Primary Sources: Paintings and Stones

FIGURE 6. Pages 15b-18b of the Codex Dresden.

FIGURE 6. Pages 15b-18b of the Codex Dresden.

FIGURE 7. Line drawing of the scenes that run around the edges of the Stone of Tizoc. Place signs have been labeled (in this detail) c-j. Note that the ground is represented as the personified Earth; two rectangular flint-filled mouths, each framed by round eyeballs, open up to the scenes of warfare above. From Manuel Orozco y Berras 1877 El cuauhxicalli de Tizoc.

FIGURE 7. Line drawing of the scenes that run around the edges of the Stone of Tizoc. Place signs have been labeled (in this detail) c-j. Note that the ground is represented as the personified Earth; two rectangular flint-filled mouths, each framed by round eyeballs, open up to the scenes of warfare above. From Manuel Orozco y Berra’s 1877 “El cuauhxicalli de Tizoc.”

FIGURE 8. Map of Texcoco, Xicotepec, and Tlaxcala. The former location of the now-dried Lake Texcoco has been highlighted in blue. Tenochtitlan was located on an island in the middle of this lake, indicated here with a white dot.

FIGURE 8. Map of Texcoco, Xicotepec, and Tlaxcala. The former location of the now-dried Lake Texcoco has been highlighted in blue. Tenochtitlan was located on an island in the middle of this lake, indicated here with a white dot.

Maya hieroglyphic writing was used for over a thousand years. The earliest inscriptions appear in the lowlands of what is now Guatemala before AD 250, and the script probably stopped being written in the late 1500s—although isolated appearances of the ahau day sign still appear in nineteenth-century manuscripts.13 The most famous Maya hieroglyphic texts, on stone monuments and elaborately painted ceramic vessels, were created in the Classic period (AD 250-800). In the Late Postclassic period, the period contemporary with the rise of the Aztec state (AD 1250-1520), Maya hieroglyphic writing seems to have been used above all in painted screenfold books. Three Late Postclassic hieroglyphic codices survive today: the Codex Dresden, Codex Madrid (or Tro-Cortesianus), and the Codex Paris (Figure 6).14

Together, these surviving codices preserve several hundred pages of phonetic glyphic texts. In contrast, our sources of evidence for prehispanic phonetic writing in Central Mexico are more limited. Two carved stones and the pages of one document, the Matrícula de Tributos, form the three major sources for Central Mexican writing. All three focus primarily on recording place names. The two round cuauhxicalli (sacrificial stones) were found in downtown Mexico City. One, probably created during the reign of the Aztec emperor Axayacatl (1469-1481), shows the conquest of eleven towns. The names of these towns are written using phonetic signs.15 The Stone of Tizoc (named after Axayacatl’s younger brother and successor, who ruled from 1481-1486) depicts fifteen places being conquered.16 These include the eleven places shown the stone of Axayacatl, plus four additional locations (Figure 7). Vastly increasing the corpus of prehispanic phonetic writing from Central Mexico are the sixteen folios of the Matrícula de Tributos, discussed in more detail below. These bark-paper pages record hundreds of place names.

Although the prehispanic sources on Central Mexican writing are limited, they are supplemented by several dozen colonial-era documents written in the sixteenth century. By studying the patterns in both prehispanic and colonial writing, Alfonso Lacadena has proposed the existence of at least two “schools” of Central Mexican writing.17 One was centered on the island of Tenochititlan-Tlatelolco. Its scribes preferred relatively brief phonetic sequences. The phonetic texts on the Matrícula de Tributos are an example of the writings of this school. The other school was centered on the city of Texcoco, which was located to the east of Tenochtitlan on the shores of Lake Texcoco. Scribes from this Texcocan school wrote longer and more complicated phonetic strings.

The Lienzo de Tlaxcala presents an interesting twist on Lacadena’s two schools. He includes the sixteenth-century Codex Xicotepec as one of the writings produced in the Texcocan tradition. Xicotepec was a subject community of Texcoco, and so this codex records the local history of both Xicotepec and Texcoco. Geographically, however, Xicotepec is a long way from Texcoco: almost 150 kilometers to the northeast, well outside of the Valley of Mexico. Xicotepec, like Tlaxcala, is located in the Valley of Puebla. (The two cities are 100 kilometers apart; Figure 8). Significantly, extended “Texcoco-style” phonetic inscriptions are found on the Lienzo de Tlaxcala. But Tlaxcala, unlike Xicotepec, did not have direct political ties to Texcoco. This may mean that Lacadena’s “Texcocan School” is part of a much larger “Eastern School” of phonetic writing.18

Phonetic Writing in Late Postclassic Yucatan >
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13 Houston et al. 2003, 463-4; Chuchiak 2004.

14 Vail and Aveni 2004. A fourth document whose authenticity has been doubted, the Grolier Codex, does not include phonetic hieroglyphs.

15 Graulich 1992.

16 Orzco y Berra 1877.

17 For a critique of this two-schools theory, see Whittaker 2009, 71-73.

18 Lacadena is aware that more research outside the Valley of Mexico is needed: “One must not forget that there may have existed other traditions, other schools of scribes, possibly also centered in the capitals which held political power in the region, such as Tlaxcalla, Huexotzinco, or Cuauhtinchan”; Lacadena 2008, 13