Central America, the 16th century purposeful European destruction of the so-called “works of the Devil”, the later European neglect, and the further damages during WWII. The codices that ended up in Europe seem to have arrived there as part of the "Royal Fifth" to Spain, and/or as souvenirs. Since the Spanish royal family had ties throughout Europe, especially with Austria, it is not surprising that the Dresden Codex, for instance, spent some time in Vienna. What with various sales, etc., three of the Maya Codices have ended up in Madrid, Dresden, and Paris. The tale of the Grolier Codex is quite different, having been "discovered" in 1965, in Mexico.

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