Mayan Research Essays

Essay The Maya Civilization

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The Maya Civilization

The ancient Maya once occupied a vast geographic area in Central America. Their civilization inhabited an area that encompasses Mexico's Yucatan peninsula and parts of the states of Chiapas and Tabasco, as well as Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador. "From the third to the ninth century, Maya civilization produced awe-inspiring temples and pyramids, highly accurate calendars, mathematics and hieroglyphics, and a complex social and political order" ("Collapse..." 1). Urban centers were important to the Maya during the Classic period; they offered the Mayans a central place to practice religion. The Mayan culture can be traced back to 1500 BC, entering the Classic period about 300 AD and…show more content…

The priestly class lived in the cities, while the general population lived away in small farming villages. The priests would carry out daily religious duties, particularly sacrifices, and the peasants would gather periodically for religious ceremonies and festivals. They built the ceremonial centers in a specific design for religious practices. They constructed tall pyramid temples, warren-like single story palaces, and a ball court that was surrounded by a broad central plaza. The architectural features of the Mayan pyramids include towering roofs, corbel vaults, and elaborate embellishment with stucco reliefs (Palfrey 2). It is amazing to imagine the detail that the Mayans were able to create in their architecture with only primitive tools. For the Mayans, science and religion were linked. Time was extremely important and their agriculture and religious ceremonies required a system that could record time. That need for structure is probably the reason that the Mayans developed such an amazingly accurate calendar. They also developed a complex style of hieroglyphic writing that we have not fully deciphered. Through their knowledge of astronomy and mathematics they calculated the lunar cycle, predicted eclipses, and formulated a unique calendar system was very accurate. Their calendar was only one day off every 6000 years. That makes it more accurate than our calendar today (Hooker 6). Two fundamental

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The Construction of the Codex In Classic- and Postclassic-Period Maya Civilization

Thomas J. Tobin

How did the Maya make books? This simple question is difficult to answer because researchers today must rely on what are often no better than educated guesses in order to reconstruct the practices of the ancient Maya scribes. However, based on the aggregation of evidence from varied sources, it is possible to create a reproduction of a Maya codex with reasonable certainty of the methods. This essay will first explore the history of Maya papermaking and codex production, then enumerate the papermaking and bookbinding processes that can be adopted today as being reasonably close to the practices of the Maya. Although it is tempting to infer that this project is an attempt to prove exactly what the Maya did when they made paper and codices, it is impossible to recapture a historical moment; one can only create description based on evidence. Thus, the problem to be solved in this project is to set down the steps by which researchers today can create reasonable facsimiles of Maya codices. The solution to this problem lies in identifying materials, codifying recipes and processes, and testing hypotheses of practice.

A short history of the Maya codex
             600-1519: Vases, codices, and buildings
             1519: The Spanish conquest
             1940s: Von Hagen and Lenz
             1980-2000: The codex as book form
Ritual preparations
The recipe for paper
Making paper
Assembling the codex
Making brushes/pens
Making ink
Writing the text
             Grid lines
A Short History of The Maya Codex

During the period 100-700 C.E., the Romans invented and improved upon the codex, the form of the book that would endure for nearly two millennia. However, during roughly the same period of time, the Maya culture in and around what is now the Yucatan Peninsula in southern Mexico produced codices, as well, independently of Europeans. The factors leading to the development of the codex in European culture have been well documented, and the close identity between the Roman and Maya solutions to the problems of codex design, manufacture, purpose, and usage suggests that the codex form of the transmission of information is not merely an accident of geography or history. The Maya developed paper quite early in the millennium: “archaeological evidence of manufacture and use of bark paper by Maya dates from the early 5th century [C.E.]” (López). The Maya named their paper huun, and saw it as a writing surface when they appropriated their bark-cloth tunics as a possible means of transmitting information: “early in their history the Mayas produced a kind of tapa cloth from the inner bark of certain trees. . . . Bark-cloth manufacture apparently evolved into papermaking, although when this occurred is not known” (Sandstrom and Sandstrom, Traditional Papermaking 13).The Maya developed paper screen-fold codices as a direct step beyond carving information into stone buildings and stelae, unlike Western papermaking, which took a more circuitous route to reach its final form (single sheets, papyrus rolls, and then leafed codices).

Part of the difficulty in producing a history of the development of Maya papermaking has been that so few examples survive. Of the thousands of codices mentioned in the glyphic records of the Maya and the inventories of Spanish conquistadors, all but four partial examples were burned as suspected satanic manuals, thrown to the bottom of the ocean in ship raids, or moldered into dust in hot and humid storage conditions. Thus, the task of the historians of Maya papermaking is made more difficult in that they must reconstruct practices and relative dates from a melange of indirect data: ethnobotanical analysis; historical accounts at second, third, and sometimes no hand; sometimes-unreliable translations of Maya glyphs into Spanish; external evidence presented by the surviving codices themselves, including microscopic identification of fibers; archaeologically associative clues; and anthropological evidence based on the paper-making practices of Maya-language speakers today. Each of these types of evidence introduces a factor of uncertainty to the results obtained due to the barriers of time, language, scarcity, and interpretive difference.

However, the development of current theories of Maya codex-production can be delineated fairly clearly. The first accumulation of data occurred during the late Classic and early Postclassic Periods (c. 600-1519 C.E.), and the information was recorded by the Maya themselves, in the form of carved monuments, painted ceramics, and codices.  
600-1519: Vases, Codices, and Buildings

Although the focus of this project is neither epigraphy nor the study of Maya monuments and vases, a word is in order about the interrelation of epigraphic study and the information to be found on Maya architecture and pottery. Based on the evidence we have today, the Maya seem to have conducted their daily lives in accordance with their learning. During the Classic (ca. 300-900 C.E.) and Postclassic (ca. 900-1540 C.E.) periods of Maya history, dynasties, economies, and modes of learning came and went, and nearly all were recorded by Maya scribes. We can identify three main types of Maya records: historical records which delineate the deeds of noble persons, rulers, and states; scientific records which encompassed the learning of Maya scholars with regard to such diverse subjects as astronomy, agronomy, military science, statesmanship, and religious ritual; and economic records which served to mark down routes of trade, amounts given and received in tribute, and economic policies of the state. There is considerable overlap among these categories, but if we remember nothing else about Maya record keeping, it is that the Maya named nearly everything and structured their rituals, their agriculture, and their warfare around their calendar. As in European cabalistic thinking during the same time period, the Maya believed that to name a thing was to have power over it; likewise, the ability to keep records that encompassed learning beyond the span of one lifetime allowed the Maya to profit from their past.

Thus, the occupation of scribe, or ah ts’ib, which means “he of the writing,” was an important one in Maya culture. We have evidence of the output of Maya scribes in glyphs and pictographs carved into Maya architecture, painted onto Maya codices, and glazed onto Maya pottery. Maya pottery has been especially helpful in preserving two issues important to the reconstruction of a Maya codex: Maya glyphic/phonemic writing and depictions of Maya codices. Part of the glyphs on Maya pottery are always the same:

The PSS allowed twentieth-century scholars to begin to decipher the grammar and meaning of Maya language, and, more importantly for this project, some Maya vases contain scenes of scribes writing in codices, which, as we shall see in the next section, is an important clue to the physical makeup of the Maya codex. Paper itself was a valued commodity in Maya society, as it was used as an adjunct element in rituals as well as record keeping. The historian of Mesoamerican papermaking Alan Sandstrom surmises that “in addition to precious stones and metals, feathers, and decorative clothing, one of the most sought-after items in ancient Mexico was handmade paper” (Sandstrom and Sandstrom, Traditional Papermaking 7). Further, the historical records we have suggest that paper manufacture and use were widespread throughout the region by the time the Spaniards arrived in 1519. In particular, Maya texts written in Roman characters after the Spanish Conquest reveal the extent of the depth of Maya book making:

This suggests that the invention of paper and of codices may have been ancient. “Most authorities are convinced that the Mayas of the Yucatan were the first to produce paper” (Sandstrom and Sandstrom 13) on the American continent. Paper was often part of the cache of tribute given to appease a conquering ruler, as we shall see later.  
1519: The Spanish Conquest

The primary reason why book historians must rely on evidence other than Maya codices in order to learn about their manufacture, structure, and use is that there are very few of them left. When the Spanish landed in central America in 1519, they established a missionary state which sought to spread Christianity among the Maya. Although a few Spanish missionaries attempted to learn the Maya language and glyphic writing system, most of the occupying religious leaders elected to burn as heretical most Maya codices, sending back only a few specimens to their superiors in Europe, of which small number even more codices were lost when ships were attacked and the books thrown overboard as valueless (von Hagen 34). Further, most traditional Maya practices, including codex-making, were quickly overtaken by the Spanish:

Most scholars concur that the arrival of the Spanish precipitated a catastrophically rapid devolution and destruction of Maya technology, literature, and culture:

A few missionaries did attempt to create a syllabary of Spanish-language equivalents to some Maya glyphs; some also recorded in passing the appearance of Maya codices and the methods of their manufacture, but such records are scant and reveal little of substance about the Maya codex as a book form. The result of the combination of scarce recording of Maya bookmaking processes and the destruction of the vast majority of Maya codices is that very few codices escaped, none wholly intact. This loss is comparable to the burning and looting of the Alexandrian Library: the majority of the record of an entire civilization was erased:

Of these twenty-two volumes, only four are of Maya origin, and it is from only these four codices, named for the cities or institutions where they were originally housed (Dresden, Paris, Madrid, and Grolier), that present-day book historians can derive data about the content, manufacture, structure, and materials used in Maya codices. Because of their rarity, scientific access to these examples is extremely difficult. For example, the last microscopic analysis of any of the codices took place in 1910. Fortunately, these partial codices, of which none is a complete specimen and of which none has its original covers, are not the only kinds of evidence scholars can use in order to reconstruct the Maya codex.  
The 1940s: Von Hagen and Lenz

During the 1940s, two scholars, Victor von Hagen and Hans Lenz, conducted independently of each other ethnological and anthropological studies into the modern-day descendants of the Maya, many of whom at that time still spoke Quechua, though to be descended from the Maya language. Both von Hagen and Lenz were able to observe the Otomi Indians making handmade huun paper. From the accounts given by these two scholars, we get a description of the nature and function of paper up to the arrival of the Spanish. Von Hagen links the development of paper among the Maya to similar development around the world at nearly the same time:

Likewise, Lenz prefaces his ethnographic work with a nod to the Spanish missionary Peter Martyr, whose records of the contents of Maya paper help present-day scholars to link the practices of the Otomi Indians to those of their Maya ancestors:

This detailed description of the process of Maya papermaking has been rather loosely updated into modern Spanish by Lenz, but the main points of papermaking remain strikingly similar to those practiced by the Otomi Indians in the 1940s. Although von Hagen and Lenz observed the papermaking processes of the Otomi and postulated about the manufacture and role of paper in Maya Postclassic period civilization, their research did not examine the Maya codex as an artifact: as a book qua book. Only recently has scholarship sought to examine the Maya codex in the same way that book historians and descriptive bibliographers currently study European handmade and early-press books.  
1980-2000: The Codex as Book Form

Only recently has scholarship focused on the surviving four Maya codices as artifacts, and the extent of such scholarship has been limited mostly to physical description. The leaves of the codices are small compared to present-day standards of page dimensions (Letter or A4 paper), and are connected in screenfold manner: one long piece of paper folded accordion-wise creates many pages on both sides of the paper. The long sheet of paper is usually formed of two or more layers of smaller paper sheets which have been glued together to create the long sheets needed to create a codex. Indeed, tribute records indicate that paper was not usually turned into codices right away, but was bundled for transport into standard-sized packets, and only glued or felted together when a codex was being made. The dimensions of the surviving codices indicate the large amount of work involved in creating a codex:

In this project, my aim is to create a codex of only three or four folds, both for reasons of economy of materials and of text: I have comparatively little bark from which to make paper, and I have comparatively little to say using Maya glyphs and pictographs. The original codices we have today are almost certainly copies of earlier works that had either deteriorated or were valuable enough to merit preservation reformatting. This suggests that the development of the codex may be more ancient than archaeological evidence suggests. Further, the Maya codex as a format for the transmission of information, like the papyrus scroll and the codex in Europe and the Middle East, seems to have existed relatively unchanged throughout its history because it was an efficient means of recording, preserving, and disseminating information. That the Maya thought enough of the texts that survive to have copied them from earlier documents that were in poor condition speaks to the value placed on information in Maya culture:

This question can be answered by looking not only at the Maya codices, but by including the records found on Maya architecture and pottery, as discussed above. The data we currently have about Maya codices suggest that although very solid connections have been made between the papermaking skills of the Otomi and those of the ancient Maya, few if any researchers have attempted to recreate a Maya codex from scratch, as it were. Western scholars have tended to focus on the codices as texts, privileging the information to be found on their pages over the codices as artifacts themselves. There seems not to be a similar disjuncture with regard to Maya architecture, where the structure and materials of construction are given as much attention as the glyphs carved into buildings, nor is this disjuncture seen in the study of Maya pottery, where the form and function of vessels are studied by linking the writing on them to their structures and intended uses.

This separation of epigraphic data from physical format is puzzling, given the many breakthroughs obtained in other areas of Maya scholarship when, for example, a scholar guesses that a vase could be a ceremonial drinking vessel, and a character-set in the Primary Standard Sequence is found to translate to something like “One Jaguar, his drinking bowl, made in such and such a year in such and such a place.” Because the Maya named nearly everything, tagging bowls, cities, rulers, stars, gravesites, and tax records as having unique names, it stands to reason that there may eventually be found a similar correlation between the texts of Maya codices and their format. Thus, it seems important to be able to reproduce to the best of our ability a “real” Maya codex.

On 13 February 2001, the program “Lost Kings of the Maya” aired on PBS’s Nova. One segment showed David Stuart of Harvard University, one of the foremost epigraphers of Maya glyphs, holding what appeared to be a reproduction of a Maya codex:

In a telephone conversation, Stuart subsequently revealed that the codex in the NOVA episode was a facsimile of the Dresden Codex, created using a printing press and European paper stock. Dr. Stuart said that although scholars like Alan Sandstrom have documented the papermaking techniques of the Maya, relying on the huun-making techniques of modern-day Mexican Indians, few, if any, recreations of Maya codices have been produced using the methods and materials of the Maya (Stuart).

Complicating the task of reproduction is the fact that we have only four extant examples of Maya codices, and each of these examples is off-limits to invasive examination, such as microscopy and chemical analysis, as well as most physical examination, due to the rarity and fragility of the surviving codices. Even the leading scholars in the field, such as Michael Coe, William Fash, and David Stuart, have not been able to examine the objects of their research. For example, the scholarly knowledge of the content of the gesso on the surface of the codices, which I’ll examine later, is the result of speculation based on other writing surfaces from the present day or from contemporaneous but geographically disparate cultures.

A final problem in defining the Maya method of making codices is that the codices recently discovered in archaeological digs have been so badly decomposed or altered by the conditions of their burial that we cannot study them:

Poor conditions similar to those related about the Zoque codices were found in Maya scribal tombs, as well:

The fact that any Maya codices survive today in useful condition at all seems to be almost miraculous, given the legion of forces which have destroyed or rendered unusable all but four codices. I use the word “miraculous” advisedly, as my next section deals with the spiritual aspect of the creation of a Maya codex.

In order to create a codex, it may be helpful first to be familiar with some of the uses to which codices were put, and to enter as much as possible into the mindset of the Maya scribe. To do so, we must familiarize ourselves with a few deities and ritual practices.  
Ritual Preparations

In order to approximate the process by which the Maya made paper, I must briefly digress here in order to introduce the papermakers themselves. Although it is not clear who among Maya society were tasked with making paper, it is certain that only scribes were privileged to make codices. The Maya scribe was a member of the educated aristocracy and was part of the religious and social economy of Maya culture:

Before a scribe could perform his duties, he needed to pray to and to consult the gods about the most auspicious times for every step of the process of codex creation. The masculine pronoun is not, in this case, gender inclusive. Scribes are almost always depicted as men, and their glyphs translate to “he,” “his,” and “him,” although there exists very rarely evidence of high-ranking court ladies who are described by the scribal titles “she of the writing” and “she of the inkpot” (Coe 74ff).

Three Maya deities will serve as our patrons during the process of papermaking and codex construction. I have significantly ignored an important god, the Young Maize God, who is often depicted on Maya pottery as a scribe writing in a codex, but this is due more to personal affection for our patron gods than to any reasoned scholarly decision. We will now place ourselves under the guidance of Itsamná and the Monkey-Man twins Hun Batz and Hun Chouen.

Figure 1 shows Itsamná or Pawahtún in the upper-right corner discoursing with a monkey-man and a scribe on the left. The monkey-man holds a codex, and the scribe behind him has a “printout” roll of paper with glyphic numerals on it issuing from underneath his arm and a conch-shell inkpot in his hand. The bottom cover of the codex held by the monkey-man seems to be detached from the sheets of paper (this will be important to remember later).

Figure 1 (K0501). © Justin Kerr.

Figure 2 shows a rollout photograph of a vase depicting Hun Batz and Hun Chouen recording tribute from members of the animal or spirit world. Figure 3 shows Michael Coe’s drawing of the monkey-man gods in Figure 2.

Figure 2 (K3413). © Justin Kerr.

Figure 3. (Coe 106)

Another anthropomorphic figure is the Rabbit Scribe. Human scribes with animal heads are often depicted on Maya pottery: there are examples of scribes with vulture, deer, and monkey heads on various vessels. However, the Rabbit Scribe is not anthropomorphic, but is depicted simply as a rabbit holding a brush pen.

A line-drawing rendering of a detail of this vase is shown in Figure 4 below:

Figure 4. Detail of codex-style vase. © Michael Coe.

The Rabbit Scribe is also described in terms of the puzzle of how Maya codices were used:

We can, however, makes some educated guesses about the manner in which codices were used. Each of the scribal gods and patrons described above was consulted in turn by the scribes to determine the auspicious times for engaging in war, planting crops, holding rituals, and even preparing and copying books. As an aside, the recent animated film The Road to El Dorado, although it depicts an obvious mish-mash of Aztec, Maya, and Toltec societies, shows in one scene the villain of the film, a jaguar-hide-wearing scribal lord, consulting screenfold codices to determine the auspices of the arrival of the European heroes of the film, the planning of a feast, and the proper time for destroying the heroes by sending them to Xibalba (the Maya underworld) by pushing them into a giant whirlpool.

In order to avoid the possible pitfalls of undertaking my experiment at an unlucky time, I settled on reverential supplication as the surest possible means of attaining a proper attitude. Although I did not know how to consult directly with Hun Batz and Hun Chouen in order to determine the most favorable time for creating my codex, I offered up a prayer and a sacrifice (a chicken dinner with rice and new potatoes) to them, and began the process of making the paper for the codex.  
The Recipe for Paper

Our knowledge of how the Maya made paper is based on three indirect methods of observation. First, we have the records the Maya left behind, few of which survive in any detail sufficient to allow us to reconstruct their recipes or methodologies with any certainty. Although four codices survive, apart from a visual inspection, very little chemical or microscopic analysis has been performed on them, and no such access is likely to be granted in the near future. Second, we have the eyewitness accounts of the Spanish, among the papers of whom we find accounts of the daily lives of the Maya, giving us insight into their dress, government, agricultural practices, and, in a very short passage, their papermaking techniques.

It is not known when or how the Maya process of making paper began, nor is it clear how it evolved over time. We find ourselves in the position of deducing from Spanish records nearly an entire millennium of papermaking history among the Maya. Last, we have the evidence of present-day papermaking practices among the descendants of the Maya. Although, as we have seen, the ethnographic research of von Hagen and Lenz provide ample evidence of how paper is made today, we must be cautious about adducing from such practices that the Maya did or used exactly, or even nearly, the same processes and materials as present-day Indians. That said, the findings of scholars as to the composition of Maya paper are based on the best information available:

Coe’s summary of the chain of evidence linking the Maya codices to the papermaking practices of the present day shows us that although the link between the two practices cannot be certain, there is enough evidence to suggest that we come closest to the methods and materials of the ancient Maya when we study and employ the techniques of the Otomi and other central-American Indian tribes. Coe continues by delineating the steps in making paper:

More specific than Coe is Marie Van der Meeren, who reports on the recipe used in modern-day San Pablito in the state of Chiapas. Van der Meeren gives approximate cooking times and material amounts, and compares the Maya methods of making paper to the “slight modifications” that present-day papermakers find it necessary to employ:

The primary difference in the methods described by Coe and Van der Meeren is the inclusion or omission of the practice of steeping the fibers in a river overnight in order to raise the latex to the surface, where it may be scraped away before boiling in the nixtamalization process. The most difficult aspect of this codex-making project is not that of knowing the steps one must follow in order to make paper: it lies in finding the ingredients, since ficus cotinifolia and ficus padifolia are both endangered species, and my chance of access to a jaguar hide is, to say the least, slim. While attempting to use as many traditional practices and materials as possible, I am forced by circumstance to substitute plentiful for scarce materials; however, the questions of what kinds of substitutions to make have already been discussed by scholarship. In the next section, I will gather my materials and actually make huun paper.  
Making Paper

In order to make the paper for my codex, I needed some basic materials: fig-tree inner bark, a means of soaking the fibers overnight in running water, a means of boiling the fibers in lime water, a beater with which to felt the fibers, and a smooth board on which to lay out the sheet of paper. In order to create a sheet that would approximate the dimensions of the Maya codex, I relied on archeological descriptions of the extant codices:

With these dimensions in mind and my materials gathered, I begin making huun/kopó/amate paper.  

Citlalli López has identified the plants traditionally used for papermaking. In late Classic and early Postclassic Maya culture, the two most common fibers used were the inner bast fibers of two species of fig: Ficus padifolia and Ficus cotinifolia. López also identifies as traditional papermaking plants Ficus pertusa, Ficus calyculata, Ficus goldmanii, and Morus celtidifolia (López). Today, because many of the traditional papermaking plants used by the Maya are threatened by overharvesting, handmade paper is often produced using substitute tree species: Trema micrantha, Ulmus mexicana, Brosimum alicastrum, Sapium pedicelatum, Urera caracasana, and Myriocarpa cordifolia (López).

In the case I had not been able to obtain even a good surrogate for the bark, I was prepared to follow the advice of European-style papermakers:

Thankfully, I was able to obtain a sufficient quantity of bark from one of the species mentioned in López’s research.I must here thank Jeff Polonoli of the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Pittsburgh, PA for his advice and help in locating suitable specimens for this project. Because of the scarcity of the Ficus species used by the Maya, and because the Maya seem to have used whatever fig or rubber plants were to hand in making their paper, I obtained a number of Ficus pertusa branches from Pete Hernandez at the Dural Country Club in Miami. These branches were pruned from existing plants and averaged four feet in length and 1.5 inches in diameter. Figure 5 shows the process of removing the bark from the fig branches.

Figure 5. Pulling the bark.

Because the number of fig branches I was able to obtain did not supply a sufficient quantity of fibers for the project, I supplemented the Ficus fibers with flax fibers in a measure of four parts fig-tree bast fibers to one part flax. The flax fibers were added during the boiling, or nixtamalization, process below.  

It is clear from the descriptions given by von Hagen and Lenz that the freshly-pulled bast fibers are submerged overnight in a river in order to coagulate the natural latex in them. However, having no access to a river or stream, I had to make do with a large tub and a fresh supply of running tap water.

I scraped the bast fibers from the outer bark using a flint-sherd stone scraping tool and then gathered the fibers together and submerged them under a heavy stone in the tub. Figure 6 depicts the separation of the inner bark fibers from the hard outer bark, and Figure 7 shows the fiber-bundle folded and submerged in the running-water bath.

Figure 6. Scraping the bast fibers.

Figure 7. Immersion of the fibers.

I then introduced a hose in one end of the tub to produce the effect of running water. When I returned in twenty-four hours, I discovered a) that my water bill for that month would rise sharply, and b) that this step in the process may not even be necessary. In present-day southern Mexico,

Whether the soaking of the fibers or boiling them produce the same effect, I have included both in the process of making my codex. One serendipitous advantage of using running tap water for the fiber soaking instead of river water is that the mineral content of my local tap water closely resembles the lime-and-chalk water used in the next step of the process, nixtamalization.  

There is not consensus among scholars about the necessity of either soaking or boiling the plant fibers. Some scholars claim that the Maya simply soaked the fibers in a river, scraped them of their latex, and then began to beat the fibers with felting clubs or stones. Other researchers, like Van der Meeren above, see no reason to soak the fibers at all if they are to be boiled. One of the earliest records of the Otomi papermaking process is Victor von Hagen’s, and he reports that the Otomi both soaked and boiled their paper fibers:

I have followed von Hagen, both because it is difficult to determine the actual practices of the ancient Maya based on present-day Otomi Indian practices and because it is impossible to say beforehand with certainty which process, soaking or boiling, may be dispensed with safely. Figure 8 depicts the fibers being removed from the pot after having been boiled over a wood fire.

Figure 8. Boiled fibers.

After I blanched the fibers in lime-water, I rinsed them thoroughly to remove any residue of latex or lime. I also reserved the soot from the bottom of the boiling-pot in order to make black ink, the process of which is described below. Before I can make the ink, however, I need to felt the fibers together to create a contiguous sheet of paper.  

Two sorts of beaters have been found in Maya archaeological digs: the first, and earliest, form of beater is a squat stone with a handle carved into the top surface and striations scored into the bottom. This instrument is also used by the Otomi today in a form little changed since the days of the Maya. The second form of beater is like a war-club, with a rounded handle and a four-faced head, into which striations are carved parallel to the short side on one face. This second form has a greater mechanical advantage than the first, and is thought to be of later origin than the first example. Setting aside the form of the beater, the process by which strips of fiber were felted together is described relatively consistently by researchers:

Likewise, Alan Sandstrom gives a historical context to the use of the striated stone with a handle:

I crafted a stone-cum-handle beater by gouging out striations in the bottom of a flat piece of stone. Figure 9 shows the process of beating the strips of fiber, which have been arranged in two layers, one running the length and one the breadth of the work board:

Figure 9. Beating the fibers.

A surprising result of the process of felting the paper is that although I did not use any European-method mold, deckle, or chains in making this sheet of paper, the finished product contains distinctive marks analogous to a watermark: the impressions of the striations of the beater. Scholars have examined many samples of Maya paper, and found striation-marks from a beating stone still evident after many hundreds of years. Thus, we may be able to use these striation marks as sorts of “fingerprints” of various Maya papermaking workshops; such evidence would certainly be visible in an X-ray examination of the extant codices. Unfortunately, scholarly access to the codices is virtually non-existent.  

The final step in making the paper is to allow it to dry in the sun. Michael Coe discusses the various products that can result:

I could find no discussion in the scholarship on the extant Maya codices as to whether the paper on which they are painted is smooth on only one or both sides. It seems a simple matter to create paper smooth on both sides by pressing the felted sheets between two smooth boards, although such a process would greatly increase the drying time, and might have an adverse effect on the shrinkage of the sheet as it dries. I opted to follow Coe’s suggestions, and laid out the board and felted sheet on a warm, sunny day.

Figure 10. Sheet of paper drying.

After eight hours of drying, the sheet lifted easily from the board, and I trimmed the sheet to conform to the dimensions closest to those of the four extant codices. My paper came out a light yellow, as Coe predicts.  

Now that the paper has been produced, the next step in preparing it for use in a codex is to bend the paper into screenfold sheets. In order to make each page the same size as its neighbors, I had little in the scholarship to guide me:

However, the extant codices show remarkable consistency in the width of their pages, suggesting that the Maya had some kind of measuring device, like a ruler, that would allow them to mark off the precise widths of the pages. However, no marks are seen on the codices near or on the fold lines. This suggests a second possibility, one which I adopted in creating uniform pages: a template. I fashioned a block of inch-thick wood that was five inches wide and fourteen inches long, making certain that the sides were square. Using this as my template, I began folding the paper by placing the block atop the paper and folding upwards. This produced a clean, crisp fold without tearing the paper. Figure 11 depicts this process:

Figure 11. Creasing the screenfold with a template.

Once the screenfold had been created, the next step was to prepare the surface of the codex for painting.  

The Maya did not write directly on the surface of their codices; I have already pointed out the extremely porous and rough nature of the paper resulting from the methods employed by the Otomi Indians. In order to create a suitable surface on which to draw and write, the Maya coated their screenfolds with a sort of gesso underlayment composed of chalk and a thickening medium such as sap or animal fat. Although I will call this substance “gesso” throughout this essay, it is really a mixture of ingredients that sometimes approaches plaster, sometimes gesso, and sometimes sizing. The chemical composition of the coating on at least one extant codex has been determined:

Beatriz Martí confirms Coe’s assessment of the necessity of limning the pages before writing on them:

In order to create my own backing material, I combined one part beef tallow to five parts calcium carbonate. The result was a suitably sticky thick material which I applied to four of my screenfold pages using a large brush of decidedly non-Maya origin. I applied two thin layers of gesso, allowing the first layer to dry overnight before applying the second layer. The resulting pages were a dull dun color, and showed the groove-marks of my brush strokes quite clearly.

Figure 12. Applying the gesso.

Coe makes an interesting point about the suitability of plain bark paper to support the writing tools of the time:

Now that the pages are coated with gesso, the next step is either to polish the gesso or to move directly to assembling the codex and its covers. I will discuss the process of assembly momentarily, after I have examined the possibility that the Maya polished their pages before writing on them.  

Michael Coe puts forward an interesting hypothesis about the necessity of the scribe to polish the surface of the gesso in order to obtain as smooth and impermeable a surface as possible before writing on it. Coe’s speculations are based on paper-polishing practices among early papermaking cultures worldwide, and on what he admits is unclear evidence in some Maya pottery:

In order to test Coe’s theory, I prepared only two of the four gesso-treated pages of my codex to a steady rubbing with a smooth heated stone, working with firm pressure as though I were waxing a car, making small overlapping circles with the stone from the center of the page out toward the edges. The polishing resulted in two significant advantages that could be seen and felt after only a few minutes of polishing. First, the surface of the gesso became noticeably smoother and more consistent in thickness. Further, as I continued polishing the gesso, through the stone I could feel the grains of the gesso penetrating the fibers of the paper, and on examining the reverse of the sheet, I found that some gesso had penetrated through the sheet of paper entirely. I can imagine that in applying gesso to both sides of the paper, polishing would integrate the gesso with the paper to synthesize a hard, stable page on which to write.

Figure 13. Polishing the gesso.

I also noted that with regard to the gesso-treated pages which I did not polish, after a few days the gesso tended to flake off if the page was handled roughly, whereas the pages which have been polished stood up to much more vigorous handling. Despite the fact that the cultures of the world cited by Coe as using paper-polishing stones used them in order to burnish the paper itself, my evidence leads me to suspect that Coe’s hypothesis about Maya paper polishing may indeed be correct.  
Assembling the Codex

With the paper prepared for painting, the final step in creating the codex is to attach covers to it, primarily to protect the screenfold pages from becoming soiled, as Maya scribes are usually depicted as sitting cross-legged on the floor or ground when they write in codices.

As an aside, I may point out that since my demonstration codex has very few screenfold pages in it, there was no necessity of gluing together many sheets to produce a long screenfold. Michael Coe suggests that long screenfolds were produced by gluing together two layers of paper:

The final phase of the process of creating the codex is to attach the covers. This presents unique problems for this experiment because we do not know how the covers were constructed, and how they were attached to the screenfold sheets, if at all.  

The next step in creating a codex is to bind the screenfold paper between covers. One of the subjects on which the collective record is silent is the form of the covers of Maya codices. Since no codices seem to have survived with their covers intact, it is a matter of conjecture as to how--or if--the covers were attached to the screenfold paper in order to create a codex. However, as a start, we can rule out a number of methods.

Because the paper sheets are not sewn together to make leaves or sewn at the edges to make what the Chinese refer to as a “butterfly book,” the notion of the codex’s “cover” perhaps needs to be rethought. Rather than an encompassing contiguous envelope of material which protects the screenfold inside from harm, the covers of Maya codices are separate, one attached to the “front” of the first sheet-fold and one cover attached to the “back” of the last sheet-fold. Indeed, many scholars count as usable pages the beginning and ending leaves of extant screenfold codices: what we might call “end papers” meant, perhaps, to be glued to the covers. This working definition of the cover is a bit problematic, for, depending on the number of folds made, it is possible to create a codex with covers on either the same or opposing sides of the paper. Figure 14 shows the two possible configurations, between which contemporary Maya depictions of codices do not conclusively differentiate.

Figure 14. Two possible codex configurations.

A further lacuna in our knowledge of Maya codex binding deals with the methods used to attach the covers to the screenfold paper. Michael Coe implies that the same sorts of glues used to attach the screenfold sheets together were used to attach the sheets to the covers, but he never follows up on how this might have been accomplished, preferring (rightly, I admit) to base his findings on the extant record:

Jack Rau, on the other hand, in his short monograph on The Codex as a Book Form, puts forward a theory about the composition of Maya codex covers, but never mentions the source of his information:

Neither Rau nor Coe surmise from the evidence the methods used by the Maya to attach the covers to the codex, so it is time to revisit the pictographic evidence to see if we can pick up any clues. Remember the rabbit-scribe writing in the jaguar-hide bound codex? On closer inspection of the rabbit scribe image (Figure 15), we find a few hints as to the possible configuration of the codex and its covers:

Figure 15. Detail of codex-style vase.

First, the covers themselves are represented as considerably thicker than the screenfold pages, suggesting that they may indeed be made of wood that is covered with precious or durable materials, in this case jaguar hide. The second clue about their construction is the odd shape of the “inside” edge of the covers. The cover represented here as the top cover has rounded edges which terminate in hook- or flap-like structures, and there are two similar hooks or flaps along the edge of the cover which makes contact with the sheet-fold. The bottom cover is even more interesting, because, in addition to exhibiting the hook/flap structures, it is clear that one page of the sheet-fold slips beneath the hooks or flaps on the side of the codex closest to the scribe.

In most depictions of codices, the artist draws the codex sideways: in the example above, the rabbit scribe is seated at the right-hand side of the page, not at the bottom. Why is this pictorial convention followed among Maya artists? One possible explanation is that by reorienting the codex, it can best be shown as a codex, depicting the screenfold structure and the binding to best advantage:

Figure 16 shows what the open codex might look like if it were shown in its “proper” position in relation to the rabbit scribe. It would appear like a European book with its spine facing the viewer and its cover open, only the “spine” of the codex would show the edges of the screenfold paper:

Figure 16. The codex from Figure 15 seen the “proper” way.

Thus, by turning the depiction of the codex ninety degrees, the Maya artist shows us that this object is indeed an open codex, and not simply a bundle of unbound blank paper sheets, which are shown in Figure 17 as being given in tribute, represented by a drawing very similar to that in Figure 16.

Figure 17 (K1785). © Justin Kerr.

This evidence suggests that the pages of the codex were held to the covers by at least one method, and probably two. We can say with relative certainty that the rabbit scribe’s codex is held together by binding cords of the jaguar hide around the screenfold paper. Each hook or flap can be seen as the side edge of a cord that, untied, would dangle from the sides of the covers, and which would, when tied, help to keep the screenfold paper in place against the wooden cover. This is especially to be seen along the bottom cover, where the bottom page of the screenfold is plainly thrust underneath the hooks or flaps.

Coe and Rau may be correct in assuming that the covers were glued to the screenfolds, but an argument against the gluing of the covers to the paper--and a possible explanation about why to date no codices with covers have been unearthed--is that the covers were not meant to be permanent at all, but acted more like dust jackets do for modern books.

The Spanish burned literally thousands of codices; did all of them have jaguar-skin covers, or even precious stones? Although it is likely that not all codices had valuable covers (see the carved wooden covers between the Monkey-Men Gods in Figures 2 and 3 above), the overriding characteristic of the codex covers is that they seem detachable. Consider the problem of storage, which, given contemporary accounts of huge Maya libraries, necessitates an efficient use of space. Sheet-folds are depicted on Maya architecture and pottery as often without covers as with them, and it is tempting to infer that Maya codices were stored sans covers; covers would be attached temporarily when the codices were in use. This also explains why, despite the fact that the Maya seem to have labeled nearly every object with regard to ownership and use, no codex covers are shown as containing specific “title” glyphs for the codices they contain.

A second difficulty in knowing how to cover a codex is the variety of ways in which codices and their covers are depicted. Figures 18 through 23 show depictions of codices in many different possible forms, from the most common the to the most unique. Most depictions of codices in Maya pottery and architectural carving show the codex as a bundle of screenfold leaves bound top and bottom with animal-skin covers, as in Figure 18, which depicts two scribes, likely the Hero Twins, writing in such codices:

Figure 18 (K1523). © Justin Kerr.

A variation on this manner of codex construction is seen in another Maya vase. In Figure 19, we see three scribes and three codices. Each codex has only one plain bottom cover, and in this instance, it is detached from the screenfold, which is held together by a sort of wrap-around “spine” of animal skin:

Figure 19 (K5352). © Justin Kerr.

A third variation on the “wrap-around” construction is seen in Figure 20, in which the scribal deities write in codices which have traditional jaguar-hide top covers but are held together by the wrap-around skin on the bottom. Two other vessels (K5721 and K5824) not depicted here show codices with a jaguar-skin top cover only (Kerr).

Figure 20 (K0760). © Justin Kerr.

Different from the above methods of binding a codex is that seen in Figure 21, where the screenfolds of paper are used without any covers by the Young Maize God. A similar depiction can be found in vase K5814 (Kerr).

Figure 21 (K1787). © Justin Kerr.

Also of note is a depiction of an “inside-out” codex, in which the raised bumps on the codex covers with typically face in toward the screenfold, are reversed, facing outward, apparently attached by the protuberances to a block of wood or other solid cover material. Figure 22 shows two scribes with codices in this configuration, and another vessel (K2095) not shown here depicts two bearded scribes writing in “inside-out” codices, as well.

Figure 22 (K1565). © Justin Kerr.

The most intriguing depiction of codices, however, shows three codices, each one different. In Figure 23, we see a traditionally-bound codex in the hands of each of the monkey-man gods. At the feet of the monkey-man god on the left is a codex without any covers, drawn in the traditional style of zigzag vertical lines joined to flat horizontal lines to create a side view of a screenfold. Most intriguing is the codex at the feet of the monkey-man god on the right. The lines of the unbound codex all curve down toward a point at the bottom right of the codex, suggesting, perhaps, a side view of a leafed book as we know it in the traditional European sense.

Figure 23 (K1225). © Justin Kerr.

This theory is at present admittedly little more than conjecture, and further research needs to be done to determine the nature and use of covers for Maya codices. In the meantime, I will follow the detachable-covers model when constructing my own codex.  
Making Brushes/Pens

As with the covers of codices, the process by which the Maya made their writing instruments remains an inexact science to us. No specimens of writing implements survive, but based on the evidence we have from the four extant codices, we can derive the sorts of instruments used to create the thick and thin lines in them. In each of the four codices, we can see thick lines of red and black, and in some cases, the lines are not uniform in thickness and contain in places wisps of ink that trail off from the main line, strongly suggesting a pliable-hair brush of some kind:

There is also evidence on Maya pottery of writing instruments in use; these instrument, as mentioned above, are sometimes brushes of varying sizes and thickness, but, more often than not, the instrument is shown simply as a short, straight line, suggesting a carved or whittled pen.

Figure 24 (K5824). © Justin Kerr.

To support the theory of the existence of quill pens or other firm-tipped writing instruments, we can rely on evidence from the four surviving codices, whose pages contain fine, even lines which do not vary in thickness and which do not betray evidence of brush-hair “stray.”

Thus, the Maya seem to have had two different sorts of writing implements: brush pens and hard-tipped fine-line pens. In order to make the latter, I simply whittled a goose quill, using the sharp cutting edge of a broken-off flint to do the cutting. Despite the clumsiness of this process relative to using, say, a penknife, the nib I was able to produce was very strong and thin.

Figure 25. Hard-tipped pen.

In order to create a brush pen, I glued an assembly of hair-bristles into the hollowed-out marrow of a chicken bone. I then cut the tip of the brush at a slight angle, again using my flint-sherd knife. The resulting brush, was very sturdy, and was surprisingly comfortable in the hand.

Figure 26. Human-hair brush pen.  
Making Ink

The ink used to create Maya codices has undergone careful scrutiny, and most scholars agree that the black ink used in Maya codices is a combination of water and fire-soot scraped from the bottoms of cooking pots. This carbon-black is one of the most permanent and durable inks possible, and has stood up to environmental conditions extremely well over time. Likewise, the recipe for colored pigments are combinations of minerals and water. In their codices, the Maya used red and black heavily and other colors more sparingly, as evinced by the four surviving codices. After the uncertainty and debate about the format and function of the codex covers, I was relieved to see scholarly agreement about the inks used by the Maya, and I was even more relived to discover that Maya ink is relatively easy to manufacture. Michael Coe describes the conch-shell vessels used by scribes to hold ink:

Conch shells were ideal containers for ink, as their smooth and slippery inside surfaces allowed for good mixing of the ingredients, and their sharp edges facilitated wiping of one’s brush in order to maintain a proper amount of colorant on one’s brush (Reents-Budet 41-43). The Maya recipe for ink usually contains only two ingredients: water as a vehicle, and a colorant in suspension:

I mixed together a number of batches of black ink, having reserved the soot from the bottom of my kettle during the nixtamalization process above. The ideal solution of vehicle to suspension (about XXX parts water to XXX parts soot) produced an ink that was sludgy, blacker and thicker than modern bottled ink, which did not run or bleed on the writing surface during preliminary writing experiments.

Mary Elizabeth Haude has conducted a study of colorant composition from maps made by Mesoamerican and Spanish artists during the early Spanish colonial period. Although I will not delineate her findings here, the results of her research clearly indicate that the Maya had mastered the creation of opaque permanent pigments for use in mural-painting, pottery decoration, and writing (Haude). Based on her findings and the suppositions of scholars such as Michael Coe and Dorie Reents-Budet, I also made a batch of red ink. For red ink, I found the process more demanding, mostly because of the scarcity of one of the ingredients:

Red ink is composed of hematite (a mineral rust from iron ore) and water, and the samples of hematite I collected came from scraps of old steel-mill iron ore, which contain much more than just hematite. It is unknown whether the Maya used any means of separating hematite from other minerals with which it is sometimes found. I used a steel file (a decidedly un-Maya time-saving tool) to obtain iron-ore dust to produce a fair facsimile of “Maya red.” The vehicle-to-suspension ration for red ink (XXX parts water to XXX parts hematite) produced ink of similar consistency and qualities to my black ink. Figure 26 shows lines and ah ts’ib glyphs written with differing recipes of black and red ink.

Figure 27. Ink recipe results.  
Writing The Text

In order to begin thinking about how to write out my text, I must first consider what we might call “penmanship.” How did the Maya hold their brushes? Did they rest their hands on the page, or did they utilize a “painter’s grasp,” dangling the brush over the surface of the codex? Fortunately, the archaeological and pottery evidence is fairly clear on these points:

Having settled the question of how to hold the instruments, I now needed to figure out where to put the codex in order to write in it. My choices seemed fairly limited, as the evidence we have already seen points to the codex being placed on the floor with the scribe seated cross-legged before it. However, Michael Coe suggests a few different possibilities:


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