The Maya Codices

The Maya developed a sophisticated writing system many centuries before their first contact with Europeans in the sixteenth century. In what are now southeastern Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and portions of Honduras and El Salvador, the Maya wrote using a system of hieroglyphs instead of an alphabet. They carved, sculpted, and painted texts in many places:  the facades of buildings, stone monuments (stelae), wooden objects, and pottery vessels; they even tattooed their bodies with hieroglyphs. They also made books that today are known as “codices.” There probably were hundreds of codices at one time but most were destroyed during attempts to convert the Maya to Christianity.

The Madrid Codex, or Codex Tro-Cortesianus, is one of only three or four surviving Maya codices. A Spanish priest or explorer likely sent or took it to Europe in the sixteenth century, but we know little of its early history. It first came to the attention of the world in the 1860s, when it was discovered in Spain. It is currently housed in a special storage facility at the Museo de América  in Madrid.  A facsimile of the codex is on display in the public galleries of the museum.

The other Maya hieroglyphic books are the Dresden and Paris codices, with histories similar to the Madrid Codex, and the Grolier Codex, which was discovered in a cave in Chiapas, Mexico, in the 1960s. To read more about recent research on the hieroglyphic codices and other painted texts, see volume 93 of Arqueologia Mexicana.

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