History Stories


New Study Confirms Ancient Maya Codex is Genuine

Archaeologists have concluded that the nearly 900-year-old Grolier Codex, long believed to be a forgery, is authentic, making it the oldest known document created in the Americas.

In 1966, as the story goes, the Mexican collector Josué Saenz flew to a remote airstrip in the Mexican state of Chiapas. There, a group of unknown men showed him what they said was a Maya codex, an ancient text in book form. The men claimed to have found the document in a dry cave near the foothills of the Sierra de Chiapas, along with several other Maya artifacts, including a wooden mask and a sacrificial knife (all of which later proved to be authentic). Though experts Saenz consulted told him the codex was likely fake, he bought it anyway.

Five years later, Saenz allowed the archaeologist Michael Coe to display the document at the Grolier Club in New York City as part of an exhibit called “Ancient Maya Calligraphy,” whereupon it immediately generated widespread interest among archaeologists and epigraphers, or scholars of ancient inscriptions. The “Grolier Codex,” as it became known, consisted of 10 sheets of amate paper, made from the bark of fig trees. Along with paintings of Maya rituals and deities, it contained a 104-year-long calendar that charted and predicted the movement of the planet Venus.

Its shady origin story, along with several other things, convinced many people that the Grolier Codex was inauthentic. For one thing, the ancient book had writing on only one side of each page, unlike several other Maya codex finds. In addition, some of the pages appeared to have been cut relatively recently, and there were discrepancies in the calendar that suggested a forger might have been trying to imitate a Maya calendar from another artifact.

Page from the Grolier Codex showing a deity.

Page from the Grolier Codex showing a deity.

Though Coe later performed radiocarbon-dating on the amate paper of the Grolier Codex and confirmed the document was from the first half of the 13th century, doubts lingered. Would-be forgers would have only had to obtain unmarked paper dating to the Maya period and paint convincing hieroglyphics and images on it to produce a convincing fake. After the exhibit, Saenz gave the Grolier Codex to the Mexican government, and it remains in a basement of the Mexican National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City to this day.

Recently, however, Coe and other noted Maya scholars joined forces in a new investigation of the existing evidence on the authenticity of the Grolier Codex. In addition to reviewing two previous radiocarbon-dating studies, they spent two years reviewing highly detailed full-size Ektachrome photographs of the front and back of all 10 pages, taken in 1988. Their in-depth analysis led the researchers to conclude that the Grolier Codex was genuine.

For one thing, Coe and his colleagues concluded, the codex depicts deities that had not yet been discovered in the 1960s, making it nearly impossible for a forger to include them. Also, they found that accurately duplicating the distinctive blue pigment used in the codex would require technology that had not yet been invented at the time the document was rediscovered. The researchers detailed these and other arguments in a 50-page article published in the latest issue of the journal Maya Archaeology, along with a facsimile of the Grolier Codex itself.

According to Dr. Stephen Houston of Brown University, a co-author of the new study, most of the early doubts about the codex’s authenticity can be attributed to the way in which the document was obtained. “By definition, an object without clear provenance or place of origin opens room for doubt,” Houston told Fox News. “But there are many other criteria too, and many of these doubts were themselves doubtful.” Though there had been a precedent for ancient Maya documents being faked by the early 1960s, Houston said faked codices in particular are relatively obvious; they contain garish splashes of color, for example, or are copies of earlier codices.

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The drawings in the Grolier Codex are unusual for a Maya document, combining styles of several ancient Mesoamerican peoples including the Mixtec and Toltec, and this was used to support some of the accusations of forgery. But the new study concluded that the drawings wouldn’t have been out of line for a book created in the late Maya period. During that era, the Maya built Chichen Itza in Yucatán, an ancient city that mixed Toltec influences as with more classical Maya symbolism. According to Coe, all of the forgery accusations by so-called experts have “failed to realize that the Grolier Codex is a kind of hybrid, made by a priestly scribe living on the frontier between the Maya and other non-Maya peoples in Mexico, [which] shows that when it was painted, it combined Maya and non-Maya ways of writing numbers, etc.”

The authors of the new study believe the idea that the Grolier Codex was a fake became a kind of “dogma,” based almost solely on its shady provenance. In fact, they argue, the document should be removed from its basement purgatory so it can receive the notice it deserves, as a record of astronomy, calendar-keeping and art from the late Maya civilization and the oldest known book created in the Americas.

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