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Dresden Codex


Dresden Codex

Dresden Codex, page 49

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.[1] This Maya codex is believed to be a copy of an original text of some three or four hundred years earlier.[2] It is the oldest book written in the Americas known to historians.[3] 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.[4]

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.[5] The document has played a key role in the decipherment of Mayan hieroglyphs.[6]


  • History 1
  • Description 2
  • Image 3
  • Page numbers and sequence 4
  • See also 5
  • Notes and references 6
  • Bibliography 7
  • External links 8


First publication in 1810 by Humboldt who repainted five pages for his latest book

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."[5] 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.[7] The state library of Saxony, the Royal Library in Dresden, first published the codex in 1848.[8] It was not until 1853 that Charles Étienne Brasseur de Bourbourg identified the Dresden Codex as a Mayan manuscript.[9]

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.[5] 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.[10][11] 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;[8] 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.


Six pages (55-59, 74) of Codex B depicting eclipses (left), multiplication tables and a flood (right)
Today's exhibition of the codex with the back pages visible through mirrors

The Dresden Codex is considered the most complete of the three indisputably authentic Maya codices. The names of the codices indicate where they are housed.[12] 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.[5] The codex of bark paper is coated with fine stucco or gesso and is eight inches high by eleven feet long.[12]

The Dresden Codex totals 78 pages on 39 double-sided sheets, with an overall length of 3.56 metres (11.7 feet).[5] 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.[13] They all had their own particular writing style, glyphs and subject matter. The images of the codex were painted with extraordinary clarity using very fine brushes. The basic colors used for the codex, made of vegetable dyes, were red, black and the so-called Mayan blue.

Around 250 of the approximately 350 signs of the Dresden Codex have been decoded.[14] Most of them refer to the accompanying figures. They comment on the images in short phrases. There are also numbers, consisting of bars (meaning "five"), dots (meaning "one") and stylized shells (meaning "zero").

The Dresden Codex contains astronomical tables of great accuracy. It is most famous for its Lunar Series and Venus table.[2] The lunar series has intervals correlating with eclipses. The Venus Table correlates with the apparent movements of the planet. The codex also contains almanacs, astronomical and astrological tables, and ritual schedules.[2] The specific numen references have to do with a 260-day ritual cycle divided up in several ways.[12] The Dresden Codex also includes instructions concerning new-year ceremonies as well as descriptions of the Rain God's locations.[5]


The complete Dresden Codex in the correct reading sequence (pages 1-24, 46-74, 25-45) from left to right, including empty pages

Page numbers and sequence

First page sequencing of the codex by Agostino Aglio
Correct reading order of the pages within the codex
The presentation of the Dresden Codex since 1945

Today’s page numbers were assigned to the codex by Agostino Aglio when he became the first to transcribe the manuscript in 1825/26. For this, he divided the original codex into two parts, labeled Codex A and Codex B. He sequenced Codex A on the front side followed by its back side, with the same order on Codex B. Today, we understand that a codex reading should traverse the complete front side followed by the complete back side of the manuscript, i.e., pages 1–24 followed by 46-74, followed by 25-45.

The librarian K. C. Falkenstein adjusted the relative position of pages for "esthetical reasons" in 1836, resulting in today’s two similar length parts.[15] While deciphering the codex, the librarian E. W. Förstemann noticed an error in Aglio’s page assignment of the sheets 1/45 and 2/44, so he correctly reassigned Aglio’s pages 44 and 45 to become pages 1 and 2.[16]

The reversal of the sheets 6/40, 7/39 and 8/38 is due to an error when the sheets were returned to their protective glass cabinet after drying from the water damage due to the bombing of Dresden in 1945.[17]

See also

Notes and references

  1. ^ Aveni, p. 221
  2. ^ a b c Ruggles, pp. 133–4
  3. ^ Anzovin, p. 197 item 3342 The first book written in the Americas known to historians is the Dresden Codex, or Codex Dresdensis.
  4. ^ Lyons, Martyn. (2011). Books: A Living History. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum. p.84.
  5. ^ a b c d e f "The Dresden Codex".  
  6. ^ SLUB Dresden: The Dresden Maya-Codex
  7. ^ Alexander von Humboldt: Vues des Cordillères et Monuments des Peuples Indigènes de l’Amérique. Paris, 1810, p. 416, Plate 45. (French)Online
  8. ^ a b Sharer, p. 127
  9. ^ Charles Étienne Brasseur de Bourbourg: Des antiquités mexicaines. In: Revue archéologique 9 (1853), Part 2, p. 417.
  10. ^ Paul Schellhas: Die Göttergestalten der Maya-Handschriften: Ein mythologisches Kulturbild aus dem Alten Amerika. Verlag Richard Bertling, Dresden, 1897 (German)
  11. ^ Yuri V. Knorozov: Maya Hieroglyphic Codices. Translated from the Russian by S. D. Coe. Institute for Mesoamerican Studies, State University of New York at Albany, Pub. No. 8, Albany, N.Y., 1982
  12. ^ a b c Teresi, p. 96
  13. ^ Nikolai Grube: Der Dresdner Maya-Kalender: Der vollständige Codex. Verlag Herder, Freiburg, 2012, ISBN 978-345-1333323, p. 33 (German)
  14. ^ Nikolai Grube: Der Dresdner Maya-Kalender: Der vollständige Codex. Verlag Herder, Freiburg, 2012, ISBN 978-345-1333323, p. 57 (German)
  15. ^ E. W. Förstemann: Die Maya-Handschrift der Königl. Öffentlichen Bibliothek zu Dresden. Naumannsche Lichtdruckerei, Leipzig, p.7 (German)
  16. ^ H. Deckert: Zur Geschichte der Dresdner Maya-Handschrift. In: Codex Dresdensis, Kommentar. Akademische Druckerei- und Verlags-Anstalt, Graz 1975, pp. 32-33 (German)
  17. ^ H. Deckert: Zur Geschichte der Dresdner Maya-Handschrift. In: Codex Dresdensis, Kommentar. Akademische Druckerei- und Verlags-Anstalt, Graz 1975, p. 41 (German)


  • Anzovin, Steven et al., Famous First Facts International Edition, H. W. Wilson Company (2000), ISBN 0-8242-0958-3.
  • Aveni, Anthony F., Empires of Time, Tauris Parke Paperbacks, 2000, ISBN 1-86064-602-6.
  • Lyons, Martyn. "Books: A Living History". Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2011, ISBN 978-1-60606-083-4.
  • Thompson, J. Eric S., A Commentary on the Dresden Codex: A Maya Hieroglyphic Book, Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1972.
  • Ruggles, Clive L.N., Ancient Astronomy, ABC-CLIO, 2005, ISBN 1-85109-477-6.
  • Sharer, Robert J. et al., The Ancient Maya, Stanford University Press, 2006, ISBN 0-8047-4817-9.
  • Teresi, Dick, Lost Discoveries: The Ancient Roots of Modern Science—from the Babylonians to the Maya, Simon and Schuster, 2002, ISBN 0-684-83718-8.
  • Van Stone, Mark (2008). "It's Not the End of the World: What the Ancient Maya Tell Us About 2012." Located online at the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies website.

External links

Media related to at Wikimedia Commons

  • The complete codex (high resolution PDF)
  • Facsimiles of the codex at the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc., with PDF downloads
  • The Dresden Codex Lunar Series and Sidereal Astronomy
  • Dresden Library Information on the Codex
  • Dresden Library Scans High-resolution scans of the Dresden Codex (site in German, PDF link at right)
  • 3D reconstruction and animation of the Codex Dresden in different conditions
  • History Museum
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