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

Images of Portions from the four Maya Codices


Perhaps the most frequently used editions of the Dresden, Madrid, and Paris Codices are the drawings in J. Antonio Villacorta's and Carlos A. Villacorta's "Códices Mayas", which was published in 1930-1933 and 1976-1977 in Guatemala. These were drawn freehand by Carlos A. Villacorta, and though these drawings have received much praise for their remarkable accuracy throughout such an enormous number of pages (a little more than 200), I believe that the study of Maya glyphs has reached such a level now that the use of the Villacorta and Villacorta renditions should have become out-dated. Small drawing errors can now result in larger misunderstandings of the glyphs, both in the stems and in the grammar of the words written. My harsh judgment is probably a minority opinion, however, and the Villacorta drawings probably remain the most frequently used renditions by those who write papers about the codices. The Villacorta drawings do print well for use in these papers, and they are easy to use. But I feel one can see more, and more accurately, using the photos.

The Villacorta drawings have been some of the most accessible renditions. A reprinting of the Villacorta Dresden is available from the Aegean Park Press (P.O. Box 2837, Laguna Hills, California 92654). (No date is given for its publication; perhaps it was around 1992). A corrected or revamped version of the Villacorta Dresden appears with the Graz Dresden (1975).

Much work remains to be done in understanding the Maya Codices. The texts are often quite short, and thus appear almost cryptic. Briefly, the codices we now have describe astronomy, almanacs, New Year ceremonies, and prophecies, but I think the understanding of the passages in the codices, at least until very recently, has not advanced as far as our understanding of the content of Maya monuments. This is a bit ironic, since so many of the first inroads to our understanding of the glyphs stemmed from the calendrical passages of the codices. (There is something universal about the language of mathematics).

In writing this quick over-view of the Maya Codices and their copies (whether in facsimile or book form), I leaned heavily on the following sources:

Cooper, Roger J., (Notes provided to me on): "The Dresden Codex", "The Madrid Codex", "The Paris Codex", "The Grolier Codex", no date given, but around 1995.

Gates, William E., "The Dresden Codex", booklet with the The Dresden Codex, The Maya Society, Baltimore, Maryland, 1932. Available, with a copy of Gates's rendition of the Dresden Codex, at:

Larned, J. N., editor, "Libraries: France: The Bibliothèque Nationale", in History for Ready Reference, from the Best Historians, Biographers, and Specialists, vol. 3 (pp. 2010-2012), The C. A. Nichols Co., Springfield, Mass.
(This is an article that includes information on the history of the Bibliothèque nationale de France). Vol. 3 is accessible at:

Porter, James B., "The Paris Screenfold", archived illustrations of some Paris pages still exist here:

Stuart, George E., "Introduction" in Bruce Love, The Paris Codex: Handbook for a Maya Priest, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1994.

Stuart, George E., "Quest for Decipherment: A Historical and Biographical Survey of Maya Hieroglyphic Investigation" in Danien, Elin C., and Robert J Sharer, Editors: New Theories on the Ancient Maya, University Museum Monograph 77, The University Museum, Philadelphia, 1992.

Stuart, George E., (Review): "Los Codices Mayas" in Archaeoastronomy, Volume IX (1-4), pp. 164-176, College Park, Maryland, 1986.

Vail, Gabrielle, and Christine Hernández, 2005-2011 "The Maya Codices Database", Versions 2.0 and 3.0; the version 3.0 website and database is available at

In addition, an excellent and detailed summary of the known histories of the codices is given in: Bricker, Harvey M. and Victoria R. Bricker, Astronomy in the Maya Codices, Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society, volume 265, American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, 2011, pp 3-28.

FAMSI is most appreciative of Randa’s historical review of the four Maya Codices. Viewers are invited to contact Randa Marhenke by e-mail:

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