The Dresden Codex is the oldest surviving book from the Americas, dating to the thirteenth or fourteenth century. The codex was rediscovered in the city of Dresden and is how the Maya book received its present name. It is located in the museum of the Saxon State Library in Dresden, Germany.
The book received serious water damage during World War II.
It has Mayan hieroglyphs and refers to an original text of some three or four hundred years earlier, describing local history and astronomical tables.
The Dresden Codex contains 78 pages with decorative board covers on the front and back. Most pages have writing on both sides. They have a border of red paint, although many have lost this framing due to age deterioration. The pages are generally divided into three sections; students of the codex have arbitrarily labeled these sections a , b , and c. Some pages have just two horizontal sections, while one has four and another five sections. The individual sections with their own theme are generally separated by a red vertical line. Sections are generally divided into two to four columns.The Maya codices all have about the same size pages, with a height of about 20 centimetres (7.9 in) and a width of 10 centimetres (3.9 in).
The Dresden Codex is one of four hieroglyphic Maya codices that survived the Spanish Inquisition in the New World. Three, the Dresden, Madrid, and Paris codices, are named after the city where they were ultimately rediscovered. The fourth is the Grolier Codex, located at the Grolier Club in New York City.
The pictures and glyphs were painted by skilled craftsmen using thin brushes and vegetable dyes. Black and red were the main colors used for many of the pages. Some pages have detailed backgrounds in shades of yellow, green, and the Mayan blue. The codex was written by eight different scribes, who all had their own writing style, glyph designs, and subject matter.
The Dresden Codex is described by historian J. Eric S. Thompson as writings of the indigenous people of the Yucatán Peninsula in southeastern Mexico.
Thompson further narrows the probable origin of the Dresden Codex to the area of Chichen Itza, because certain picture symbols in the codex are only found on monuments in that location. He also argues that the astronomical tables would support this as the place of origin. Thompson claims that the people of the Yucatán Peninsula were known to have done such studies around 1200 A.D. Thompson also notes the similar ceramic designs in the Chichen Itza area which are known to have ceased in the early thirteenth century. British historian Clive Ruggles suggests, based on the analyses of several scholars, that the Dresden Codex is a copy and was originally written between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries. Thompson narrows the date closer to 1200 to 1250. Maya archaeologist Linton Satterthwaite puts the date when it was made as no later than 1345. It is the oldest surviving book from the Americas.
Johann Christian Götze (1692–1749), German theologian and director of the Royal Library at Dresden, purchased the codex from a private owner in Vienna in 1739 while traveling to Italy.Thompson speculates that the codex was sent as a tribute to Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor by Hernán Cortés, governor of Mexico, since examples of local writings and other Maya items were sent to the king in 1519 when he was living in Vienna.
In 1828 Constantine Samuel Rafinesque had identified this book as being of Maya origin based on its glyphs looking like those found at Palenque.
Historian Cyrus Thomas made a connection between the codex and the 260 year cycle (“Ahau Katun”) of the Maya calendar and the 365 days in a year. Ruggles shows that in the codex the Maya related their 260-day calendar to celestial bodies, especially Venus and Mars.
Paul Schellhas in 1897 and 1904 assigned letters to gods for specific glyphs since they had several possible names. For example God D could be Hunab Ku Itzam Na among several other names and God A could be Cizin (god of death) among others. The Schellhas system of assigning letters for the gods represented by certain glyphs as a noncommittal system was adopted by later researchers of Maya codices.
The Dresden Codex contains accurate astronomical tables, which are recognized by students of the codex for its detailed Venus tables and lunar tables. The lunar series has intervals correlating with eclipses, while the Venus tables correlate with the movements of the planet Venus. The codex also contains astrological tables and ritual schedules. The religious references show in a cycle of a 260-day ritual calendar the important Maya royal events. The codex also includes information on the Maya new-year ceremony tradition.The rain god Chaac is represented 134 times.
Italian artist and engraver Agostino Aglio, starting in 1826, became the first to transcribe and illustrate the codex completely for Lord Kingsborough, who published it in his nine volumes of Antiquities of Mexico in 1831–1848.
The codex then had some damage due to handling, sunlight, and moisture. It received direct water damage that was significantly destructive from being kept in a flooded basement during the bombing of Dresden in World War II.
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, historians such as Helmut Deckert and Ferdinand Anders 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 and 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. 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.
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.