The Dresden Codex, also known as the Codex Dresdensis, is a pre-Columbian Maya book of the eleventh or twelfth century of the Yucatecan Maya in Chichén Itzá. This Maya codex is believed to be a copy of an original text of some three or four hundred years earlier. It is the oldest book written in the Americas known to historians. Of the hundreds of books that were used in Mesoamerica before the Spanish conquest, it is one of only 15 that have survived to the present day.
The Dresden Codex consists of 39 sheets, inscribed on both sides, with an overall length of 3.56 metres (11.7 feet). Originally, the manuscript had been folded in accordion folds. Today, it is exhibited in two parts, each of them approximately 1.8 metres (5.9 feet) long, at the museum of the Saxon State Library in Dresden, Germany. The document has played a key role in the decipherment of Mayan hieroglyphs.
Johann Christian Götze, Director of the Royal Library at Dresden, purchased the codex from a private owner in Vienna in 1739. It was described, at the time of acquisition, as a "Mexican book." How it came to Vienna is unknown. It is speculated that it was sent by Hernán Cortés as a tribute to King Charles I of Spain in 1519. Charles had appointed Cortés governor and captain general of the newly conquered Mexican territory. The codex has been in Europe ever since. In 1810, Alexander von Humboldt published five pages from the Dresden Codex in his atlas Vues des Cordillères et Monuments des Peuples Indigènes de l’Amérique. The state library of Saxony, the Royal Library in Dresden, first published the codex in 1848. It was not until 1853 that Charles Étienne Brasseur de Bourbourg identified the Dresden Codex as a Mayan manuscript. In 1835, the codex was placed between glass panes in two parts measuring 1.85 metres (6.1 feet) and 1.77 metres (5.8 feet) in length. Between 1880 and 1900, Dresden librarian Ernst Wilhelm Förstemann succeeded in deciphering the calendar section including the Maya numerals used in the codex. These numbers are based on a vigesimal (base-20) numeral system, made up of three symbols: zero (shell shape), one (a dot) and five (a bar). Important milestones in the subsequent decoding of the non-calendar section were the assignment of gods to specific glyphs by Paul Schellhas in 1897 and Yuri Knorozov’s phonetic approach to deciphering in the 1950s. Knorozov's work was based on the De Landa alphabet, developed by Diego de Landa around 1566. The library that held the codex was bombed and suffered serious damage during the firebombing of Dresden in World War II. The Dresden Codex was heavily water damaged. The codex was meticulously restored; however, some of the pages were returned to the protective glass cabinet out of sequence. They have remained this way because the water damage caused some of the painted areas to adhere to the glass.
The Dresden Codex is considered the most complete of the three undisputably authentic Maya codices. The names of the codices indicate where they are housed. The Dresden Codex is made from Amatl paper ("kopó", fig-bark that has been flattened and covered with a lime paste), doubled in folds in an accordion-like form (sometimes called leporello) of folding-screen texts. The codex of bark paper is coated with fine stucco or gesso and is eight inches high by eleven feet long. The Dresden Codex totals 78 pages on 39 double-sided sheets, with an overall length of 3.56 metres (11.7 feet). Four pages are empty. Each sheet measures 20.5 centimetres (8.1 in) by 10.0 centimetres (3.9 in). Originally, the codex had been accordion-folded. Since 1835 it has been exhibited in two parts, each of them preserved between glass panes. The first part contains 20 sheets, the second 19. The codex was written by six different scribes using both sides.
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