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Students Unfold the Past: Exploring Early Mexican Records

By BTL on February 23, 2016 7:48 AM | Permalink

Only about two dozen pre-Columbian Mesoamerican manuscripts created by the Mixtec, Mayan, and Aztec cultures before and during the 15th and 16th century have survived to be studied today. Often referred to as codices, these screenfolds (long strips of deer leather, cotton cloth, or bark) fold concertina-style, with colorful images on one or both sides and record a wide range of cultural information. While their images have been reproduced in books or are available online, there is no substitute for the experience of handling facsimiles of these original documents. In 2013, UNLV University Libraries purchased several faithfully crafted facsimiles of Mesoamerican codices from the pre-colonial and early colonial periods, enabling our users to experience unfolding and examining the sequences of images. 

Fine arts librarian Kate Lambaria uses her familiarity with these resources to collaborate with History professor Miriam Melton-Villanueva to expose students to these records. Melton-Villanueva notes that, even without any special training reading a codex, her students can pick out patterns and themes, making connections that would be easy to overlook on a screen. Like an online slideshow, the accordion-folded groups of images are meant to be handled. The Codex Borgia, for example, is made of animal skins covered with a white plaster-like foundation on which the figures were painted; it folds into 39 square, 11x11 inch sheets, for a total length of nearly 35 feet. Working with the physical document calls attention to the mathematical ratios and cyclic calendar elements that were significant to the cultures of the region. “These were meant for a literate society. Historians from Aztec and Mixtec cultures, who can’t speak each other’s languages, can read each other’s books!” explains Melton-Villanueva. 

The records kept on the codices vary widely. For example, the Codex Magliabechiano contains details of the culture’s calendar, monthly feasts, and cosmological beliefs, and includes annotations in Spanish made by the indigenous notaries--a clear indication of colonial influence brought by increased contact with the Europeans. Other facsimile codices reproduce records of monarchs and genealogical information, narratives of travel and trade within Mexico, and details of daily living in the 15th and 16th centuries. Whether they are being used to study methods of communication, record-keeping practices, Aztec divination, colonial influences or artistic expression, the facsimiles make an impression on everyone who encounters them.

For more information on the codices, contact fine arts librarian Kate Lambaria.