Information Storage & the Classic Maya

by Stephen Houston, Charles Golden, and Andrew Scherer

Of late, university libraries have tended to exile books and print journals to off-campus storage. The purge makes room, as at Brown University, for “digital studios,” work spaces, and spots where students might snack on Dining Service muffins. The electronic media are new, but not the challenge of how to store portable reading material. Certain media get bulky. If valuable or spiritually precious, they require yet other forms of storage and access.

Think of the Mediterranean. Clay tablets of Linear B, in Mycenaean Greek, were nestled in baskets with small “carelessly manufactured” labels to indicate contents (Linear B) or they were found close to the resources being inventoried by tablets (Palaima and Wright 1985: 257, 260). Long-term storage does not seem to have been the aim, and, at Pylos, where such archives were studied in detail, storage was relatively limited (Palaima and Wright 1985: 259). The Romans left more overt evidence of storage. For grouping and ease of transport, papyri could be inserted into cylindrical containers known as capsa, of which a clear illustration occurs in the House of Marcus Lucretius at Pompeii (Figure 1).


Figure 1.  Fresco of instrumentum scriptorium, c. AD 45-79, House of Marcus Lucretius, Pompeii. Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples. 

More secure storage involved cabinets with doors, of which a smattering appear in frescoes, the side of a sarcophagus at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and, in an early Christian context, a plate in the Codex Amiatinus from Monkwearmouth-Jarrow in northern England (Figure 2). Such armoires allowed books to be locked up and their contents arranged in ways logical to users.

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Figure 2.  Upper left, papyrus and tablet storage on shelves, c. AD 200, Buzenol, Belgium (Musée du Cinquantenaire, Brussels); lower left, detail of sarcophagus showing Greek physician, c. AD 300, Ostia (Metropolitan Museum of Art, Nº 48.76.1); right, Ezra the Scribe writing in front of armoire with books, AD 692 (Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Cod. Amiati 1, f. 5r; see also Menighini and Rea 2014: 122, 186, 206). 

These examples from the Old World raise questions about information storage elsewhere. Most Maya books, for example,are readily identified in painted imagery on polychrome pots by their jaguar-hide coverings, some more squared-off than others (see the pioneering study by M. Coe [1977]). Thickness is hard to judge, but, after looking at the proportions of bodies nearby, they could be an armful, 10–15 cm. thick at least and probably rather more than that.A constant disappointment for Mayanists is that no books survive in good shape from the Classic period (Carter and Dobereiner 2016). Were they stuffed into bags, lodged in recessed shelving (of which some occur in Maya palaces) or sequestered in temple summits?  There are no archives like those at Pylos or Roman villas with carbonized scrolls and furniture. But there is one possibility: Maya screenfold books, configured like leporello or concertina bindings in Europe, were stored in individual receptacles that highlighted their singular, precious nature. (For opera lovers: “leporello” probably derives from the long list of sexual conquests itemized by a character of that name in Mozart’s Don Giovanni).

One relevant clue is in the form of a stone box recovered from the Hun Nal Ye cave, Alta Verapaz, Guatemala (Woodfill et al. 2012: 98). Two other boxes of ceramic, each with lids, were found nearby, lodged at different levels of flowstone (Woodfill et al. 2012: fig. 6). Carved in two different phases at least, the box accords roughly with the shape of the surviving Maya codices (Woodfill et al. 2012: 98, 107): 38 cm long, 21 cm wide, 10.9 cm tall, with an internal receptacle sufficient to contain a book. By comparison, the four Maya books have the following measurements (M. Coe et al. 2015: 121, organized by relative date, earliest to latest): Grolier, average page width: 12.5 cm, greatest page height: 18.0 cm, probable page height: 23 cm; Madrid, average page width: 12.2 cm, average page height: 22.6 cm; Paris, average page width: 13.0 cm, average page height: 24.8 cm; Dresden, average page width: 9 cm, average page height: 20.5 cm. The Hun Nal Ye “coffer” obliges by showing a reference to a lunar month in both glyphic and iconographic form on its lid–a possible reference to a moon-related codex?–and images of supernaturals holding books on the sides of the box. Regrettably, when opened, the box from Hun Nal Ye yielded only the calcified femur of a tapir, doubtless not its original contents.


Figure 3. The Hun Nal Ye coffer. Photograph by Jorge Pérez de Lara. 

Other rectangular boxes, usually of ceramic, are known in the Maya region. Here is a partial list (see also Figure 4; see also Arte Primitivo 3/06/2017 auction, #191; Golden has also seen such a lidded stone box on display in the Museo Chichicastenango; see also Pillsbury et al. 2015: figs. 29, 30). The variance is wide, but so is the relative size of books in Mesoamerica. The Codex Borgia, for example, measures 27 x 27 cm, the Codex Cospi 18 x 18 cm.  There are necessary cautions, to be sure: most such boxes, when recovered in context, contained cache items of sundry sort, not the flecks of a decayed book (W. Coe 1990: 322–324). But the boxes could easily have been repurposed, a receptacle to be later cached in buildings, caves or under stelae.

Table 1:  Ceramic boxes

Princeton Art Museum, body                                    17 cm (wd) x h. 23.5 cm (ht) 

Tikal Cache 119 (excludes legs)                               35 cm (l) x 25.2 cm (wd) x 27 cm (ht)

Caracol S.D. C141C-2                                                  23 cm (l) x 16 cm (wd) x 13 cm (ht)

Los Angeles County Museum of Art, M.2008.59  45.09 cm (l) x 27.31 cm (wd) x 35.56 cm (ht)

Christies box                                                                 23 cm (l) x 13 cm (wd) x 16 (ht)

Guaytan subfloor, tomb 1, Structure 24                  41 cm (l) x c. 23 cm (wd) x c. 18 cm (ht) (from photo, without lid)

Quirigua Stela E                                                          c. 30 cm (l) x  20 cm (wd) x 15 cm (ht)(judged from photo, unlidded)

Quirigua Zoomorph G                                                31.5 cm (l) x 20 cm (wd) x 27 cm (ht)

A sample of images gives some sense of their variety, a few like boxes, others resembling house models (Figure 4).  The first photo even shows one such box during its excavation in the North Acropolis at Tikal.

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Figure 4. Ceramic boxes from Maya region: (A, B) Cache 119, from court fronting Structure 5D-26, North Acropolis (Culbert 1993: fig. 105a); (C) Caracol Structure A1 (drawing courtesy of Arlen Chase, Caracol Project, University of Nevada-Las Vegas); (D) subfloor cache, Guaytan, Guatemala (Smith and Kidder 1943: fig 41c, c’); (E) Hu Nal Ye Box (Woodfill et al. 2012: 98, photo by Jorge Pérez de Lara); (F) Quirigua Stela E cache and Zoomorph G cache (Strömsvik 1941: 81, fig. 32b, c); (G) unprovenanced, Christies Paris, May 2007, Lot 115.

And perhaps some were sealed neatly with ritual paper, as on La Florida Stela 9, although this could also have been a holder for a stingray spine (Figure 5). The point is that these books do not suggest the presence of bulk- or mass-storage. Some were kept in “bespoke” boxes, not so much Taschen-style, deluxe editions as objects of sacred meaning, to be set apart, kept apart, ritually activated, perhaps even sprinkled with incense and other offerings.

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Figure 5. Detail of La Florida Stela 9 (Graham 1970: fig. 9b). 

In the tropics, however, permanent storage is hard to achieve with pounded bark paper and lime-sizing. Bugs, moisture, wear-and-tear, and flaking surfaces will all have their effects–there is, after all, a reason why no books survive entire from the Classic period. The discovery of elaborate notations on the walls of Structure 10K-2 at Xultun, Guatemala, present another interpretive possibility, of cross-media play and targeted preservation (Saturno et al. 2012; Rossi et al. 2015).

That these texts and notations relate to books seems assured. But what was that relation? Were they test jottings and compositional experiments, a unidirectional “flow” from wall to a target codex? Or was the tie to books rather more complex, even bi-directional? Houston has long felt that the Early Classic text on the walls of Uaxactun Structure BXIII had some bearing on the nature of that relation: the horizontal text, replete with archaic day signs, has the savor of a basal historical notation (Smith 1950: fig. 47). Eventful days, with pendant, explanatory texts in place, leaven those of little consequence, their contents left empty. (We are reminded of Louis XVI’s daily note when Parisians stormed the Bastille: rien, “nothing”…although, in fairness to that dullard king, this comment probably referred to how many animals he had bagged that day in hunt.)

But why were such transfers necessary? Another example has come to light in an exploration by Golden and Scherer (together with René Muñoz and Guatemalan colleagues), in Tecolote, Guatemala, an outpost of Yaxchilan on the northern borders of that kingdom (Scherer and Golden 2009; for regional context, see Scherer and Golden 2012). In its central room, Structure D3-1, viewers would tilt their heads slightly and look up at an arresting sight: what appears to be an entire, unfolded codex or, rather, one side of it (Figures 6 and 7), a leporello flattened out on the wall of a darkened room.

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Figure 6. Frontal view, Structure D3-1, Tecolote; figure sits by the doorway to the “codex” room. 

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Figure 7. Tecolote Structure D3-1, highlighting, in red, the unfolded “codex.” 

The quality and execution of the signs were of high order (Figure 7), although the poor preservation only offers an occasional glimpse of legible text.


Figure 7. Close-up, unfolded “codex,” Tecolote Structure D3-1. 

More revealing are the discernible measurements of the text, with two individual glyph blocks shown here in contrastive green and blue (Figure 8). The red line marks the extension of the text, which seems to contain no images. In this respect, it is closer to the “dynastic texts” studied by Simon Martin: all-glyphic, and with some complicated stemma that involves other notations, some likely to have been on perishable media (Secrets). If a direct transfer–we have no assurance of this, of course–the “codex” measured some 35 cm high and at least 2.30 m long. Such height and length could easily have been accommodated in a few of the boxes above.

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Figure 8. Mosaic tile of “codex” on wall. 

The most interesting question here is not, did the Maya copy from one medium to another, but, rather, why did they do so at all? One explanation is that these were practice pieces or compositional experiments intended for transfer to books. Nonetheless, some notations at Xultun were incised, and draft copies would probably work best on an expedient material like leaves. Meticulous painting on a plaster wall is not the obvious choice for a trial run. The goal here seems instead to have been a consultable permanence: distant parallels include the manumission texts, 1300 in total, that inscribe stones in the Delphi Sanctuary in Greece (Delphi), or small temple texts in Angkor, of a size to suggest painted precursors in dried leaves or other, small-scale formats (Khmer). That some of the Maya examples come from the final century of dynastic civilization underscores its intellectual vitality but also, perhaps, a hint of anxiety that such learning would not last.


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