Dresden Codex

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Dresden Codex, page 49

The Dresden Codex is a thirteenth or fourteenth-century book of the Yucatecan Maya of Chichén Itzá. The book is located in a museum in Dresden, Germany. Its 78 pages were folded like an accordion and are eight inches wide with an overall length of over twelve feet when laid out flat unfolded. It has hieroglyphs and refers to an original text of some three or four hundred years earlier. The codex has descriptions on customs and traditions. It also has information on mathematical astronomical tables and religious references related to calendars.


The Dresden Codex contains between a front and back decorative board cover 78 pages of 39 double-sided sheets.[1][2] Each oblong sheet is 3.5 inches (8.9 cm) wide and 8 inches (20 cm) high.[3] It has an overall length of 12.5 feet (3.8 m).[4] The document is made from amatl paper (inner woolly rind parts of a species of wild fig tree that has been flattened and covered with a plaster type paste[5]) and doubled in folds like an accordion.[1][2] The two sides of folding-screen leaves of text and pictures are then view-able at the same time.[1] The Dresden Codex book is exhibited at the museum of the Saxon State Library in Dresden, Germany.[6] It is the oldest surviving book from the Americas.[2][7]

The Maya codex is one of three verifiable hieroglyphic books of the Maya civilization. The three are named to indicate the geographical locations where they were kept now, Dresden, Madrid, and Paris.[8] They all have about the same size pages with the height around twice the width.[8] The Dresden Codex pictures and glyphs were painted with skilled craftsmen using thin brushes and vegetable dyes.[9] Black and red were the main colors used for many of the pages.[10] Some pages have detailed backgrounds in shades of yellow, green and the Mayan blue.[11] The codex was written by eight different scribes.[12] They all had their own particular writing style, glyphs and subject matter.[3]


Six pages (55–59, 74) of eclipses (left), multiplication tables and a flood (far right)

The Dresden Codex is described by historian J. Eric S. Thompson as writings of the indigenous people of the Yucatán Peninsula in southeastern Mexico. He further narrows it down to the specific area of Chichen Itza as certain picture symbols in the codex writings are only found in monuments there. Another factor he points out for this area to being highly likely the place of its origin is because of the astronomical tables in the book and that area is known to have done such studies around 1200 A.D. A third point he brings up is that of matching decorative evidence of ceramic in the Chichen Itza area of which production is known by historians to have ceased in the early thirteenth century.[13] Scholars that have studied the Dresden Codex suggests that it was written between the eleventh and fourteenth-century C.E.[14][15] Thompson places the date at 1200 A.D. to 1250 A.D.[16] Maya archaeologist Linton Satterthwaite puts the date when it was made not any sooner than 1345 A.D.[3]

Johann Christian Götze (1692–1749), German theologian and director of the Royal Library at Dresden, purchased the codex from a private owner in Vienna in 1739 in his travels on his way to Italy.[3][17] Historians Robert Sharer and Loa Traxler speculate that the codex document was sent as a tribute to Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor by Hernán Cortés, governor of Mexico, since examples of local Indian writings and other things were sent to the king in 1519 who was then living in Vienna.[17][18]

First publication in 1811 by Humboldt who repainted five pages for his atlas

Alexander von Humboldt learned of the Maya book and in 1811 published pages 47–52 from the Dresden Codex in his atlas Vues des Cordillères et Monuments des Peuples Indigènes de l'Amérique as the first reproduction of any of the Maya book pages. The first complete copy of the codex was published by Lord Kingsborough in his 1831 Antiquities of Mexico. In 1828 Constantine Samuel Rafinesque had identified this book being of Maya origin based on its glyphs looking like those found at Palenque.[18]

Dresden librarian Ernst Wilhelm Förstemann deciphered the calendar section of the codex in the nineteenth century, including the Maya numerals used therein.[19] He determined that these numbers, along with deities and day names, related to the Mayan calendar and the Mayan Long Count calendar.[20] In 1897 Paul Schellhas assigned gods to specific glyphs of the non-calendar section.[21] In the 1950s Yuri Knorozov used a phonetic approach based on the De Landa alphabet for decoding the codex.[22]

The Dresden Codex contains astronomical tables of great accuracy. It is most famous for its Lunar Series and Venus table.[15] The lunar series has intervals correlating with eclipses, while the Venus Table correlates with the apparent movements of that planet.[23] The codex also contains almanacs, astronomical and astrological tables, as well as ritual schedules.[15][17][24] The religious references show in a cycle of a 260-day ritual calendar the important Maya royal events.[25] The Dresden Codex also includes information on the Maya new-year ceremony tradition.[26] The rain god Chaac is represented 134 times.[27] The codex has played a key role in the deciphering of Mayan hieroglyphs.[28]


The complete Dresden Codex in the correct reading sequence (pages 1–24, 46–74, 25–45) from left to right, including empty pages

Page numbers and sequence[edit]

First page sequencing of the codex by Agostino Aglio
Correct reading order of the pages within the codex
The presentation of the Dresden Codex since 1945

Today's page numbers were assigned to the codex by Agostino Aglio when he became the first to transcribe the manuscript in 1825/26. For this, he divided the original codex into two parts, labeled Codex A and Codex B. He sequenced Codex A on the front side followed by its back side, with the same order on Codex B. Today, we understand that a codex reading should traverse the complete front side followed by the complete back side of the manuscript (i.e. pages 1–24 followed by 46–74, followed by 25–45).[29]

The librarian K. C. Falkenstein adjusted the relative position of pages for "esthetical reasons" in 1836, resulting in today's two similar-length parts. While deciphering the codex, the librarian E. W. Förstemann noticed an error in Aglio's page assignment of the sheets 1/45 and 2/44, so he correctly reassigned Aglio's pages 44 and 45 to become pages 1 and 2.[30] The codex suffered serious water damage during World War II and certain details of the glyphs have been lost as can be seen compared to the 1880 and 1892 Förstemann facsimile editions.[31]

See also[edit]

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ a b c Thompson 1972, p. 4.
  2. ^ a b c Lyons 2011, p. 85.
  3. ^ a b c d Thompson 1972, p. 15.
  4. ^ Von Hagen 1999, p. 61.
  5. ^ Lyons 2011, p. 84.
  6. ^ "The Dresden Codex". World Digital Library. 1200–1250. Retrieved 2013-08-21. 
  7. ^ Anzovin 2000, p. 197.
  8. ^ a b Thompson 1972, p. 3.
  9. ^ Thompson 1972, pp. 3, 15, 16.
  10. ^ Thompson 1972, pp. 3, 15, 16, 122.
  11. ^ Thompson 1972, pp. 15, 122.
  12. ^ Thompson 1972, p. 3, 15.
  13. ^ Thompson 1972, p. 16.
  14. ^ Aveni 2000, p. 221.
  15. ^ a b c Ruggles 2005, p. 134.
  16. ^ Thompson 1972, pp. 15–16.
  17. ^ a b c Sharer 2006, p. 127.
  18. ^ a b Thompson 1972, p. 17.
  19. ^ Thompson 1972, pp. 71,81,85,105.
  20. ^ Thompson 1972, pp. 21,25,62.
  21. ^ Thompson 1972, p. 31.
  22. ^ Coe 1982, pp. 3–5.
  23. ^ Thompson 1972, pp. 63–69.
  24. ^ Thompson 1972, pp. 32–47.
  25. ^ Thompson 1972, p. 3,63,73.
  26. ^ Thompson 1972, p. 89–93.
  27. ^ Thompson 1972, p. 27.
  28. ^ SLUB Dresden: The Dresden Maya-Codex
  29. ^ Decker 1989, p. 7.
  30. ^ Sächsische Landesbibliothek 1975, pp. 32–33.
  31. ^ Thompson 1972, p. 19.


Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Media related to Dresden Codex at Wikimedia Commons