Mesoamerican manuscripts: new scientific approaches and interpretations

The Bodleian organised the international conference Mesoamerican manuscripts: scientific approaches and interpretations, which took place from 31 May to 2 June 2016.

The full conference was live streamed and the footage continues to be available via the University's iTunes U site and the University's Podcasts page.

At the Bodleian Libraries, we have a duty to preserve, study and share our collections. This 'understand to preserve' approach is the umbrella that brings together conservators, curators, scientists, and scholars in various fields to learn more about the pictorial techniques and other materials used in the Bodleian's five pre-Hispanic and early colonial Mesoamerican manuscripts: Codex Laud, Codex Bodley, Codex Selden, Codex Mendoza, and the recently re-named Roll of the New Fire (also kown as the Selden Roll).

Image of a mobile laboratory analysing Codex Selden, Bodleian Libraries

These are unique treasures amongst a group of sixteen ancient codices that survived the colonisation of America. For the first time since they entered the Bodleian's collection in the 17th century, the public will be able to admire these treasures in one showcase in the stunning Weston Library, which will also serve as the conference venue.

Due to the fragility of the codices, very little work had been done in the past to scientifically characterise their materials and composition. Yet it is these very aspects that are critical to understanding the nature of these documents, their construction and their durability. Through an award from the Cultural Heritage Advanced Research Image of Codex Mendoza, Bodleian LibrariesInfrastructures, Synergy for a Multidisciplinary Approach to Conservation/Restoration (CHARISMA), we were able to pursue the characterisation, using non-invasive instrumental means (MOLAB), of the colours present in these unique testimonies of Mesoamerican culture.

The results of this work will be presented to the public for the first time at this conference, for which we have brought together an outstanding panel of scholars and experts in Mesoamerican studies. They will be sharing their knowledge and recent findings on the making and historical significance of the Bodleian's and other early, pictorial Mesoamerican manuscripts, situating them in the context of the pre-Columbian and colonial societies that produced them, describing the world they depict, and reflecting upon their meaning in contemporary Mexico and beyond.

The conference will also include a workshop on how to read Mixtec manuscripts: among the painted books from ancient Mexico preserved at the Bodleian Library are two manuscripts that refer to the world of the Ñuu Dzaui, the 'Nation of the Rain', an indigenous people (also known as the Mixtec) that lives in Southern Mexico. Today approximately half a million persons speak the Mixtec language. Their mountainous region is rich in (still little explored) archaeological sites and art works, as well as in oral tradition.

Image of detail on the Roll of the New Fire, Bodleian Libraries

These manuscripts are magnificent examples of ancient Mexican historiography, which used a sophisticated form of pictorial writing. In colourful painted images they tell the history of the dynasties that ruled several Mixtec city-states prior to the Spanish conquest (1521). Genealogical information is combined with the depiction of events such as sacred origins, military conflicts, rituals, oracles, marital alliances and political intrigues. Precise dates are given in the ancient Mixtec calendar, which cover a time span from the 10th to the 16th Century A D. The workshop offers an introduction to this subject matter and to the method of reading these manuscripts, while also paying attention to related topics such as Mixtec archaeology, ceremonial language and religious worldview.

This conference is partially sponsored by:
  1. the European Research Council (ERC) through its Advanced Grant (No 295434) for the project 'Time in Intercultural Context: the Indigenous Calendars of Mexico and Guatemala'; and
  2. the Netherlands Foundation for Scientific Research (NWO) through its support for the project 'Shedding light on endangered mutual heritage'.
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