New Technology Uncovers Hidden Pictures in ‘Blank’ 16th-Century Book

Copyright © Journal of Archaeological Sciences: Reports, 2016 Elsevier
Copyright © Journal of Archaeological Sciences: Reports, 2016 Elsevier / Copyright © Journal of Archaeological Sciences: Reports, 2016 Elsevier

Researchers have discovered fascinating historical images in a "blank" pre-Columbian book. Hyperspectral scans of seemingly empty pages revealed stories and characters never before seen in Mixtec manuscripts. A report on the findings was published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

European explorers brought a lot of things to the Americas—looking at you, smallpox—but the concept of books wasn’t one of them. Mesoamerican cultures had developed sophisticated books of their own long before the Spanish conquistadors burst onto their shores. Most of those books, like most of those cultures, did not survive the invasion. Today, fewer than 20 pre-Columbian codices, or books, remain.

One of those books has frustrated historians for more than half a century. The Codex Añute, also known as the Codex Selden, looks an awful lot like a blank book. But in 1958, researchers got a glimpse of pigment through a crack in one page’s white paint. They became sure that the deerskin book was a palimpsest, a book that had been erased or masked to make room for new text. The gesso on the pages was not a base layer, they said, but the Mixtec version of Wite-Out.

The codex as it appears to the naked eye. Image Credit: Copyright © Journal of Archaeological Sciences: Reports, 2016 Elsevier

Unfortunately, they couldn’t prove it—at least not without destroying the book. The most advanced imaging technology in their arsenal, the X-ray, was no use, since the Mixtecs’ pigments of choice don’t absorb X-ray radiation.

Fast-forward to 2014, also known as the future. Astrophysicists are using a new technique called hyperspectral imaging, which picks up all the light, visible or invisible, reflected by an object. Oxford University's Bodleian Library has acquired its own scanner and is turning its gaze not to the stars, but onto objects right here on Earth—including books. The technique can do what X-rays and other types of scans cannot: pick up organic pigments. So a trio of hopeful researchers decided to give the Codex Añute another go.

Their decision paid off. The codex was most definitely a palimpsest. Scans of seven pages revealed vibrant depictions of dozens of figures (see the photo at the top of this page), including red-haired women, two siblings connected with an umbilical cord, and people walking with staffs or spears. The pictographic text is not a fictional story nor a religious text but a genealogy depicting various important Mixtec lineages.

"What's interesting is that the text we've found doesn't match that of other early Mixtec manuscripts,” co-author and Leiden University archaeologist Ludo Snijders said in a statement. “The genealogy we see appears to be unique, which means it may prove invaluable for the interpretation of archaeological remains from southern Mexico.”

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