H-130. The History & Construction of the Mesoamerican Codex, 600–1550

John Hessler

Of the thousands of pre-Columbian books produced, only a handful have survived to the present day, all of which shed a bright light on the history, language, and book production methods and techniques of the Aztecs and the Maya.

This class will introduce the Mesoamerican Codex both as a physical and cultural object. By discussing not only the construction, material make-up, and pigments of the codices, but also by considering broader cultural questions regarding their languages, iconography, and provenance, students can begin to understand how these books functioned within indigenous societies and how they were perceived by Europeans during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Students will examine critically the latest scientific and imaging research on the Maya Codices from Madrid, Paris, and Dresden, and will also look closely at the hieroglyphic writing and painted iconography. All extant Maya codices are believed to have been painted in the Late Post-Classic period, from 1250 to 1520, but many of iconographic themes can be found on earlier ceramics dating from 400 to 800 CE. A comparison of some of the themes painted by Maya scribes on the codices with those found on archaeological objects in the Jay I. Kislak Collection at the Library of Congress will occupy part of the course.

Turning to later manuscripts, students will examine the Oztoticpac Lands Map (1539), and the Huexotzinco Codex (1531), two of the most important primary source Nahua documents in the collections of the Library of Congress, which have survived from the early contact period. In discussing the construction of these two important manuscripts, students will enter into the current debates regarding the pictorial nature of Nahua writing and its relationship to language and will examine other manuscripts, like the Mapa Quinatzin, the Codex Xolotl and Codex Borbonicus.

There are no prerequisites for the class outside of an interest in the history of the early Americas, archaeology, and book production during both pre-Columbian and the early contact periods. In their personal statements, applicants should describe the nature of their interest in the history of the book, archaeology, or Mesoamerican cultures, their expectations of the course, and the purposes to which they propose to put the knowledge gained from their participation.

Course History

John Hessler teaches this course for the first time.
This course is not currently being offered. Please do not list on any RBS fellowship or scholarship applications.

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John Hessler

John Hessler

When not climbing in the Alps or searching through ruins in Central America, John Hessler is curator of the Jay I. Kislak Collection of the Archaeology and History of the Early Americas and a Specialist in Computational Geography & Geographic Information Science (GIS) at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.

His research focuses on the linguistics of the ethnobotany of the ancient Maya and Nahua and on traditional plant classification schemes in the Amazon. He is also researching the ethnobotanical language of the Cahuilla, or Iviluqaletem culture, in the deserts of the southwestern California & Joshua Tree National Park, and the botanical cognates of the polysynthetic languages of the Uto-Aztecan family. Interested in the earliest books, illustrations, and herbals from the Americas, he has also participated in many scientific and archaeological studies of plants, including a recent investigation of the remains of ancient agave.

The author of more than one hundred articles and books, including the New York Times best-seller, MAP: Exploring the World, his writing and research has been featured in many national media outlets including the New York Times, Washington Post, Discover Magazine, WIRED, the Atlantic’s CITYLAB, the BBC, CBS News and most recently on NPR’s All Things Considered. He is the author of the recent book Collecting for a New World, which outlines the provenance and history of the archaeological collections at the Library of Congress.

More information on his projects can be found at https://jhessler.net

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