New technology uncovers ancient Mixtec ‘secret codex’ all but lost after Spanish conquest


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Researchers have managed to uncover unprecedented details about a lost Mesoamerican civilization in a ‘secret codex’  ignored and overlooked for over 500 years. According to researchers, the Codex Selden unveils images of people walking with spears and sticks, place signs with hieroglyphics for rivers and women with red hair.


The Bodleian Library/WikiCommons
The Bodleian Library/WikiCommons

After remaining hidden for over 500 years, researchers have managed to reveal finally pictograms drawn by a lost Mesoamerican civilization. The pictograms were revealed in an ancient manuscript belonging to the English jurist John Selden, who died in 1654 and left his collection of books and manuscripts at the University of Oxford.

The manuscript was ignored and overlooked for over 500 years, obscured by layers of plaster that ultimately reveal the secrets of a lost civilization that inhabited modern-day Mexico prior to the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores. After the Spanish conquest, remnants of the prior civilization were all but wiped out.

However, thanks to a new technology called hyperspectral imaging, researchers have been able to take a peek –for the first time ever— through the material on the top, revealing a sheer number of pictograms that have eluded historians for centuries.

This new technique has given researchers an unprecedented number of details about the early Mexican civilization known as the Mixtec.

Until now, no other technique known to researchers was able to reveal the concealed stories that remained hidden for centuries in a non-invasive manner.

Ludo Snijders from Leiden University told the Independent about his reaction to uncovering the images:

“There was quite a scream when I saw the images,” he told The Independent.

“After four or five years of trying different techniques, we’ve been able to reveal an abundance of images without damaging this extremely vulnerable item.”

Selden Codex pg 07, panel 3 via Wikimedia Commons, public domain

The Codex Selden

Called the Codex Selden, it is a Mixtec pictorial manuscript and one of the few which actually survived the Conquest of Mexico. It is well-known for being the first manuscript showing traces of palimpsest, a manuscript or piece of writing material on which the original writing has been effaced to make room for later writing but of which traces remain.

According to an article published in Science Direct, it was thanks to a hyperspectral imaging technique that searchers were able to see the hidden content of the Selden Codex in a non-invasive manner.

“The material from which these Mixtec codices were made has so far thwarted all attempts to recover the hidden pictographic texts in a non-invasive manner. The Mixtec codices are made on long strips of leather attached end-to-end to form the substrate of the book,” the scientists said in the research paper.


Ludo Snijders et al.
Ludo Snijders et al.

Given what researchers have been able to see so far, researchers believe its drawings tell the story of ancient genealogies and dynasties that ruled in the region before the arrival of the Spanish.

“After four or five years of trying different techniques, we’ve been able to reveal an abundance of images without damaging this extremely vulnerable item. We can confirm that Codex Selden is indeed a palimpsest,” said Ludo Snijders from Leiden University. David Howell from the Bodleian Libraries and Tim Zaman from the University of Delft also collaborated with Snijders on the research.

“What’s interesting is that the text we’ve found doesn’t match that of other early Mixtec manuscripts. The genealogy we see appears to be unique, which means it may prove invaluable for the interpretation of archaeological remains from southern Mexico,” Snijders added.

Bodl Arch.Selden.A.2 roll113E frame3 by The Bodleian Library, University of Oxford via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 4.0)
Page 1 from the Codex Selden (also known as ‘Codex Añute’) by The Bodleian Library, University of Oxford via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 4.0)

See more about the technology and technique used from That’s Oxfordshire:

 

The new methods allowed researchers to find 20 characters, male and female sitting and standing in the same direction. According to experts, the ancient manuscript also depicts a ‘prominent individual’ who appears in the ancient text represented by “a large glyph consisting of a twisted cord and a flint knife.”

Women with red hair?

But perhaps most interestingly is the fact that the new codex unveils images of people walking with spears and sticks, place signs with hieroglyphics for rivers and women with red hair or headdresses.

Screenshot of the Codex Selden via YouTube

The researchers added:

“Although there are not many of these codices, this work does not have to be interpreted in complete isolation. For example, the characters that are sitting on their knees can, because of conventions recognized in the other books, be understood to be female.”

“Hyperspectral imaging has shown great promise in helping us to begin to reconstruct the story of the hidden codex and ultimately to recover new information about Mixtec history and archaeology,” said Bodleian Libraries head of Heritage Science, David Howell. “This is very much a new technique, and we’ve learned valuable lessons about how to use hyperspectral imaging in the future both for this very fragile manuscript and for countless others like it.”

See more of the Codex Selden from ЛМ below:


Featured image: Bodl Arch.Selden.A.2 roll113E frame2 from the Bodleian Libraries, a group of research libraries in Oxford University via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 4.0)

Sources: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352409X16304084

http://www.sciencealert.com/archaeologists-just-uncovered-a-hidden-500-year-old-american-manuscript


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