The oldest book from the Americas?

I read an article today about the Grolier Codex, a collection of pages from a 13th century AD Mayan book that has had a speckled history in scholarship. It was long thought to be a fake, but over the years a team led by Professor David Coe at Yale has demonstrated the document’s authenticity.


You can read a much fuller account at Yale News HERE. A shorter piece was also published by the Smithsonian last September HERE.



The pages of the Grolier Codex. © Justin Kerr, see HERE.


‘Codex’ is a word used to describe an early, hand-written book, with pages made from any of a range of different perishable materials (e.g. papyrus or vellum). In the case of the Grolier Codex, the pages are made from bark paper, and each one was coated with stucco before being painted on. The paint used is one of the features that strongly suggests its authenticity, because it contains pigments that were used by ancient Mayans and that could not have been replicated in the 1960s when the document was found.



Page 6 of the Grolier Codex.© Justin Kerr, see HERE.


It is an unfortunate fact that the codex was found not by a team of archaeologists, who would have been able to record its location and context, but by looters who came across it in a cave in Mexico and then sold it to a Mexican collector called Josué Sáenz. This is a factor that made it all the easier to argue that the manuscript might have been a fake, since its original context could not be verified. Luckily, however, Professor Coe and his colleagues have been able to show via a range of analytical methods that, despite the circumstances of its discovery, we have many reasons to believe that the codex is real.



Page 11 of the Grolier Codex. © Justin Kerr, see HERE.


This makes the Grolier Codex the oldest known example of its kind, and one of only four Mayan codices to have been discovered. The other three (the Dresden Codex, the Madrid Codex and the Paris Codex) are rather more elaborate and were clearly executed by skilled artists. The Grolier Codex, on the other hand, is a little different from the others.



Page 4 of the Grolier Codex.© Justin Kerr, see HERE.


Most noticeably, whoever drew the glyphs on the surviving pages has made sketches first and then painted over them. But the artist did not follow the sketch-lines perfectly when painting the final versions of the glyphs, and did not remove the sketch-lines afterwards. To a modern eye at least, this makes the drawings look relatively amateurish, especially compared with the more elaborate decoration of the other three surviving codices.



Page 5 of the Grolier Codex.© Justin Kerr, see HERE.


The sketch-lines were one of the arguments used by those convinced the Grolier Codex was a fake. But this doesn’t seem very convincing. For one thing, why would a modern forger include such ‘imperfections’ if he/she wanted to make the document look authentic? And there are lots of possible reasons why a real ancient document could include what we might think of as imperfections today. The Grolier Codex is perhaps 100-200 years older than the other surviving Mayan codices, and it is perfectly possible that techniques changed over the years, or that when it was made there were other influences on its creation (for example Mixtec codices, some of which had quite similar drawings). Another possibility is that the artist of the Grolier Codex was not as skilled as the artists of the other Mayan codices – but ‘skill’ is difficult to quantify when we have so little information about the context in which such documents were used, displayed or consulted. Perhaps artistic perfection, or a ‘finished’ quality, was less of a concern to the author than eventually achieving precision in the representations, for example.



Page 3 of the Grolier Codex.© Justin Kerr, see HERE.


Can we really fault the artist on his/her ‘skill’ after creating such intricate images? The figures in the above picture of the third page, for example, seem to me a considerable achievement in representing human facial expressions. And despite the very pictorial nature of the glyphs, we have to remember that this is writing as well as art: conveying a message successfully is another achievement of the artist. Although we do not have very many surviving pages, we know that the codex is intended to give some sort of information about the Mayan calendar, with glyphs representing days and numerals that seem to refer to the movement of the planet Venus in the sky.


I hope you have enjoyed another foray into the world of Mayan writing. Although not geographically or chronologically close to the writing systems we are working on at the CREWS project, we have touched on some important themes here that are relevant to the study of any ancient document: context and content, analysing authenticity, techniques and ‘skill’ of execution and the relationship between writing and art, among others.


~ Pippa Steele (Principal Investigator of the CREWS project)

Talking objects


In Ancient Greece people would write on almost any kind of object. For example, votes to send a politician to exile for 10 years were written on pottery sherds! This practice of the Athenian democracy was called ostracism because the name for “sherds” in Ancient Greek is ὄστρακα (ostraka).



Fragments of ceramic with votes for ostracism. Picture taken by the author: Agora Museum, Athens.


But often the text inscribed on these objects was composed in the first person, so that the object talks to the reader. These texts were even more effective in Antiquity, as ancient sources suggest that reading was always done out loud (silent reading was not practised until Late Antiquity!). The result was that the object was actually speaking through the reader, who would say, for example, “I was dedicated by [name]”. So try to read out loud the following inscriptions, as an ancient Greek would do.



Tataie’s aryballos ©Trustees of the British Museum.


We have many examples of objects claiming to have an owner. One of my favourites is this one, which also curses whoever dares to steal the vase: I am Tataie’s lekythos, may he who steals me go blind. (I feel especially attached to this one because they asked me to read it in the interview to become a member of the CREWS project).



Text of the inscription. From LSAG pl.47.


But even more interesting are the talking statues. The most famous are those of Nikandre and Mantiklos. Both of them are dedications to the gods and in their inscriptions the statues tell us who dedicated them and to whom.


A cast of Nikandre’s statue can be found in the Museum of Classical Archaeology at the Cambridge Faculty of Classics (just outside the door of the CREWS office!). We invite you to come to see it and find the inscription on one of its sides, where we can read: Nikandre daughter of Deinodikos the Naxian outstanding amongst women, sister of Deinomenes and now wife of Phraxos, dedicated me to the far-shooting archeress.



Original statue at the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.


Text of the inscription.


The other statuette has an amazingly small inscription on its legs that says: Mantiklos dedicated me to the far-shooter, silver-bowed god, as a tithe. Phoibos, provide charis in return!



Picture from the Museum of Fine Arts of Boston



Text of the inscription. From LSAG pl.7.


There are many other talking objects like these ones. Feel free to share any of them! You can get in touch with us via Twitter (@crewsproject) or via email to


~ Natalia Elvira Astoreca (CREWS PhD student)