Imaging technique finds hidden content of 500-year-old manuscript

Thanks to a new cutting-edge scanning technology, researchers at the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries have been able to read hidden writing on the pages of a 500-year-old deer-hide manuscript from Mexico.

According to Live Science and Popular Archaeology, the text is called the Codex Seldes and it’s one of only 20 surviving volumes created in the Americas prior to the arrival of the first Europeans, but its deerskin pages appeared to be blank as they were covered by layers of chalk and plaster.

For nearly five centuries, the contents of the codex remained a mystery, but now the manuscript can be revealed at last thanks to a technique known as hyperspectral imaging, which the research team used to collect data across all frequencies and wavelengths in the electromagnetic spectrum. The result let them see the pages without damaging them.

“We are now for the first time able to reveal, at least in part, the images of the [manuscript] without damaging the object,” Leiden University archaeologist Ludo Snijders, who worked on the analysis, told the Daily Mail. “The genealogy we see appears to be unique, which means it may prove invaluable for the interpretation of archaeological remains from southern Mexico.”

Thus Snijders’ team has analyzed seven pages of the codex, finding a wealth of pictographs on each of those pages, including images of 27 people on one page alone. The results of their work thus far have been published online in the October 2016 edition of the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

Pictographs may depict a prominent figure included in other codices

The Codex Selden dates back to approximately 1560 and was created by a civilization known as the Mixtec, a group that lived in several city-states and which was known primarily for their skill as goldsmiths, according to Live Science and the Daily Mail. Their descendants continue to live in the US and Mexico today, with as many as 150,000 residing in California alone.

While other manuscripts of the era contained colorful pictographs, or images which represented a series of different words or phrases, the Codex Selden appeared to be blank, as its hide pages had been covered over with a white paint mixture known as gesso. Then, in the 1950s, experts started to suspect that the gesso might be covering up pictographs on the pages, probably so that the hide could be reused.

Credit: Journal of Archaeological Sciences: Reports, 2016 Elsevier

Credit: Journal of Archaeological Sciences: Reports, 2016 Elsevier

Early attempts to remove the gesso enjoyed only modest success, though, enabling researchers to see general shapes of the obscured pictographs but providing no detail. Likewise, X-ray scanning was unable to reveal the images, as they had been created with organic paints that do not absorb X-rays. It wasn’t until the recent advent of hyperspectral imaging that experts finally managed to get a good look at portions of the codex and the images its pages contained.

Among the content they found were figures of men and women standing and sitting, as well as two figures connected by a red umbilical cord that were identified as siblings. Some of the men were shown walking with spears or sticks, Live Science said, while many of the women had red hair or were wearing headdresses.

Other glyphs showed the combination of a flint knife and a twisted cord, which the researchers believe represented a person’s name. That individual, they explained, could belong to a person who also appears in other codices – an ancestor of two lineages connected to the archaeological sites of Zaachila and Teozacualco in Mexico, according to the Daily Mail – but further research is needed to prove whether or not this is indeed the case.


Image credit: Journal of Archaeological Sciences: Reports, 2016 Elsevier