Carrasco Organizes International Team of Scholars to Decipher Sixteenth-Century Mesoamerican Codex

When the archaeology PhD student Ann Seiferle-Valencia tells friends and family about the sixteenth-century codex Mapa de Cuauhtinchan ("Place of the Eagle"), which she is helping to decipher along with an international team of scholars assembled by Harvard Divinity School Professor Davíd Carrasco, she says: "Everybody laughs. They tell me, 'You're writing your dissertation on a treasure map!'"

But as Carrasco and Seiferle-Valencia make abundantly clear, this particular "treasure map" will yield new and important discoveries for the field of Mesoamerican studies. More specifically, decoding this pictorial manuscript will lead to a much-needed deeper understanding of what Carrasco calls "the Mesoamerican imagination and sacred geography."

"This mapa [map] was produced by a Chichimec community from Cuauhtinchan as part of a legal dispute over land with the Spaniards and another Indian community," Carrasco said. "It is a rare document providing us a view of an indigenous community struggling in the sixteenth century to hold its own." And, Carrasco stressed, "it is artistically beautiful, with a dynamic sense of story about place and changing place."

The story, to the extent it has been interpreted so far, is an "origin, migration, foundation story," Carrasco explained. "It begins with a scene of emergence from the primordial 'place of the seven caves' from which their ancestors were born, and then shows their long journey across a mountainous landscape (marked by footprints) in search of a new homeland," he said. "Along the way, the Chichimecas negotiate with other communities, carry out animal and human sacrifices, and face floods and storms. They stop at Cholula, one of the great central Mesoamerican cities, where they receive sacred legitimacy to found a community. The journey ends with the founding of what becomes their homeland, Cuauhtinchan."

The original document is dated in the 1580s and records events from the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries. As far as anyone knows, the map was conserved somewhere in Cuauhtinchan until the late nineteenth century, when it was shown at an exposition and copies began to be exhibited in museums in Mexico. At that point, the original was purchased by a private collector, and it has remained with private collectors ever since. Although it was declared a historical monument in Mexico in 1963, and it has shown up now and again in scholarly discussions over the last century (including one dissertation written in Mexico), there has never been a comprehensive study done on this particular codex.

The most recent private owner of the Mapa de Cuauhtinchan, Angeles Espinosa Iglesias, acquired the document from another collector a few years ago. She is a member of the advisory board of Harvard's David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, with which Carrasco holds a joint appointment, and she approached the Center and asked if Harvard would able to organize a multidisciplinary investigation of the document. Rockefeller Center personnel told her, "We have just the scholar to ask," and they approached Carrasco, who took one look at the beautiful, detailed document and immediately began contacting scholars he knew at Harvard and in Mexico. Meanwhile, the map was digitally photographed at a high quality and put on a CD-ROM so that detailed digital images could be shared with his colleagues.

Included on the team Carrasco put together are anthropologists, linguists, archaeologists, historians of religion and art, an archaeo-astronomer and an ethno-botanist, and one graduate student, Seiferle-Valencia. Harvard participants include William Fash, Barbara Fash, and David Stuart, representing the Department of Anthropology and the Peabody Museum. A group of scholars held an initial planning meeting in Mexico City during November 2003, and 15 agreed to sign on to a three-year collaborative effort to analyze the map from multiple academic perspectives. The scholars planned two conferences, the first to be held in Puebla, Mexico (most likely in the fall of 2004), to share their initial investigations, and the second to be held at Harvard, where polished papers will be presented. Ultimately, the team hopes to produce a book of essays sharing their interpretations of the Mapa de Cuauhtinchan.

"This group will be able to analyze the sacred geography, astronomy, botany, architecture, historical events, religious rituals, and political alliances represented in the document," Carrasco said. "Our iconographic analysis will engage a multi-disciplinary, team approach. The Moses Mesoamerican Archive, which is the host for the project, has utilized this approach with effective results over the last 20 years, resulting, for instance, in the award-winning Oxford Encyclopedia of Mesoamerican Cultures. It's a matter of using what I call the 'ensemble approach' to interpreting cultural and religious documents. It will be interesting to see how our methods compare with the ongoing deciphering of biblical and other religious documents by colleagues in the Divinity School.

"Harvard's project includes a number of scholars from Mexico who have been working on colonial pictorials including the Cuauhtinchan documents," Carrasco said. "The Mexican participants are led by Keiko Yoneda whose publications on the family of pictorials from the Puebla region will serve as a guide for the meeting in Mexico next fall."

There are many attributes that make this document particularly exciting for scholars from many fields, Carrasco and Seiferle-Valencia note. One of the most important is that it can be "looked at in interaction with other contemporaneous documents," according to Carrasco. "This document is part of a family of four documents that were all produced in Cuauhtinchan," Seiferle-Valencia explained, "so they're in a similar artistic tradition and provide us with an important opportunity to do comparisons between documents and really analyze them to a degree that is difficult to do with more isolated manuscripts. There's more cultural context."

There is, they explain, one famous contemporaneous manuscript in particular, the Historia Tolteca-Chichimeca, which is illustrated and also includes script written by a European hand. "Documents like the Historia Tolteca-Chichimeca are an invaluable resource in terms of interpreting other Mesoamerican pictorials like our document because they contain both the written and pictorial program and can illuminate the comparable artistic elements," Seiferle-Valencia said. "It is a solid foundation to start with."

At the same time, "a lot of the analysis comparing the Historia Tolteca-Chichimeca to some of the finer details of other documents like this one have not been thoroughly examined," Seiferle-Valencia added. "So that means that although there is a lot of comparable material, careful comparison has not yet been undertaken." For these reasons, this is an "ideal research project," she says.

The first step, she says, is analyzing the toponyms in the map to identify Aztec place names. "The Aztecs never developed a phonetic writing system," she explained, "so it's not the same as with Maya hieroglyphs, where you can just do a full linguistic and phonetic analysis. But this map is full of an impressive itinerary of places that these groups are traveling through, claiming, and performing rituals in, and the place names are illustrated typically as a hill with some kind of modifying element, either inside, or on top of, or next to it. So the first part of my research, aided by my work with Professor David Stuart, is to decipher these place names." Carrasco cites initial examples that have been identified on the map of this kind of place naming, such as "serpent mountain," "wind god hill," and "the niche of the eagle."

"The other aspect of that first step," Seiferle-Valencia continued, "is to actually try and locate these places in the modern state of Puebla." And there's no better way to do this than to actually live in the area, which Seiferle will do during this spring semester into the summer. "I'm required to do a field-work component to my degree," she said, "so I will be using a combination of modern and historical maps, trying to locate these places, and then investigating them to see what kinds of archaeological and/or cultural material is associated with each place."

Seiferle-Valencia even plans to go so far as to begin to learn the local Nahuatl language while in the region, an incredibly difficult pursuit because of the radically different word structure and consonant combinations. "I believe immersing yourself in Nahuatl is a fundamental part of being able to decipher these kinds of colonial documents accurately," she said. "It structures your perception in a way that you can't replicate by doing a dry study."

After completing this first extensive "data-gathering" step, Seiferle said, the next stage "is to use that material to refine an understanding of Aztec space and place." Exploring the "sacred landscape" of particular Mesoamerican communities is certainly in keeping with Carrasco's primary interests, but Seiferle says it is also "inevitable" with this document, because "religion is so intricately related to everything else" in the imagination of Mesoamerican peoples. "If you look at the documents, there are some places the groups simply pass through, but then there are other places that are clearly locations for ritual or sacrifice," she explained. "So what you see immediately is that the relationship between religion and landscape is very significant."

One of the most interesting aspects for both Carrasco and Seiferle in the interpretive work is looking at the way the naming (inherent in the very act of making the map) is a form of resistance. "Through this map and an understanding of its historical and legal context, we can witness the Indian voices claiming their own place and setting down their own interpretation of historical events," Carrasco said. Seiferle added, "In a social climate where you have colonial authorities reorganizing communities and changing names of towns, you see very strong insistence on 'No, these are our places. This is our history.' " Both Carrasco and Seiferle-Valencia said that the endeavor of the mapmakers to maintain an indigenous identity in spite of all the forces mitigating against it is not only academically interesting to them, it is inspiring.

The renaming that was forced on communities by colonial powers even extended to the natural flora and fauna, explained one of Carrasco's team from Mexico, who visited the Harvard campus recently to share some of his own initial impressions of the codex. "When the Spaniards came, they developed their own books depicting the local plants from a Spanish perspective, comparing them to what they knew on the Iberian peninsula," said Robert Bye, an ethno-botanist at the National University of Mexico. For Bye, this document is especially exciting because of the "richness of the plants that are represented," which he says is rare for sources from this time period.

"My role will be to tease out the botanical information and cultural links in terms of how the local people may have used the particular plants in daily life in ritual," he said, "and in the second stage to give feedback from a 'co-evolutionary perspective' on how (indigenous people of the time) were both influenced by, and influenced, plants." He said the Aztecs were known to be very good at pooling their resources, meaning they certainly cultivated and probably altered plants.

Lest Bye's piece of the project seem removed from Carrasco's desire to explore the social and religious aspects of the map, Bye dispels this by noting the importance of plants in religious life and in marking the social location of communities (for instance, some plants are only eaten by poor people). In fact, Bye points out that studying plants and the value placed on them by indigenous peoples and their colonizers reveals a definite "conflict between indigenous cosmological views and the view of the three monotheistic faiths."

Including botany, astronomy, and other disciplines that are usually considered to be outside the range of his own field of study makes this a quintessential Carrasco project. A professor who is known to incorporate art, music, and film in his courses on religion (and who himself has collaborated on a range of academic and artistic projects, including the film "Alambrista"), Carrasco is an expansive scholar who constantly seeks to transcend any one discipline to the end of improving all of them. In projects such as this one, he brings together scholars from different fields to allow for a cross-fertilization of ideas and to ensure that no stone goes unturned (quite literally in this project, since there are many rock groupings in the map that need to be interpreted).

Carrasco's desire to bring together many different voices and perspectives in order to deepen understanding extends beyond the academy, as he attempts to involve people in the communities being portrayed or studied whenever possible. With the Mapa de Cuauhtinchan project, "members of the team will be consulting with local people living in the area in doing their work," he said, "and we plan to take our interpretative results back to the community when we're done and invite their feedback." 

Clearly, unlike some scholars, Carrasco is not one to hoard an exciting project for personal gain. In fact, he is using the codex as a teaching tool in the freshman seminar he is co-teaching with Bill Fash this semester, "Aztec and Maya," even though interpretation of the codex is still in its early stages. "What better opportunity for students than to have a fresh document like this to decipher and interpret?" Carrasco said. Besides, he adds, "the more eyes that see it, the more dimensions that can be noticed and illuminated."

To hear Carrasco and his team talk, perhaps Seiferle-Valencia's friends aren't so far off in their reaction to the project: The Mapa de Cuauhtinchan is indeed a treasure map for academics. "With artistic splendor and detail, it reveals the distinctive way this indigenous community told their own narratives in the midst of social conflict," Carrasco said.