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Redating the Madrid Codex Volume 52 Number 1, January/February 1999
by Angela M.H. Schuster

[image] Madrid Codex folio 56 with Latin text (Michael D. Coe) [LARGER IMAGE]

European paper embedded in a page of the Madrid Codex, a Maya document once thought to be of Precolumbian date, may prove that it was made after the Spanish arrival in the New World, according to Yale University archaeologist Michael D. Coe. The document is one of four surviving Maya codices, the others being the Dresden, Grolier, and Paris codices. Like the Dresden, the Madrid contains descriptions of the rituals and divinities associated with each day of the 260-day Mesoamerican sacred calendar. It consists of 56 stucco-coated bark-paper leaves painted, with the exception of one folio, on both sides. Several pages are devoted to the cardinal directions and their gods and to rites associated with the New Year, celebrated on the first day of the 365-day solar year.

Sixteen lines of text, written in seventeenth-century church Latin, appear in reverse on folio 56, the ink having seeped through the paper on which it was written. The fifth line contains what appears to be the word prefatorum, the line above it ...riquez. Steven Houston of Brigham Young University has pointed out that a Franciscan missionary named Fray Juan Enríquez accompanied Captain Francisco de Mirones Lezcano on an ill-fated attempt to conquer Tayasal in the Petén. Enríquez was killed by the Maya of Sacalum in 1624.

According to Spanish epigrapher Alfonso Lacadena, the style of the glyphs in the document is uniform, but the manuscript appears to be the work of as many as nine scribes. Multiple authorship is well known from other Precolumbian manuscripts, notably the Dresden Codex, and from colonial sources such as the Books of Chilam Balam.

The manuscript also contains a mixture of Yucatecan and Cholan texts, a language combination Lacadena believes argues for its manufacture in the Petén, where Yucatecan and Cholan speakers were neighbors. Coe points out, however, that the same combination of Maya languages appears in texts on monuments at the Classic site of Palenque in Chiapas. Harvard epigrapher David Stuart cautions that what may be seen as Yucatecan spellings and words may actually be archaic Maya forms that had fallen out of common use in the Petén but persisted in the Yucatán.

Nonetheless, Coe believes the Madrid Codex postdates 1624 and may, in fact, have been made at Tayasal, which did not fall to the Spanish until 1697. He maintains that the paper with Latin text is sandwiched between two layers of bark paper, evidence that it was incorporated into the codex during its manufacture. His assessment, however, is based on study of a facsimile rather than the codex itself.

Scholars, including Victoria R. Bricker of Tulane University, have dismissed the paper as a later repair to the manuscript; the Maya writing appears fresher where the patch has pulled away. "I would reserve judgement until I have examined the original manuscript," says Bricker, noting, however, that a seventeenth-century date for the manuscript would account for the depiction of planting on the New Year's pages. According to Bricker, it was not until the 1690s that the Maya New Year occurred shortly before the summer solstice, the planting season for the people of eastern Yucatán and Quintana Roo. If the planting iconography refers to June, it may indicate the codex came from the northern part of the peninsula, not Tayasal in the central Petén, where planting was finished before the end of May.

Researchers from the United States and Spain hope to conduct infrared, ultraviolet, and X-ray photography of the document to bring out further details. Permission to conduct these tests on the codex, which is in the collection of the Museo de América de Madrid, has been requested.

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© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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