Touching Text in Ancient Mexican Writing

by Stephen Houston (Brown University) and Marc Zender (Tulane University)

“Pictography…complicates discussions of both writing and artistic practice in a global sense” (Boone 2016:32)

In a perceptive comment, James Elkins once remarked on “the recurring fantasy that there might be such a thing as a purely visual picture, a page of writing uncontaminated by nonverbal meaning, or a chart or graph dedicated utterly to the propagation of data” (Elkins 1999:91). Posing extremes, if only to make a point about the challenges behind these categories, Elkins zeroed in on the zone of collisions between writing as a linear notation of language, meaningful notations or graphs that scholars call “semasiographs” (think of mason’s marks), and pictures that play havoc with linearity. Some images tell or allude to stories, but mostly they avoid any demand that depictions be accessed in a fixed order.

Of course, how a graph occupies space is less clear than one might think. As something to be seen, a picture does not have to be two-dimensional (reflect on Rodin’s Les Bourgeois de Calais [1884–89], whose miseries, to be fully absorbed, must be viewed from several vantages). And what script other than Morse code, when registered visibly as dots and dashes, fails to splay out laterally? To map out these frontiers, Elkins used Venn diagrams that interlock like love rings, one of “writing,” with two others of “notation” and “picture” respectively (Elkins 1999:85–86). “Hieroglyphs,” a kind of writing bridging picture and text, occupies two overlapping circles. These systems are both pictorial and linear, referencing things in the world but also, because they express language, insisting on a particular order of reading.

There must have been some evolutionary foundation to all of this. The making of images and the cognitive networks that facilitate the recognition of objects rest on primate origins. There was, according to Stanislas Dehaene, “the partial or total invasion of a cortical territory initially devoted to a different function,” as “coded by single neurons in the primate’s visual cortex” (Dehaene 2009:72–74, 183, and fig. 2.6, for the suggestive proximity in the human brain for areas responding to rooted things [e.g., houses], faces, written words, and separable objects; n.b: Dehaene [2009:184] comments on Maya writing but only with respect to “faces…[that] denote syllables”). An unmet need in scholarship is to have laboratory imaging, by computed tomography, of responses to hieroglyphic systems, rather than the “stroke-based” scripts, the majority in the world, that attract the preponderant attention of research on the reading brain (e.g., Changizi and Shimojo 2005; Changizi et al. 2006). For them, the alphabet remains “A Great Leap Forward” (Dehaene 2009:190), with implied negative comment about hieroglyphic writing that endured, in the Egyptian case, for almost 3,600 years or, among the Maya, for 1,800 or more.

The pleasure, perhaps even the neuronal frisson of hieroglyphs, is their resolute “thingness.” They have edges, interiors, exteriors. They represent things in the world; they have perceptible mass, weight, texture, color; they toggle, in their cognitive processing, when apprehended by the brain, between image, sound, and meaning. Rather than defects, these attributes surely delighted users and readers of hieroglyphic script. The features bore social import as well, in that the solidity of things, plainly evident to the eye, lent factual assertiveness to the messages conveyed by writing. By offering playful ground for virtuosity, hieroglyphs did something else—they abetted a drive towards prestigious and assertive display in unequal societies (see Baines 2007, for ample comparison from Egypt).

Nonetheless, picture and writing operate in their own domains, as made clear by one of the principal functions of script, to label or caption images. By their nature, hieroglyphs and images are pictorial, but the writing is strongly codified as to size, spacing, regularity, albeit with scope for fun flourishes. The relation between the two is more “dialogic…each relates to the other without absorbing or being subsumed by it” (Bedos-Rezak and Hamburger 2016:2). Two examples illustrate this point. The first, from Egypt, in the Middle Kingdom tomb of Khnumhotep II at Beni Hassan (BH 3), shows captioning that may be categorized by function and content: as added by the Egyptologist Claus Jurman, light grey rectangles indicate titles, dark grey personal names, ovoids “labels of action” (Fig. 1, Jurman 2018:111, fig. 2). Such tagging tends to occur when the tomb owner appears in the scene and may be enlivened by quotations of speech. The hieroglyphs occupy the same figural field as the pictures of diligent laborers, duty bound for eternity, earnest, energetic too, but they are clearly separable. Their contiguity is what establishes the relationship between text and image. The placement of texts above the figures may also signal some of their priority in parsing the scene. The figures function almost like unread determinatives. Their final positioning (where determinatives occur in hieroglyphic phrasing) and facial orientations (the same as their labeling signs) accord with that view.


Figure 1.png

Figure 1. Tomb of Khnumhotep II, Beni Hassan (BH 3, Jurman 2018:fig. 2, adapted from Kanawati and Evans 2014:pl. 121, bottom). 


A more recent example, in The Uncourtly Lovers from c. 1484 (and now held by the Gotha Museum in Germany), shows a couple (Fig. 2). Thought at one time to be a bridal pair, the painting highlights a medieval count and his concubine, the looping scrolls above describing both the “unlawful” nature of their love and its obvious ardor—he was about to depart for a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, perhaps never to return (Camille 1998:157–159). Sound is made visible here, but in elegant hand, accompanied by no open lips: here is interior, impassioned sentiment broadcast to viewers, possibly modeled on the prophetic or celestial utterances emblazoned on earlier scrolls in Western imagery (Schapiro 1996:157). In the tomb of Khnumhotep II, the texts are close by if spatially separate from the people and actions they caption; in The Uncourtly Lovers, the text is set apart on writing material. Yet both float impossibly, as though in thin air, a trait of such labeling in general. That physical impossibility tells the viewers that they are looking at a distinct kind of messaging. Labeling takes a generic image—workers laboring with energy and care, a profession of mutual devotion—and doubles down on the specifics of that scene, giving it weight, reality, grounding in a time and place, establishing who is whom, what is what, and by principles of labeling that were non-random in placement, content, and selection.


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Figure 2. The Uncourtly Lovers, Master of the Housebook, c. 1484, Stiftung Schloss Friedenstein Gotha (SG 703). 


Captioning in Maya writing has only just begun to be studied in formal and comparative perspective (e.g., Houston 2018:140–152; Zender 2014:63–67). Captives may bear labels on their bodies, as though these were inscribed into unwilling flesh; connecting text to people’s lips, voluptuous lines appear to indicate a record of actual speech (Houston et al. 2006:153–163). Yet these lines are relatively rare. It is in the writing of Mexico, including the Basin of Mexico, Oaxaca, and intermediate areas, that lines exist, and with telling implications for text-picture relations in the Postclassic and early Colonial periods.

As Elizabeth Boone (1994:53) notes in her useful discussion of the scene of departure from Aztlan on page 1 of the Codex Boturini, of the three individuals depicted on this page only one, the priestess Chimalman, is named by “a round shield (chimalli) attached by a line to her head.” She further mentions that, “[e]xcept for the glyphs composing personal and place names, the graphic components on this page convey meaning without a detour through speech” (Boone 1994:54). Boone (2000:48) also highlights regional variation in the use of this convention, observing that “[i]ndividuals in the Mixtec codices are always identified by their calendrical names, which appear as a date either attached to the individual by a line or unattached nearby” (Boone 2000:48). In the Aztec case,  the principle admitted more flexibility. The lines were more optional, linking portraits with both calendar names and personal name glyphs (Boone 2000:48). This important distinction between phonetic hieroglyphs and pictorial art received relatively little attention before Boone’s work. Charles Dibble (1955:301) mentions the convention only in passing, noting that Aztec name glyphs were “attached to the nape of the neck” and that, “when the individual’s name was of secondary importance and his tribal affinity was of paramount concern, the tribal hieroglyph was attached to the neck,” as in the ethnonyms associated with the captive deities of the Stone of Tizoc (see also Zender 2008:27, Note 4). Similarly, Nicholson’s (1973:23) state-of-the-field discussion of phoneticism in Aztec writing takes the principle largely for granted, largely following Dibble’s analysis.

First, a point of evidence. Maya glyphs always had context, in that they might occur on this or that building or object. However, they also possessed a strong graphic autonomy, appearing in long columns without any image nearby. The overwhelming sense from Mexico is that hieroglyphic writing did not have the same degree of separability, in part because of the intrinsic brevity of such records: i.e., if signs were painted or carved, they had to accompany a person, place, scene or three-dimensional figure. Images found explanation and specification by hieroglyphs, yet texts were, in essence, secondary to pictorial display. The few “free-floating” signs probably related to things in close proximity. Glyphs on stone boxes (tepētlacalli) may have glossed the contents, presumed in some examples to be mortuary (see McEwan and López Luján 2009:cat. 15, 16). Other signs embellished stone plaques affixed to buildings, a palpable, massive reference if there ever was one (e.g., Matos Moctzeuma and Solís Olguín 2002:cat. 172–174), or, when combined with other day signs, arranged into four-part patterns, they represented a compact, almost emblematic totality of time and space (Matos Moctzeuma and Solís Olguín 2002:cat. 226–227; for examples from other non-Maya writing, see Chinchilla Mazariegos 2017:43, 45, with similar emphasis on direct contact).

A second observation concerns the use of lines to link text and image. In Mexican systems of writing, lines occur exclusively on flat, painted surfaces. To our knowledge, not one of these tethers exists in carved form on stone or other hard material. Such links served as a purely painterly device, and of books at that—Aztec paintings do not yield such lines either (e.g., Contreras 1994; Sisson and Lilly 1994:fig. 4). In many cases lines seem also to be optional or non-existent, so that the entire “Borgia group” of Aztec codices fails to show a single instance of such tethers. Indeed, the first demonstrably Pre-Columbian usage is from the Mixtec region of Oaxaca where, as among the Aztec, there were three ways to link text and its referent: (1) the absence of referential line; (2) a partial tethering of person to non-calendrical name sign or some part of a numbered calendrical name sign; and (3) direct contact between text and its referent. All of these options may be found in the Codex Vienna: as highlighted in Figures 3 and 4, a green circle shows a tether, a yellow circle employs direct contact to link text and pictorial referent or to enchain internal components of a text (subitized numbers and day sign; for “subitization,” see Chrisomalis 2010:376–379).



Figure 3. Referential lines contrasted with direct contact in the Mixtec Codex Vienna (c. AD 1350). 



Figure 4. Referential lines between bodies and nominal day signs, Codex Nuttall (c. AD 1400). 


Direct contact as a means of linking a text and its pictorial referent is not limited to Mixtec sources, for it appears commonly in early Colonial documents. Figure 5 juxtaposes a Pre-Columbian example, from the Codex Vienna, each day sign brushing against its specifying number, and a Colonial example from the Codex Azoyú from Guerrero, Mexico, that employs both tethers and, in three mummy bundles below, direct, almost frictional contact between name signs and bundles.




Figure 5.  Direct contact (yellow circle) as alternative to referential line (green circle), Codex Azoyú (c. 1565), Codex Vienna (c. AD 1350).


What may be Colonial in date, and an expression of cross-cultural explanation, are lines that link two different textual systems, one indigenous, the other European (Fig. 6).  A page from the Primeros Memoriales prepared by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún and his native collaborators portrays the Aztec Emperor Huitzilihuitl (1391–c. 1417), his name bolded in red by the painter (as <Vitziliui>), a red line leading to his name sign, but with a black tether shooting down to his head. In the Codex Mendoza, the amount of food apportioned to a youth is displayed as two tortillas and then, rather redundantly, explained further by making two lines leading to dos tortillas, “two tortillas.” Such lines permit a ready consultation between two contrastive systems of graphs. One is European (i.e., Latin in origin), the other indigenous, although, in the Primeros Memoriales, both record the same language. (This may reflect Sahagún’s encyclopedic motive, to clarify through over-specification.) A celebrated image from the Codex Vaticanus A/Ríos, p. 54r, uses such lines to connect day signs with afflicted body parts, in a supposed aid to healing (Boone 2007:109–108, fig. 61). Yet, in addition to its Mexican component, this image has clear precursors in Medieval Europe and into the ancient Near East, where astrological signs map onto the human body. In many such diagrams, lines extend from zodiacal figures to a limb or organ (Zodiac Man; see also Clark 1979, esp. fig. 45, which mentions the Aztec example; for European input into the Codex Vaticanus A, Nielsen and Reunert 2009).



Figure 6. Concurrent, cross-cultural coding after the Spanish Conquest, Primeros Memoriales (c. 1558–1585), Codex Mendoza (c. 1542).


What may be another Colonial innovation is the use of lines as effective, rapidly accessed notations of constituents in taxable households. The Codex de Santa María Asunción lays out the name of the owner (glyphic TESKAkaPOK, for Martin Tezcapoc), hitched by a black line to a household conceived of (and depicted) as a “house” (Fig. 7).  But the rest of the diagram shows martial pairs (opposed male and female heads linked by red lines), their offspring (descending by lines at approximate midpoint of their parent’s tether), gender by use of an upper-body garment, age by relative size and whether, as with little “Joseph,” he lies in a cozy crib (Williams and Harvey 1997:72). The Christian names demonstrate a sweeping conversion of the family, which comprises, over two generations, a head of household, two brothers, a sister, and their respective families. Yet the proximity to the conquest—it took place only 23 years before—hints that this use of lines may be Pre-Columbian in origin.



Figure 7. Referential lines to the name of a pater familias and, in contrastive color, to highlight genealogical relations within a residential unit of taxation, Codex Santa María Asunción (c. AD 1544). 


A more exalted version of this genealogy comes from the Codex Cozcatzin (Fig. 8). It  employs the same red line—does this signal blood relations?—to link Moteuczoma Xocoyotzin and his two offspring by different wives (no love lost here: the children loathed each other and squabbled for decades over inheritances [Boone et al. 2017:122–123, in a section written by David Tavárez]).



Figure 8. Red-lined genealogy in the imperial Mexica family, and with red lines to individual name signs, Codex Cozcatzin (c. 1572). 

Referential lines had other uses in Mexican writing. Time and agency might be denoted by dotted or dashed lines, as in several images from the Codex Osuna  (Fig. 9). Skilled workers were linked by dark lines to their craft (e.g., albañiles, “masons,” carpinteros,  “carpenters,” etc.), and their number carefully tabulated by individual heads or, if mere brute-force labor (peones, “laborers,” by a banner for “20” in direct contact with the body of the worker—in contrast to the skilled craftsman, all brawn, little brain?). This seems to have been done on a particular day, lunes, “Monday,” as connected by dashed line to the 20 peones in the first image. Staff in hand, the Oidor Doctor Vasco Puga points with his right hand and, presto!, three natives go off to the stocks.



Figure 9. Dotted or dashed lines for ties to time and agency, Codex Osuna (c. AD 1565). 

Color performed admirably in tying a royal death and a succession in the Tira de Tepechpan (Fig. 10). The green line corresponds to one lord’s reigning years, limned in the same color, to be replaced by those in yellow for his successor (Diel 2008:47, 67).



Figure 10. Color as tether to time and event, contrasted with black line for nominal referents, Tira de Tepechpan (c. AD 1596). 

The links to time can have an almost pedantic precision, as in the Codex Mendoza, where a New Fire ceremony in the reign of Huitzilihuitl does not just reach to the square cartouche of a year sign but to the day sign itself (Fig. 11).



Figure 11. Hyper-specification of events tied to a year sign by lines, Codex Mendoza (c. AD 1542). 


The Codex Telleriano-Remensis elects for greater looseness. Year signs have an efficient, single tether leading to the mummy bundle of Huitzilihuitl and the accession of his imperial successor, Chimalpopoca (Fig. 12, left). Both events took place in the same year, so why not load one line with that shared function? The death of Bishop Juan de Zumárraga in 1548 seems to have led to slight confusion, with lines passing to the subsequent year as well (Fig. 12, right, note the error in the text, which refers to this death in “1549”). A skull dangling by line from the head of the supine bishop provides a portion of his name: TZOM/TZON “head” for the first syllable of Zumárraga (there being no u in Nahuatl, and tz often being substituted for /ṣ/ in Spanish loanwords and foreign names).


Figure 12. Joint reference with single line to tie people, events, and time, Codex Telleriano-Remensis (c. AD 1550).

Indeed, tethers may be used to provide marginalia or some clarifying afterthought. Having written na-MOL for the name Namol, the scribe (or later individual?) reconsidered the possibility of ambiguity with the “bowl” sign, which has several different readings (e.g., XIKALKAXMOLKAX, etc.), and annotated the glyphs with a second tether to the “rubber” sign, OL (Fig. 13). The pronunciation was now clear. There are numerous other examples, one being the name of Lady Ilancueitl in the Codex Telleriano-Remensis 29v. Her name glyphs, ILlakwe, are attached to her portrait by a tether, and then, perhaps as afterthought, an additional tether links the name glyphs to KOLPLACE, yielding an abbreviated reference to her city of origin, Colhuacan (see Nicholson 1978:23; Whittaker 2009:66–67; Zender 2013). Similarly, on f.46r of the Telleriano-Remensis, Don Antonio de Mendoza initially receives an abbreviated glyphic label of TOSA, attached to his portrait by a tether, only for this to be later annotated with an additional tether to the syllable me (Zender 2008:28-40). Finally, an elaborately pictorial glyphic toso on f.147v of the Calendario Tovar is directly attached to the Roman gloss Toçoztōntli to clarify its glyphic (rather than iconographic) identity (Zender 2013).


Pedro Namol_CSMA.jpg

Figure 13. Second tether in the Codex Santa María Asunción, pp. 53r and 77b (c. AD 1544). 


Referential lines were not always thought necessary—again, the important Borgia group of codices eschews them altogether. But they fulfilled a practical function by showing which parts of a visual field were textual, i.e., those that did not exist solely as pictures. There is probably deeper meaning. Lines, dashes, dots, black or colored, reveal an abiding attention to disciplining the pictorial field, showing which names, actions, times, people pertain to each other. Text can hover nearby, but it was thought better by far, in some examples, to affirm that tie to pictures. Pictures had autonomy, texts did not. Images were authoritative, texts explained and undergirded that authority.

Aside from the Codex Xolotl (c. AD 1542), a document from Texcoco, Mexico, with stray marks for war, peremptory royal commands sensory action (speech cued by volutes, sight by eyeballs), the comprehensive absence of verbs in Mexican writing made this relation necessary (Boone 2016:43–44, fig. 2.9). Action is pictorial, names, places, and time glyphic, hinting that distinct systems operate here, not, perhaps, blurred or blending ones (Boone 2000:33): they afford mutual strength, a joint undertaking that works well, if one that imposes strong exegetical burdens on the reader.

Although still insufficiently theorized (see, e.g., Zender 2014:69–72), Plains Indian pictography has long been known to employ remarkably similar conventions. Thus, Garrick Mallery (1894:168) reproduces a drawing of the Hidatsa/Minitari Chief Lean Wolf (Fig. 14), observing that “[h]is name is…added with the usual line drawn from the head.” Mallery cites Lean Wolf’s own explanation of his name glyph as indicating “the outline character of the wolf, having a white body with the mouth unfinished … to show that it was hollow … i.e., lean” (Mallery 1894:168; see also Zender 2014:69–70). Similarly, the famous Hunkpapa-Lakota Chief Sitting Bull (Tȟatȟáŋka Íyotake) is depicted in the ledger book of the Cheyenne artist Howling Wolf (Fig. 15), a long tether attaching his portrait to the strongly-stylized sign of a seated buffalo. Here, as in the texts of Postclassic Oaxaca and Central Mexico, the lack of verbal hieroglyphs puts the burden of narrative squarely on the pictures, thereby making a necessary distinction between them and the highly pictorial glyphs. Texts do not levitate in thin air like Middle Kingdom labels in Egypt or a curling scroll about forbidden love in late Medieval Germany. Intensely physical, unambiguous, they gather text and picture into the same space by direct, nominal, and indexical reference.



Figure 14. The Hidatsa/Minitari Chief Lean Wolf (Mallery 1894:168, fig. 74).


Fig Ledger

Figure 15. Sitting Bull Shooting Another Warrior, 1874-1875, ledger book, Howling Wolf, Southern Cheyenne (1849-1927), Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, AMAM 1904.1180.4.



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