A new study claims to have validated a fourth Mayan codex that escaped the Spanish efforts to destroy all evidence of written language in the Americas. The purposeful destruction of the evidence happened very early in the colonization process, so within a few generations Indian writing was commonly thought not to exist because the colonists all “knew” that the primitive inhabitants of the Americas could not possibly have used written language.
Part of the reason for ignorance of Indian writings was purposeful destruction, but there was another part that may have been less purposeful, but was no less real. Centers of learning that supported a class of scholars or priests with a reliable agricultural surplus were particularly vulnerable to the new and deadly diseases that arrived with the settlers. It was for this reason that the people who directly produced the writings perished at the same time as the writings.
A few scholars among the settlers got their heads around wampum belts functioning as memory cues for North American tribes. Even fewer studied the quipu, the string writing used in the Incan Empire.
The recognized authority on Incan writing is Gary Urton of Harvard. Urton’s work has gone farther than anyone toward showing that the Incas encoded words as well as numbers. He was somewhat hampered by the fact that the Spanish were able to destroy all but about 600 quipu.
As the Spanish destroyed evidence of Incan writing, they were also celebrating the Mayan language in its written form by burning all of the Mayan books—codices—leaving only three known examples of Mayan writing on the planet outside of glyphs on public buildings and odd pages preserved here and there without context to help decipher them.
The three codices that escaped the Spanish bonfires are known by the European cities where they stayed closely guarded in museums: Dresden, Paris, and Madrid. Some pages of a fourth Mayan book were supposedly discovered in 1965 and put on public display in 1971, but the story was a clinic in what can go wrong when relics are plundered for sale to collectors.
The Indiana Jones wannabes who cater to wealthy dilettantes are disparagingly called “pothunters” by the scientists who have to play cat and mouse with them, but pots are the least of what they harm.
“They are like cockroaches,” a Mexican archaeologist told me. “It’s not so much what they carry off as what they fall into and mess up.”
The more unusual an antiquity is, the more valuable it is to those who loot Indian ruins for profit. Unfortunately, the more unusual it is from the scientific point of view, the more important it becomes to document the provenance with precision.
A previously unknown cultural artifact can yield more knowledge if it is associated with known cultural artifacts. Sometimes, an artifact cannot be dated, but if it was found with something that can be dated and the finder does not move it before the position can be documented, there is a better chance of dating it.
The story of the fourth codex goes that in 1965, pothunters contacted a gentleman collector, Dr. Josué Sáenz, and told him they had located a Mayan codex they would be interested in selling. Dr. Sáenz was flown in a light civilian aircraft to a landing strip somewhere in the Mexican state of Tabasco. The compass on the plane was covered during the flight.
The codex, he was told, was found in a dry cave with a collection of other artifacts, all appearing to be Mayan. Dr. Sáenz talked the finders into allowing him to take the artifacts to Mexico City for authentication. The expert Sáenz consulted opined that the codex was a fake, but Sáenz bought it anyway.
In 1971, Sáenz allowed the codex to be put on pubic display at the Grolier Club in New York City, and from that time it was commonly known as the “Grolier Codex.” The bark paper of the codex does date from the 13th century, C.E., but debate raged over whether it was a modern forgery using old materials. At least 10 articles lined up on both sides of the issue.
The best you could say was that the evidence was mixed, with mainstream Mayan scholars on both sides. From the Grolier Club, the codex was repatriated to the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City based on a Mexican law that probably would not apply unless it was real. It was not kept on public display, but the Foundation for the Advancement of Meso-American Studies made PDFs of the Grolier Codex, available here.
In December of 2015, a cross-disciplinary group of Mayan scholars published the most extensive investigation of the Grolier Codex ever conducted in a dedicated issue of Maya Archaeology. The team put all of their technological tools to work to the end of finding something modern in the paint on the codex. After their best efforts to debunk the codex, the consensus date they endorsed was 1230, C.E.
The study made big waves, and by the time it started hitting popular science publications six months later, most of the writers were predicting a new scientific consensus. On September 15, The Smithsonian took that position. After all these years of the three surviving codices being held in Europe, the one just authenticated is in Mexico City, where Maya might actually have an opportunity to see it other than online.
The Spanish effort to erase Mayan culture—even abetted by pothunters confusing the evidence—was never perfectly successful. There are more than seven million Maya living today. Most of the educated class died, but the Maya retain their peoplehood.