As the Mayan civilization was in decline, a diligent scribe was working on the oldest book created in the Americas: the Grolier Codex.
The Grolier Codex sometimes referred to as the “Sáenz Codex” or the “Maya Codex of Mexico” is a screenfold book fashioned from bark paper, coated with stucco on both sides and painted on one side. Ten painted pages survive of a twenty-page book; formerly there were judged to be eleven pages but two fragments are now considered to come from the same page.
The lower portions of the pages are badly damaged by moisture, eroding and staining bottom of each page. The greatest height of any of the surviving page fragments is 18 centimetres (7.1 in) and the average page width is 12.5 centimetres (4.9 in).
Several of the pages (pages 4–6) are still attached to each other, The lost pages would have been the first eight and the last two.
Five single sheets of bark paper were found associated with the codex, they had no stucco coating and were brown and water stained. Two of these had adhered to the codex and the other three may have once been with the codex but had separated. One of these sheets had a painted line in the same red hematite pigment used in the codex itself.
A smaller sheet of bark paper was attached to the lined sheet and this smaller piece was submitted for radiocarbon dating. This testing produced a date for the sheet of AD 1230 ± 130; this would date the document to the end of the Early Postclassic period (c. 950–1200) and would make the codex the oldest known surviving Mesoamerican codex.
The lack of incrustations or insect damage to the codex suggests that, if genuine, it was stored inside a container for hundreds of years. The overall damaged state of the codex conflicts with the good preservation of surviving parts; it may be that the damaged codex was deliberately decommissioned as a ritual object, rather than being simply discarded
The book, which contains personified images of the sun, death, and other deities—all working in service of the “star” Venus—is a guide to astronomy. For a long time, experts believed it was fake.
But in a surprise twist, researchers are now saying that this 900-year-old book is the real thing after all. Unlike three other Maya Codex finds, it had writing on only one side of each of its 10 pages. Plus, some of the pages appear to have been cut relatively recently.
There are odd discrepancies in the book’s calendar system, hinting that a forger might have been trying to imitate a calendar he saw in another Maya artifact. The drawings are also unusual for a Maya document, combining styles of the Mesoamerican Mixtec people with Toltec attire.
The Toltec were often hailed by the Aztecs as ancestors, and their art shares many similarities with late Maya art. Though carbon dating placed the Codex’s bark pages during the late Maya period, it was not unknown for looters to find blank pages in ancient Maya caches and cover them in fake hieroglyphs to make them more valuable.
But in the latest issue of Maya Archaeology , Stephen Houston of Brown University revisits the codex and determines that it’s real. The calendar discrepancies, he says, can be explained by regional or temporal variations in mythology of Venus, the movements of which this 104-year-long calendar predicts. In addition, no modern pigments are displayed on the codex, and the sharp cuts appear to be breaks in gypsum plaster—not markers of modern carpentry.
The codex was also found alongside other items that have been verified as authentic, and the format doesn’t differ from sketch and grid lines seen in Mayan murals. Lastly, the some of the images in the codex are of deities unknown to modern scientists at the time of its discovery—making it impossible for anyone to have fabricated it. All signs point to its legitimacy.
The codex is said to have been found enclosed in a wooden box in a dry cave in the highlands of Chiapas near Tortuguero. it was said to have been found with a turquoise mask that is now in the collection of Dumbarton Oaks.
In 1965 Mexican collector Dr. Josué Sáenz was taken by two men on a light plane to a remote airstrip in the foothills of the Sierra Madre near Tortuguero, the compass of the plane was covered with a cloth but Sáenz recognized his approximate location. At the airstrip he was shown the codex along with some other looted Maya artifacts and was told that he could take the items back to Mexico City for authentication before purchasing them.
The antiquities expert that Sáenz consulted declared that the artifacts were fakes but Sáenz later purchased the codex and permitted Michael Coe to display the codex at the Grolier Club in 1971.
In 1976, the “United States-Mexico Artifacts Treaty of 1970” was invoked by the Attorney General of Mexico. This resulted in the seizure of the codex and its return to Mexico.
Sáenz donated the codex to the Mexican government and it is currently kept in a vault in the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City and is not on public display.
The claimed discovery of the Grolier Codex would make it the only pre-Columbian codex discovered in the course of the 20th century, except for some codex fragments excavated by archaeologists.
It’s another example of ancient writings come to life , the oldest on our continent. Other documents previously presumed to be inauthentic could need reexamination—in which case, we may (and almost certainly do) have a lot to learn about our past.
The Yucatan Times