The Oldest Book from the Americas

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Oldest Book from the Americas

The Dresden Codex

"The height of Maya civilization in what are now parts of Central America and Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula lasted for most of the first millennium CE, and elements of Maya culture survived until the arrival of Europeans in the early sixteenth century.

Among the greatest accomplishments of the Maya was the development of highly sophisticated mathematical and astronomical systems, both of which played an important role in their religious beliefs and practices." [source]
The Dresden Codex (named for the city where it is housed) is a fig bark paper manuscript in concertina style, produced around the beginning of the 13th century (a contentious point). The seventy-four pages are sewn together producing an eleven foot long document which was originally folded up between protective wooden covers bearing engraved jaguars. As the most complete of the few remaining Maya manuscripts, it is a comprehensive source for Maya calendar and astronomy systems and an aid to glyph interpretation in the wider iconography of the Maya culture.
"The Dresden Codex was written by eight different scribes using both sides. They all had their own particular writing style, glyphs and subject matter. [..] Its images were painted with extraordinary clarity using very fine brushes. The basic colors used from vegetable dyes for the codex were red, black and the so-called Mayan blue." [source]

11th century Mayan codex pictographs

Introduction - Invocation of the gods; preparation of prophecies
The Grand Deluge

Mayan codex - Tables for the Planet Jupiter

Tables for the Planet Jupiter
(another version of that page on the right can be seen at wikimedia)

Mayan codex - Table for the Planet Mars

Tables for the Planet Mars

Mayan codex - Serpent numbers; the columns of the universe; manifestations of the Rain God

Serpent numbers; the columns of the universe; manifestations of the Rain God

11th century Mayan codex Dresden - Rituals at the beginning of the New Year

Rituals at the beginning of the New Year

Mayan pictographs - Dresden Codex

Food offerings to the Rain God

Food offerings to the Rain God - Codex Dresden

Food offerings to the Rain God

Mayan codex - Food offerings to the Rain God

Food offerings to the Rain God

mayan codex - eclipse tables

Eclipse tables

Mayan codex Dresden - The Moon Goddess; illness and birth

The Moon Goddess; illness and birth

The Dresden codex is believed to be a copy of an original text that was composed between about 700 to 900 AD, prompting some historians to assert that it's the earliest known book from the Americas. The surviving copy may have been one of a number of pre-Columbian works sent to Europe by Hernán Cortés in 1519. It first surfaces in recorded history in 1739 when it was purchased from a private collection in Vienna by the (then) Royal Library of Dresden (now: Sächsische Landesbibliothek).

The manuscript has been published in various facsimile and reproduction formats beginning with Alexander von Humboldt's inclusion of a few codex pages in one of his books in the early 1800s. During the bombing of Dresden in WW2 the manuscript suffered water damage but it has since been restored. Although a couple of versions of the Dresden Codex have been online for some time, they are - as far as I can tell - interpretive reproductions or doctored photographic facsimiles and the image quality varies. So it's good to see that the Dresden Library last month uploaded (fairly) high resolution unaltered images of all the pages from the codex.

The dual-page and detail images below are from the 1933 Gates reproduction (of variable accuracy, so it is said) of the Dresden Codex. They came from a large MesoAmerican manuscript BitTorrent file downloaded ages ago (thanks Tia!) but I'm fairly certain they are actually extracted/compiled from the FAMSI site, as noted above.

dresden codex pictogram (1932 reproduction)

11th century Mayan codex reproduction

1932 reproduction of Mayan codex

Mayan pictograph

Mayan pictograph

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