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.

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John Hessler

John Hessler

John W. Hessler is Curator of the Jay I. Kislak Collection of the Archaeology and History of the Early Americas at the Library of Congress.

A Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, he is the founder of The Topology Lab for Cognitive and Computational Linguistics in Archaeology and is on the faculty of the Graduate School of Advanced Studies at Johns Hopkins University, where he teaches classes in Maya Hieroglyphics, computational linguistics, and Mesoamerican archaeology. He is the co-director of the Washington, DC Maya Hieroglyphic Writing and Linguistics Seminars (known as the Glyph Group) and is the author of more than one hundred articles and books, including Columbus’ Book of Privileges, 1502: the Claiming of a New WorldThe Naming of America: Martin Waldseemüller’s 1507 World Map and the Cosmographiae Introductio; A Renaissance Globemaker’s Toolbox: Johannes Schöner and the Revolution of Modern Science, 1475–1550; Seeing the World Anew: The Radical Vision of Martin Waldseemüller’s 1507 and 1516 World Maps; Galileo’s Starry Messenger and MAP: Exploring the World.

Hessler’s work has been featured in numerous national media outlets including the New York Times, Washington PostDiscover Magazine, and most recently on NPR’s “All Things Considered.”  He is currently at work on a book of his collected lectures on computer vision in archaeology, entitled Reconstructing Lost Worlds: Three-Dimensional Modeling, Computer Vision and Virtual Reality for Cultural Heritage Preservation (2018).

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