Imaging the Codex Xolotl and Mapa Quinatzin

Imaging the Codex Xolotl and Mapa Quinatzin at the Bibliothèque National de France, Paris, 14-15 June, 2016

Written by Jerome A. Offner, Ph.D, HMNS Associate Curator, Northern Mesoamerica

On June 14 and 15, Dr. Antonino Cosentino of Cultural Heritage Science Open Source and I were able to carry out technical photography of the Codex Xolotl and Mapa Quinatzin at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris (BnF).  Permissions, facilities and staff time were arranged by Laurent Héricher, Chef du service des manuscrits orientaux, Département des Manuscrits of the BnF.  This was no easy task and we express our appreciation for the extensive effort and work he put into these arrangements, particularly in the midst of a multiyear renovation of the site Richelieu, where the documents are kept. Loїc Vauzelle, a graduate student at the Sorbonne, travelled from central France at his own expense to assist, and John Hessler, the Kislak Curator of the Library of Congress also happened to be in Paris and provided expert aid and observations as the process went on.  In addition, Dr. Marisa Álvarez Icaza Longoria of UNAM, who was at the BnF traveling on a fellowship, contributed valuable ideas. She had just participated in the Oxford conference “Mesoamerican manuscripts: new scientific approaches and Interpretations,” held 31 May to 2 June, 2016 which included several talks on imaging indigenous Mesoamerican documents.

The project had been scheduled weeks in advance, but emerging problems nearly led to its cancellation.  The Seine was at or out of its banks in Paris as part of the worst flooding in decades.  The Louvre was moving some of its holdings out of danger.  Certain sites of the BnF were closed.  France was also hosting the 2016 UEFA European Football (Soccer) Championship and Air France pilots began a strike on the day before my flight from Houston to Paris.  Nevertheless, we were able to complete the project and Paris began to resemble its familiar beautiful self at just about that same time. 

Seine receding from flooding at Île de la Cité,  16 June, 2016

Seine receding from flooding at Île de la Cité, 16 June, 2016

Notre Dame, in evening light, June 16, 2016, as the skies began to clear

Notre Dame, in evening light, June 16, 2016, as the skies began to clear

At the BnF, site Richlieu, we were provided with a meeting room with two windows that we were able to cover with two layers of black plastic bags secured by green painter’s tape. For others who may be faced with a similar situation,  it is worth noting that not one but two layers of these already two sided bags were needed to block the summer light sufficiently. Also, the BnF was happy to see that the painter’s tape left no marks on their walls upon removal. The meeting room door turned out to be light proof around its edges and needed no special attention. The room had only a standard meeting table, the height of which unfortunately could not be adjusted. 

We were able to capture four types of technical images for these Aztec pictorial documents.  Antonino Cosentino used a modified full spectrum Nikon D800 digital camera, sensitive to the spectral range 360-1100 nm, along with different lighting sources and filters to obtain images that we can designate in this way:

VIS (visible)
IR (infrared)
UVF (ultraviolet fluorescence)
UVR (reflected ultraviolet)

Because of the table height, we had to shoot at an angle, but Antonino made the best of this by making the IR images do double duty also as RAK images. 

Preparing to acquire images from Codex Xolotl X.020

Preparing to acquire images from Codex Xolotl X.020

Dr. Cosentino focusing in on Codex Xolotl X.050 and X.060

Dr. Cosentino focusing in on Codex Xolotl X.050 and X.060

Technical photography documentation of the manuscripts.

What do these designations for types of photography mean, and how are the images described by them acquired?

VIS is used here for light in the visible spectrum, or the portion of the electromagnetic spectrum that is visible to the human eye. A typical human eye will respond to wavelengths from about 390 to 700 nm. In the procedure used for the documents, light, provided by fluorescent tubes, reflected off the surface of the document and passed through an X-Nite CC 1 filter which blocked infrared wavelengths before entering the lens and camera.  The filtered light was then captured by the 36 megapixel CMOS sensor in the Nikon camera. 

IR is the designation used here for infrared photography.  In this case, a Heliopan RG 1000 filter was placed over the camera lens to block visible light while allowing infrared radiation into the camera. (Remember here that infrared radiation has longer wavelengths than visible light, while ultraviolet radiation has shorter wavelengths).    As mentioned, these IR images also served as RAK images, meaning that the document pages were illuminated by an infrared source at an oblique angle.  Although the angle we used was only slight, the images captured provide a great deal of information on the surface topography and relief of document pages. 

UVF imaging picks up visible light emission excited by a UV source (UV-LED) that is used to illuminate the document.  As the surface is illuminated, certain materials fluoresce—that is, the material absorbs some of the UV radiation that falls on it and emits visible light.  The photons which are then emitted from the document have longer wavelengths that fall into the normal visible light spectrum.  Not all materials fluoresce so this method can be a valuable tool for distinguishing materials, and for seeing certain materials more clearly, such as European iron-gall ink glosses (see below). For UVF, two filters are placed in front of the camera—the X-Nite CC 1 filter mentioned above, and a Baader UV/IR filter.  These filters work together to create a spectrum window that allows just the visible wavelengths produced by the UV-induced fluorescence into the camera, while blocking wavelengths of light outside the visible spectrum.

UVR (reflected UV) imaging is simpler.  The document is illuminated with UV light and the camera records the reflected light through another spectrum window created by the X-Nite CC 1 filter and a B+W 403 filter which allows UV waves into the camera. UVR photography is also another helpful tool for assessing surface topography and roughness. 

The images are taken sequentially without moving the document and can therefore be assembled into spectral cubes in Photoshop through the use of layers.  Using features of this program, and harnessing the human eye’s exquisite sensitivity to detecting change, the various layers can be compared using a method not unlike the blink comparator that was used by Clyde Tombaugh to discover the dwarf planet Pluto in 1930. 

The filter set used for the examination of the manuscripts.

The filter set used for the examination of the manuscripts.

Understanding how the images are acquired helps us understand what we are seeing but also helps us develop methods to uncover or clarify details in these nearly five hundred year old manuscripts. Examining the surface of the images is also not unlike examining the images sent back by NASA planetary probes.  Below, the ice rafts on Jupiter’s moon Europa are seen side by side with rafts of “plaster” (gypsum, chalk, we still need to characterize this material) from the surface of the Mapa Quinatzin.  Many, but not all, Aztec manuscripts were painted after a layer of “plaster” had been applied on top of indigenous amatl (amate) paper.

The filter set used for the examination of the manuscripts. spacecraft on February 20, 1997, from a distance of 5,340 kilometers. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/ASU

The filter set used for the examination of the manuscripts. spacecraft on February 20, 1997, from a distance of 5,340 kilometers. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/ASU

 

Mapa Quinatzin, leaf 2, upper margin

Mapa Quinatzin, leaf 2, upper margin

We need to examine our images as carefully as NASA, JPL, and ASU examine their images, bearing in mind that it is considerably easier to acquire new images of the Mapa Quinatzin than of Europa. 

In our case, let’s compare the VIS image with the IR, UVF and UVR images.

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In this example, the damaged plaster fragments are seen well in VIS and UVR, while the IR image more accurately depicts the folding and flexing of the supporting indigenous amatl paper, and the UVR images shows mostly disturbance in the underlying amatl paper. 

Every landscape we encounter in the two documents that we imaged has the potential to teach us something new. For example, a detail from Mapa Quinatzin, leaf 3 helps us read the alphabetic gloss in European ink better than it has been read for centuries. Indigenous ink, composed of carbon black, is far more durable and less damaging to indigenous documents.  The often corrosive European iron-gall ink happens to absorb UV radiation and so UVF can be a useful tool for reading alphabetic glosses on these documents because of the contrast with the support (amatl paper) that is generally brighter (because it fluoresces).  This section of the manuscript (below) was unfortunately trimmed during its long history and the meaning of this particular scene, showing a man conversing with someone in a building, along with a man punished by strangling, has remained obscure. 

Mapa Quinatzin leaf 3 records a few Aztec legal rules along with cases of judicial corruption and their punishment. It is not just a list of rules but instead a fragmentary statement of precontact Aztec Texcocan jurisprudential thought, most likely presented, in this case, for European inspection.  Such jurisprudential thought continued well after contact, and involved such issues as how Aztec legal process should be conducted and how certain cases with certain details should be decided and punished.  Aztec jurisprudence was the product of sophisticated schools of thought over many years.   

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In this set of images of a small part of Mapa Quinatzin, leaf 3, the UVF image is improved and rendered legible by the fluorescing of the support (the amatl paper) in contrast to the dark European iron-gall ink in the gloss.  The Nahuatl text in alphabetic form that is revealed, of course, explains only a tiny portion of the meaning of the images: the indigenous Nahuatl graphic communication system was capable of communicating far more than mere alphabetic text could in a given amount of space.  Nevertheless, what little the alphabetic gloss says helps us correlate the image with other lengthier dependent alphabetic texts, especially those of the expert early ethnographer and historian Ixtlilxochitl (1975), and yields enough information to change our understanding of the structuring of the indigenous content of Mapa Quinatzin leaf 3 and of Aztec jurisprudence as a whole.

The landscape provided by the new images is not as large as Jupiter’s moon Europa, but it is a significant undiscovered country that will provide many more surprises as it is examined.  What was unknown proves again to be only temporarily hidden, and more things that remain unknown will hopefully be revealed through these images or through carefully designed new images and imaging techniques. 

 


More about Jerome A. Offner, Ph.D, Associate Curator, Northern Mesoamerica

Jerome A. (Jerry) Offner began working as a volunteer with the museum in 1984 and curated two exhibits on aspects of the Americas in the 1980s. Jerry is an expert on the Aztecs of Mexico, their history, culture and overall graphic communication system, including their writing system.

In 1983, Jerry “wrote the book” on the Aztec legal system and has continued to conduct research and publish articles through the present day on topics including religion, economics and history. He specializes in the beautiful and colorful “codices” or native pictorial documents from before and after the Conquest in 1519 AD. Currently, he is assembling a team in Europe to investigate the greatest of the Aztec pictorial histories—the Codex Xolotl from the city of Texcoco, which reports on many events of the remarkable life of Nezahualcoyotl who ruled that city 1431-1472 AD. This history, kept in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris, illustrates in considerable detail more than 260 years of history before 1431 AD on eleven pages and three fragments made of native paper. It records the migrations, invasions, wars, marriages, births, and lives in the histories of the many different peoples who came to be known as the Aztecs in what is now the central part of Mexico.

Jerry is also an expert in contemporary masks and textiles of Mexico, with additional interests in Africa and the ancient Mediterranean. He read, writes or speaks English, Spanish, French, Latin, ancient Greek, and classical Nahuatl, the language of the Nahua (Aztecs) of Mexico.

“Museums are for the adults in children and the children in adults,” says Jerry. “Most of us remember our first visit to a museum and how the entire day seemed to go by in a flash. We also remember our children’s first visits to museums. Museums are essential in providing hands on experience and interaction with actual objects in our increasingly virtual, digital world.

They anchor us to what is real and at the same time provide inspiration for childhood intellectual development as well as lifelong learning.”

Jerry received his B.A. in 1972 from the University of Chicago and his MPhil and PhD from Yale University in 1975 and 1979. He was been awarded grants by the National Science Foundation, the Doherty Foundation, as well as the Fulbright program. His book was awarded the Howard F. Cline Prize in 1985.

He is active in presenting papers at professional meetings, both in English and Spanish  Modern Texcocans remain fiercely and justifiably proud of their long history.  On September 2, 2016, he will give the “conferencia magistral” within the at the Tercer Coloquio de Historia Regional de Texcoco, in the modern city of Texcoco 2016, within a few hundred meters of the sites of some of the events depicted in the manuscripts included in the blog post.  He will be presenting important new findings based on the images newly acquired in Paris.

Teotihucan: A Land of Pyramids, Secret Tunnels and Robots

Archaeology is a field of study where patience is a virtue. Having a bit of luck doesn’t hurt either. In popular culture, archaeologists are seen as people who discover “lost cities,” “mysterious pyramids” and “precious treasures.” In real life, things are much more exciting.

Consider a recent development in archaeological investigations in one of Mexico’s largest pre-hispanic cities, sporting some the largest pyramids in the Americas. Never lost to the sands of time, this Mexican metropolis had a street plan laid out in a grid, very much like modern U.S. cities, and it had ethnic neighborhoods, where people were buried in the traditional ways of their homeland. Some people in this city knew how to read and write, yet we don’t know what they said. Meet Teotihuacan, where it is said the “gods were born.” This is also the story of Sergio Gomez, a Mexican archaeologist who experienced luck, when he found the entrance to a tunnel in 2009, and then displayed extreme patience excavating it.

Pyramid of the Moon at the end of the Avenue of the Dead, Teotihuacan, Mexico. (Image Wikimedia)

Pyramid of the Moon at the end of the Avenue of the Dead, Teotihuacan, Mexico. (Image Wikimedia)

With a history going back to 100 B.C., Teotihuacan was one of two major civilizations that arose in the Basin of Mexico, home to modern-day Mexico City. The other civilization we know as the Aztec. Separated by more than 1,000 years, both civilizations stand out for their monumental architecture, especially their massive pyramids.

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The Aztec were fully aware of the existence of the ancient city of Teotihuacan. They even incorporated Teotihuacan ceramics as offerings in the Aztec Templo Mayor, a transfer of magic powers from an ancient power center to a new, nascent one. By 700 A.D. the city came to a violent end, but was never completely abandoned. In the centuries following the decline, migrants came and went as Teotihuacan’s pyramids continued to tower over small communities of newcomers. At present, Mexico’s capital is inching closer and closer. A modern Mexican community, San Juan Teotihuacan, now sits on top of what were once Teotihuacan’s neighborhoods.

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Map showing the location of Teotihuacan in central Mexico in relation to the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan.

Teotihuacan deserves the label metropolis. It was laid out along a north – south axis, most famously known as the “Avenue of the Dead.” At the northern end of this Avenue, we find the famous Pyramids of the Sun and the Moon.

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Closer to the intersection of the Avenue with a second, East – West axis, there are the remnants of the city’s market, as well as a compound dubbed the “Ciudadela” by the Spanish. It was centered on the Temple of the Plumed Serpent, a sunken plaza large enough to hold most of the city’s inhabitants.

It was here, in front of the Temple of the Plumed Serpent, that a three-foot wide sinkhole appeared in the fall of 2003, the result of a torrential downpour. Sergio Gómez was the first person to enter this sinkhole, and found himself standing in a tunnel the extended underneath the Temple – the first person in centuries to have done so.

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Early in 2004, a team of 20 archaeologists started scanning the tunnel from the surface, using ground penetrating radar. This radar map was finished in 2005 and showed that the tunnel extended for about 330 feet (100 meters); it reached the center of the Temple of the Plumed Serpent. It took until 2009 to receive government permission and funding to start working below the surface in the actual tunnel. Work was slow and progress was measured in feet per month. Shortly before writing this, the team got to the end of the tunnel. They had removed more than 1,000 tons of earth. Mixed in this dirt were approximately 75,000 artifacts. Among these discoveries were a statue of a jaguar, jaguar bones, pottery, obsidian knives, solid rubber balls, and Pacific Ocean conch shells.

The 75,000 artifacts will keep archaeologists busy for years to come. The tunnel itself requires more exploration as well. Two small remote controlled robots, named Tlaloque and Tlaloc II helped identify the presence of three buried chambers at the end of the tunnel, which still need to be investigated. Some archaeologists wonder if these chambers might contain the burial of one of the elusive Teotihuacan rulers.

"TLÁLOC II-TC"

Teotihuacan is slow to reveal its secrets. Archaeologists are still trying to come to grips with the ways in which it governed itself. Maya archaeologists are fascinated by the so-called Teotihuacan entrada, an intriguing episode in the history of Maya cities where there is clear evidence of Teotihuacan influence. To a large extent, the city and its namesake civilization remain a mystery. I wonder if future archaeologists will ever say similar things about our own cities…

Further reading

Berrin, Kathleen, and Esther Pasztory, 1993. Teotihuacan: Art from the City of the Gods. New York: Thames & Hudson.

Cowgill, George, 2015. Ancient Teotihuacan. Early Urbanism in Central Mexico. (Case Studies in Early Societies). New York: Cambridge University Press.

A Vision of La Virgen: Interview with Ferguz, Mexico City’s Pintor Espiritual

translation by Ivan Perez

Felipe Gonzalez, known in the art world of Mexico City as Ferguz, is one of millions of North Americans inspired by the image of La Virgen de Guadalupe, but his fine art pushes the world-famous Mexican icon to its limits. Using a variety of media to create shimmering minimalistic variations on the traditional image, Ferguz’s work is a captivating dance of color, texture and historical context. An example of his approach appears in the Houston Museum of Natural Science’s newest exhibit, La Virgen of Guadalupe: Empress of the Americas. When Ferguz came to see it in context during opening weekend, we jumped at the chance to sit down and ask him about his work.

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HMNS: Tell us about the piece of art that you have in the exhibit.

Ferguz: It is a painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe that I painted from my point of view. The painting has a base color of Mexican pink or a type of fuchsia, which I mixed with gold to represent the splendor of the Virgin, and towards the bottom of the painting where the cherub is located, I added my self-portrait as a way to integrate myself into the painting. It was a way for me to make the piece more contemporary and also more minimalistic.

HMNS: Why is la Virgen de Guadalupe so inspirational to you? Why did you choose to paint la Virgen?

Ferguz: She’s always been an inspiration to me. I believe that Mexican Catholicism is really strong, as is the faith that is evoked by her, and as the saying goes, “Faith can move mountains.” I’ve always been attracted to religious and spiritual themes, and my art has always reflected that.

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HMNS: How does it feel to have your work in a museum, especially in a natural science museum?

Ferguz: It is a huge privilege and an honor that I have been asked to have my work shown here. This is a huge and well-known museum and it is an honor to be here during the opening.

HMNS: Is HMNS well-known in Mexico?

Ferguz: Yes, everyone knows this museum because of the dinosaurs and the T. rex and because of the big exhibitions that come through.

HMNS: Do you feel that a more Hispanic population will be attracted to the museum with la Virgen de Guadalupe being here?

Ferguz: Yes, I believe so. It’s a theme that, in Latin America, is followed by many people. The opening date, and the Feast Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, is also very special, which coincides with my birthday, Dec. 12. This is one of the reasons why La Virgen is such an inspiration to me. So yes, I believe that the Hispanic community will have a positive response, and I hope that this exhibit will attract them to museums, so it’s really good that the museum has decided to talk about this subject during this important date and to this community, which is very large.

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HMNS: Can you tell us about the process for your artwork? What materials do you use and what makes your artwork special?

Ferguz: The piece is oil on canvas and it’s a process that I enjoy tremendously. I enjoy the work that is involved, and I have been doing art for over 10 years professionally and I am totally dedicated to it. I am proud of my work, and I am proud to be here showing it.

HMNS: Can you tell us a little more? How do you come up with the ideas?

Ferguz: I work with sketches, but Picasso said that inspiration should come to you when you are in the process. When I am working on one piece, I get inspiration for the next one. When I developed this piece for La Virgen, but with my voice, from my point of view it was a win because I love the topic and I wanted to do it. I wanted to do something contemporary, but with a minimalist point of view. I also wanted to use a base color of Mexican pink with the incorporation of the Virgin and I wanted to include myself in the piece and be a part of this exhibition, so I included a self-portrait that expresses the innocence of childhood and a time when humanity still feels a deeper sense of spirituality, which is why I decided to include myself in the painting.

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HMNS: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Ferguz: I would like to thank the museum for this great opportunity. Thank you very much.

La Virgen de Guadalupe: Empress of the Americas is now open, and Ferguz’s work is available for purchase in the Museum Store.

HMNS Winter Trend Report: La Virgen de Guadalupe

Sourcing product for special exhibits is one of the favorite things about my job, but as a lover of Mexican art and culture, La Virgen de Guadalupe: Empress of the Americas has been especially fun.

This summer, we traveled to Mexico City and met with officials at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The ancient basilica and chapels are beautiful, and seeing the art, both fine and folk, in context punctuated how meaningful the Virgin has been to so many lives and how integral she is to the culture.

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Capilla del Pocito – Chapel of the Little Well.

With this in mind, we met with the Basilica’s retail director and chose some very special items to bring to the museum’s store. These rose petal rosaries made by nuns are deeply scented.

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Scented rosaries made by nuns.

Our talented Creative Director, Kim Bloedorn, designed our beautiful souvenirs including mugs, refrigerator magnets, 3D postcards, bookmarks and more, featuring Her image surrounded by roses.

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Graphic design by HMNS Creative Director Kim Bloedorn.

Rising young artist Felipe Gonzalez Aguilera, AKA Ferguz, is rapidly gaining a reputation for his sensitive portraiture of iconic figures. One of Ferguz’s compelling paintings of the Virgin will be in the exhibit on loan from a private collector. We had the opportunity to visit the artist in his studio and were able to commission some paintings the he created especially for the store. The photos do not do justice to the delicate colors and brushstrokes.

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Fine art by Felipe Gonzalez Aguilera, AKA Ferguz.

Mexico is known for its vibrant folk art and traditional craftwork. Detailed, hand-painted and punched tin nichos from San Miguel de Allende highlight images of the Virgin.

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Nicho by San Miguel de Allende.

Traditional, brightly-embroidered blouses are from artisans in Oaxaca, Puebla, and Hidalgo.

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Itzel white blouse.

Weaving has been a part of the culture and livelihood of the Zapotec people since about 5000 B.C. The Spanish conquest introduced wool fiber and the standing loom and the weaving process and designs have changed little to this day. Ancient art meets contemporary design in these handmade purses.

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Zapotec tote.

Closer to home, I worked with local designer Rebecca Lankford to create a series of rosary-inspired necklaces. Rebecca’s faith is a large influence on her work and she was delighted to create jewelry that references how religion and design have been intertwined since humans first created art.

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Ruby rosary necklace by Rebecca Lankford.

We have more handicrafts, souvenirs and art available in-store and online at museumstore.hmns.org. All proceeds from store sales go back to the museum and enable us to create these unique exhibits and educational programs.