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Experts in Mexico Finally Declare the Grolier Codex is the Real Deal

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Mexico's National Institute of History and Anthropology has announced that a controversial document, previously known as the “Grolier Codex”, is authentic. After years of scrutiny, they have finally declared the Grolier Codex to be a genuine ancient Maya calendar-style book made from tree bark and dating from the 10 th to the 11 th century AD. This makes the work the oldest known document to have survived from the Maya civilization. The book is helping researchers to have a better understanding of Maya art, literature, and worldview.

The Grolier Codex

The document or codex, a form of a book common in pre-Hispanic America, is incomplete. There are only ten pages of the codex left, although originally it may have had double that amount.  Each page of the codex has a complex series of syllabic glyphs on one side and a stylised image usually of a Maya god on the reverse side. The details it conveys are astrological observations and predictions. It is believed that it was recovered from a cave in Chiapas State, by looters and it was initially sold to a private collector who displayed it in New York, before it was returned to Mexico in 1974. 

Detail of Grolier codex manuscript page 4. (Public Domain)

Detail of Grolier codex manuscript page 4. ( Public Domain )

The Authenticity Dispute

The document has been the subject of intense debate among experts on Maya culture and art. There are those who disputed its authenticity and those who claimed it to be genuine.  The dispute was important because, if real, the codex is only one of four books to have survived from the Maya period. This was because the Spanish Conquistadors and Christian missionaries destroyed any codices that they could find.

Experts at Mexico’s National Institute of History and Anthropology, along with other researchers were trying to establish if the codex was genuine for many years. According to CBC News ‘the fact that it was looted and had a simpler design than other surviving texts had led some to doubt its authenticity’. Then there was the argument offered by many Maya specialists that the style did not indicate that it was genuine and point to the poor quality of the drawings especially its lack of colors and detail.  The other objection to the authenticity of the codex is that the pages do not show much damage from insects, something unusual in a tropical climate.

This replica of the ‘Madrid codex’ (circa around 1400) offers some comparison of deterioration.  (CC BY-SA 3.0)

This replica of the ‘Madrid codex’ (circa around 1400) offers some comparison of deterioration.  (CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Tests on the Codex

In order to determine if the codex was genuine, the Mexican Institute that holds the book allowed chemical tests to be carried out on the document.  A number of chemical tests proved the genuineness of the bark-pages and that the glyphs and images are in an ink that predates the Spanish conquest. With this data, the scientists proved that the book was made sometime between ‘1021 and 1154 AD’ reports NBC News , making it the oldest document that survives from Maya times.

Image attributed to Miguel Gonzalez of Hernan Cortes scuttling his fleet off the Veracruz coast. On display at the Naval History Museum in Mexico City. (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Image attributed to Miguel Gonzalez of Hernan Cortes scuttling his fleet off the Veracruz coast. On display at the Naval History Museum in Mexico City. ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Those who rejected the book on the grounds that it was inferior to other surviving Maya codices were incorrect. The Daily Mail reports that Sofia Martinez del Campo a researcher at the Institute has stated that the book had been created in an era of relative poverty compared to the other works and this explains the austerity of the images and glyphs. At the time the codex was being made the Maya world had entered a period of decline. Experts from the Mexican Institute also believe that the document was kept sealed in a container and this explains why it was not damaged by insects.

The new testing is thus in agreement with an academic analysis published 2 years ago by a team from Brown University in the USA that claimed to have verified the document as genuine.

The significance of the codex

The chemical tests prove conclusively that the book was Maya despite stylistic differences from other surviving codices. It also shows us that the style of the codices varied, and this was likely due to the availability of resources. The book will now allow experts to better understand the astrological knowledge of the Maya and how it informed their religion and prophecies. Now it is accepted as genuine, it will be referred to as the Mexico Maya Codex, as it is rightly kept in Mexico, where it was found.

Top image:  Left; Grolier Codex, Page 4. Right; Grolier Codex, Page 7.        Source: Left; Public Domain   Right; Public Domain

By Ed Whelan

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