Historical story

How do you make an ancient hidden cartoon visible again?

Last updated:2022-07-25

Hidden beneath a mysterious manuscript from Mexico is a cartoon that may reveal a wealth of insights into the lost, pre-colonial culture of Central America. How do you make that visible, if the five-hundred-year-old document already falls apart when you point at it?

When the Spanish conquerors wiped out the traditional culture of Central America in 1521, they did their best to erase all traces of the ancient Mixtec religious culture. It was nothing less than devil worship in their eyes. Documents from the pre-colonial era can therefore be counted on a few hands, and historians know very little about the culture of the pre-colonial Mixtecs.

Mysterious cartoon

A mysterious manuscript, the Codex Añute, which is stored in an archive in Oxford, England, may contain a wealth of new insights. At first glance, the manuscript is painted as a typical pre-colonial cartoon, but despite that style, the manuscript actually dates from around 1560, ie after the Spanish conquest. However, the secret lies within. Another cartoon is hidden under a plaster layer on the back of the document. And that is most likely really pre-colonial.

Scientists are eager to read this pre-colonial writing. With a grant from the NWO Science4Arts programme, Leiden professor of Mesoamerican archeology Maarten Jansen, together with professors Joris Dik and Andreas Schmidt-Ott from TU Delft, is looking for a method to make the mysterious cartoon visible. Quite a challenge, because the almost five-hundred-year-old codex is already falling apart if you point at it.

Light as heat

“It became clear in the 1950s that something is hidden,” Maarten Jansen explains. “Then spots were discovered on the back of the document where you can see colors through the white layer. People then started to scratch away in a very irresponsible and unscientific way, and then figures became visible. As a result, we know for sure that there is a text underneath, we don't know exactly how far it extends, but we assume a visual story of at least fifteen pages."

The Codex Añute consists of a long, folded piece of deer leather. It is folded like an accordion, so you get a book with several pages. It's just not bound at the back. The research into the front, the legible cartoon in pre-colonial style, has now been completed. That is why Jansen and his PhD student Ludo Snijders are now focusing on the hidden codex at the back. “What is the relationship between the visible text and the invisible text? Why has a genuine pre-colonial text been overpainted in this way in this particular manuscript, and not in other manuscripts? That is why we are now investigating what can still be made visible with modern techniques.”

The technique that should help Maarten Jansen and his team to make the hidden manuscript visible is being developed at TU Delft with the help of NWO funding, by PhD student Tim Zaman. “It is a technique that radiates light onto the document, the reflection of that light is captured as heat. Patterns in that heat radiation says something about the colors underneath. That is a technique that works, in the same way you can also see what is under a painting by Rembrandt. But since the color differences are so minimal, the technique has to be improved. In addition, the white top layer is not even and cracked, which also complicates the investigation.”

Comic story

What is hidden under the limestone layer, if it really succeeds to make it accessible with new techniques, will yield a wealth of historical knowledge about the religious culture of the Mixtecs, the Mesoamerican people to whom the document is attributed. “Most likely it is a cartoon that relates to their ancient history, for example a chronicle of an ancient royal family,” says Jansen. “There are no more than twenty manuscripts from pre-colonial Mexico – and therefore from all over the New World. We only know the history of these peoples from the colonial writings of the Spanish conquerors. They were simply not interested in a lot of aspects.”

Only a few sources exist at the moment, so any new discovery is of great value. Jansen hopes through this document to gain access to an ancient civilization through their own historiography. “The pre-colonial historiography of Mexico consists of pictographs, you could compare it a bit with a Western comic strip,” says Jansen. These pictographs form a very complex system with a long development history. This is often difficult to decipher, also due to the lack of material, and we have a lot of holes in the picture of that ancient, pre-colonial history. We do not understand much from the pre-colonial period. But from the scene that we can discern from the scraped-off piece, we already know that this underlying visual story is something very different from what we know so far."

The Mixtec people still exist today. They live in Mexico but, like other indigenous peoples, are discriminated against and oppressed. “These people have little access to their own history and are interested in new opportunities to get acquainted with their old culture. Last year I was in the village where this manuscript comes from to tell about it and the interest in it was overwhelming. For that reason alone, our research is useful, perhaps not so in the Netherlands, but certainly for the people there.”

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