13th Century Maya Codex, Long Shrouded in Controversy, Proves Genuine
Brown University’s Stephen Houston and a team of leading researchers in anthropology and Maya archeology methodically verify the authenticity of the oldest known manuscript in ancient America.
PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] —The Grolier Codex, an ancient document that is among the rarest books in the world, has been regarded with skepticism since it was reportedly unearthed by looters from a cave in Chiapas, Mexico, in the 1960s.
But a meticulous new study of the codex has yielded a startling conclusion: The codex is both genuine and likely the most ancient of all surviving manuscripts from ancient America.
Stephen Houston, the Dupee Family Professor of Social Science and co-director of the Program in Early Cultures at Brown University, worked with Michael Coe, professor emeritus of archeology and anthropology at Harvard and leader of the research team, along with Mary Miller of Yale and Karl Taube of the University of California-Riverside. They reviewed “all known research on the manuscript,” analyzing it “without regard to the politics, academic and otherwise, that have enveloped the Grolier,” the team wrote in its study “The Fourth Maya Codex.”
The paper, published in the journal Maya Archaeology, fills a special section of the publication and includes a lavish facsimile of the codex.
The study, Houston said, “is a confirmation that the manuscript, counter to some claims, is quite real. The manuscript was sitting unremarked in a basement of the National Museum in Mexico City, and its history is cloaked in great drama. It was found in a cave in Mexico, and a wealthy Mexican collector, Josué Sáenz, had sent it abroad before its eventual return to the Mexican authorities.”
Controversial from the outset
For years, academics and specialists have argued about the legitimacy of the Grolier Codex, a legacy the authors trace in the paper. Some asserted that it must have been a forgery, speculating that modern forgers had enough knowledge of Maya writing and materials to create a fake codex at the time the Grolier came to light.
Grolier Codex, Page 5 ( mayavase.com)
The codex was reportedly found in the cave with a cache of six other items, including a small wooden mask and a sacrificial knife with a handle shaped like a clenched fist, the authors write. They add that although all the objects found with the codex have been proven authentic, the fact that looters, rather than archeologists, found the artifacts made specialists in the field reluctant to accept that the document was genuine.
Some ridiculed as fantastical Sáenz’s account of being contacted about the codex by two looters who took him—in an airplane whose compass was hidden from view by a cloth—to a remote airstrip near Tortuguero, Mexico, to show him their discovery.
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And there were questions, the authors note, about Sáenz’s actions once he possessed the codex. Why did he ship it to the United States, where it was displayed in the spring of 1971 at New York City’s Grolier Club, the private club and society of bibliophiles that gives the codex its name, rather than keep it in Mexico? As for the manuscript itself, it differed from authenticated codices in several marked ways, including its relative lack of hieroglyphic text and the prominence of its illustrations.
The Codex was first displayed at the Grolier Club in New York, hence its name. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
“It became a kind of dogma that this was a fake,” Houston continued. “We decided to return and look at it very carefully, to check criticisms one at a time. Now we are issuing a definitive facsimile of the book. There can’t be the slightest doubt that the Grolier is genuine.”
Houston and his co-authors analyzed the origins of the manuscript, the nature of its style and iconography, the nature and meaning of its Venus tables, scientific data — including carbon dating — of the manuscript, and the craftsmanship of the codex, from the way the paper was made to the known practices of Maya painters.
Over the course of a 50-page analysis, the authors take up the questions and criticisms leveled by scholars over the last 45 years and describes how the Grolier Codex differs from the three other known ancient Maya manuscripts but nonetheless joins their ranks.
The captive on page 9 of the Grolier Codex. ( Public Domain )