September 13, 2016
And the award for oldest book in the Americas goes to…
by Ian Dreiblatt
For a month and a half in early 1971, the Grolier Club in New York City (which bills itself as “America’s oldest and largest society for bibliophiles and enthusiasts in the graphic arts”) mounted a display of a book that would go on to create much controversy in the world of American archeology.
The book—more exactly a bundle of eleven damaged sheets of fig-bark paper culled from what was believed to have been a twenty-page almanac of the planet Venus, written and illustrated in an alloy of various ancient American styles (predominantly Maya and Mixtec)—would forever after be known as “the Grolier Codex.”
It had been acquired on loan from its owner, Josué Sáenz, who offered a bizarre explanation as to where he had gotten it: two men had found the codex by accident in a dry cave in Chiapas, and later brought Sáenz to inspect, transporting him in a small plane whose navigation instruments had been concealed to protect the mystery of their destination. After landing and being led to the cave where the codex sat in a wooden box, Sáenz bought it. It changed hands a little after the Grolier Club exhibit closed in June, 1971, and was returned to Mexico in 1976 accordance with the United States-Mexico Artifacts Treaty of 1970. It has remained on display there ever since.
But within a few years of its public debut in New York, the Grolier Codex became the object of skepticism from experts, a charge led by the preeminent scholar of Mesoamerican civilization Sir J. Eric S. Thompson. Thompson read the codex’s Mixtec flourishes as the mistaken handiwork of a twentieth-century forger. But plenty of Thompson’s colleagues disagreed—perhaps most notably People’s Hero of Soviet Linguistics (a richly-deserved honor I have just made up) Yuri Knorozov—producing a situation in which uncertainty as to the Grolier’s true provenance raged for decades.
According to a press release put out by Brown University last week, the Grolier’s authenticity is confirmed, making it the oldest known book to have been produced in the Americas. In a paper published in Maya Archaeology, a team of Mayanists led by Stephen Houston, and including Michael E. Coe—the scholar responsible for the original loan from Sáenz to the Grolier Club, now in his late eighties—as well as Mary Miller and Karl Taube, claims to have definitively made “a confirmation that the manuscript, counter to some claims, is quite real.”
“It became a kind of dogma that this was a fake,” Houston continued. “We decided to return and look at it very carefully, to check criticisms one at a time. Now we are issuing a definitive facsimile of the book. There can’t be the slightest doubt that the Grolier is genuine.”
As to the book’s contents, the press release explains:
The gods depicted in the codex are described by Houston and his colleagues as “workaday gods, deities who must be invoked for the simplest of life’s needs: sun, death, K’awiil—a lordly patron and personified lightning—even as they carry out the demands of the ‘star’ we call Venus. [The] Dresden and Madrid [codices] both elucidate a wide range of Maya gods, but in Grolier, all is stripped down to fundamentals.”
The codex is also, according to the paper’s authors, not a markedly beautiful book. “In my view, it isn’t a high-end production,” Houston said, “not one that would be used in the most literate royal court. The book is more closely focused on images and the meanings they convey.”
In an email to the Huffington Post’s David Freeman, David S. Stuart, a professor of Mesoamerican art at the University of Texas, called the study “very thorough,” adding, “I wholeheartedly agree that the Grolier Codex is genuine.” For those few MobyLives readers who have accidentally let their subscriptions to Maya Archaeology lapse, Professor Donna Yates, an expert in antiquarian art crimes at the University of Glasgow, has written at Trafficking Culture to explain the study’s findings in greater detail.
This is big news, whether you need to know what Venus looked like from ancient Mexico or not. Besides the Grolier, only three pre-Columbian Maya codices have ever been found. The armor-clad jerks of colonial Spain, and the tonsured jerks who walked behind them swinging incense, pursued the destruction of America’s great writing systems as a holy mission. The very cultural hybridity that made some scholars suspicious of the Grolier Codex now seems to hint at a vanished world of cultural exchange. Somehow, this pile of fig-bark paper has evaded the armor-clad jackboots of some of history’s most armor-clad jerks. It’s an almanac of the planet Venus, and the oldest book known to have been made in the Americas.
Ian Dreiblatt is the director of digital media at Melville House.