Mayan Codices

Mayan codices are folding books from the ancient Mesoamerican civilization that are filled with both pictures and writing. This ancient language was similar to the hieroglyphs of Ancient Egypt; Mayan glyphs were written on paper made from the inner bark of certain trees for these books. Written by professional scribes, the codices that survived have been named after the cities where they eventually settled after being recovered by archaeologists. The most famous example is the Dresden Codex, which is one of the most important examples to have survived. Maya hieroglyphic writing is also found beyond books in art and sculpture.

Mayan script has been deciphered by scholars and historians to reveal many interesting facts. The earliest examples of texts of the Maya date back to the third century BC and were found in present-day Guatemala. Today, about 90 percent of Mayan glyphs can be read by scholars with a strong level of certainty. Maya hieroglyphic writing appeared in many places: painted on ceramics and walls, carved into stone and wood, or molded into stucco. Due to the humidity of the region, paintings on ceramics and walls didn’t survive well, and similarly, wood sculptures didn’t last. Writing that was carved into stone or molded into stucco has allowed scholars to decipher clues about the religion and daily life of the Mayans.

Mayan codices are another medium for writings of this period. These books were very numerous during the time of the Spanish conquest during the sixteenth century. The Spanish church decided to destroy all of these books, and with their destruction, a great deal of information was lost. While many sculptures survive to the present day, it is much more likely that Mayan codices contained details about mythology, history, and daily life that isn’t covered anywhere else. Only three codices, as well as a fragment of a fourth, have survived into modern times. These excellent examples of Mayan glyphs are the Madrid Codex, the Dresden Codex, the Paris Codex, and the partial Grolier Codex.

The Dresden Codex is the most elaborate of the group, and is held at the state library in Dresden, Germany. It is written on a long sheet of paper that is folded to make 39 leaves. Notable as a very important piece of Mayan art, this codex also contains details about rituals and astrology. Written just before the Spanish conquest, some consider it to be a miracle that such a detailed example of Maya hieroglyphic writing survived the colonial period. Details about the Maya calendar are also contained in the Dresden Codex.

The Paris Codex shares characteristics with the books of Chilam Balam. Details on the Maya Zodiac are revealed on these pages. The Madrid Codex is the least artistic of the three, but it is the work of one scribe and contains an incredible variety of information on its 112 pages. The Grolier Codex was only discovered in the 1970s (the others were found in the nineteenth century) and was found in a cave. It is currently in a museum in Mexico, though it is not on display. As a result of these examples of Mayan script, and of the more common examples of writing in sculpture that can be seen at Mayan ruins, we now have a rich variety of information about a fascinating ancient civilization.

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