Friday, December 13, 2013


Maya Writing Tools
A Brief Note

Mayan Scribe at work

The Maya had a sophisticated system of writing. They also created some very beautiful books so what were the tools that they used in writing those books?


We can get an idea by examining the books in question. Sadly there are only four surviving Mayan books, written in the hieroglyphic script of the Mayans.

The books in question are, The Madrid Codex, The Paris Codex, The Grolier Codex and The Dresden Codex.

The Grolier Codex is probably the oldest Mayan book dated to c. 1230 C.E., it deals simply with the synodic cycle of Venus. (Synodic cycle is the apparent orbit of Venus as viewed from Earth. This apparent orbit is 584 days.) The style of the book is apparently provincial and shows significant Mexican influence. Although the oldest Mayan Codex it was the most recently discovered. Having been found in the 1960s. This Codex is incomplete with only 11 pages, and is in poor shape.1

Page from the Grolier Codex

The Paris Codex is a fragment of only 11 pages, and in very poor shape, with the edges around the centre of the page worn off. This Codex is thought to date from around 1450 C.E. The Paris Codex seems to be a sort of Almanac dedicated to the Mayan calendar. It seems to have been like the Grolier Codex written by a single scribe.2


The Madrid Codex This particular codex was also written by a single scribe. Like the Paris Codex it is an Almanac, but unlike the Paris Codex it seems to be complete, consisting of 56 pages. Aside from the calendar stuff there is text referring to various occupations like hunting and bee keeping. There is also text concerning the gods. Strangely there is incorporated into the body of the book a page of European paper. Because of words than can be deciphered on this page it is possible that this book came from the last unconquered Mayan kingdom that of Tayasal; which was conquered in 1697 C.E. The Codex may date from as late as c. 1650 C.E., and may be the only survival from the library of Mayan books that existed in 1697 in the Mayan city of Tayasal. This is the most complete Mayan Codex.3

Page from Madrid Codex

The last but not least Mayan book is the Dresden Codex. The most beautiful and refined of the codices  it was written c. 1500 C.E., in Yucatan and may have been picked up by Cortez from the island of Cozumel in 1517 C.E. The Codex shows signs of being written by 8 different scribes and the artistry is far superior to that of the other surviving codices. It has over years been damaged but not fatally by water and war. The codex like the other codices is entirely consumed by calendric and ritual material, like an almanac.4

Page from Dresden Codex

The Mayans wrote there books using ink made from soot mixed with water. Apparently they preferred the soot scraped from the bottom of cooking pots. Such an ink, called abak, apparently is extremely durable. The soot in question being almost pure carbon and so the ink when it dries almost pure carbon. The Mayan’s preferred to use conch shells sliced in half as the pots to hold the ink.5

Page from Dresden Codex

Paper was made from the inner bark of a wild fig tree. Called a hun. It appears that fig branches are cut and then slit lengthwise. The outer bark is removed and the inner bark is then soaked in running water. The latex in the tree then coagulates and is scrapped off. The bark is then dried and then boiled in water containing lime and or lye from wood ash. This softens the bark. They are then rinsed in cold water. They then laid out in a grid formation. The first laid lengthwise the next crosswise until the grid is finished. Then it is beaten with a stone. Then it is dried in the sun and peeled off the beating surface and polished with smooth heated stones.6

Two pages from Dresden Codex

The instruments used to write were the brush pen and quill. The Mayan scribe seems to have used a brush pen made of reed with a tip of animal hair. The hair may have been divided into various layers of short and long hairs all  designed to give the scribe greater control over the application of ink. Hairs from several different animals would be used in order to produce the line drawn with the brush. There would be several types of brush in order to draw lines of various thicknesses.7

The other drawing implement would be the quill pen; called apparently the cheb. Basically it appears that the Maya created such pens by stripping a bird feather of all of its barbs. We know that the Maya used some form of the quill pen because of artistic representation and from the surviving examples of Mayan writing. In, for example, the Dresden Codex many of the lines are far to thin, uniform and straight to have been formed by a brush pen but must have been drawn by a quill pen. In particular some of the glyphs of the Dresden Codex are much to small to have been executed by a brush pen.8

That is it for the time being about Mayan writing tools.

The Mayan monkey god as Scribe

1. Coe, Michael D., Kerr, Justin, The Art of the Mayan Scribe, Harry N. Abrams Inc., Publishers, New York, 1998, p. 175.

2. IBID, pp. 179-181.

3. IBID, pp. 181-182.

4. IBID, pp. 175-179.

5. IBID, pp. 150-151.

6. IBID, pp. 143-145.

7. IBID, pp. 146-148.

8. IBID, pp. 148-150.

Pierre Cloutier

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