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Rare Aztec Document Gets A Check-Up

The first page of the Codex Fejérváry-Mayer, a rare Aztec document painted on deer-skin prior to Cortez's conquest. Credit: Liverpool World Museum.

In 1521, the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan fell to the Spanish invaders, who burned libraries and destroyed most of the manuscripts pertaining to Aztec history, religious rituals and economy.

The Codex Fejérváry-Mayer is one of just two dozen or so Aztec texts to survive the Spanish invasion.

It’s also just one of just six screenfold books that were penned before Cortez started his conquest of Mexico’s indigenous people.

So suffice to say that it’s a pretty exceptional record of the pre-Spanish Mesoamerican world.

This codex is called a screenfold book because Aztec scholars would literally twist and fold the 22-page, double-sided document to cross-reference a particular date to two calendar cycles: the yearly cycle of 365 days and the sacred cycle of 260 days (called tonalpohualli).

Joanna Ostapkowicz, a curator at the World Museum in Liverpool, which hosts Codex Fejérváry-Mayer, explains it in this way:

“In the hands of ritual practitioners and other high-ranking individuals, the codex became a guide for people’s actions. The screenfold’s internal reading structure is right to left and is determined by the number-and-sign sets of the calendar: how the images and symbols cross-referenced each other was then interpreted by the reader, who was well versed in the significance of the various icons. Although an object of great respect, the codex was also a tactile, malleable reference tool: a user could consult both sides simultaneously by folding parts of the codex onto itself. Reading it offered guidance on appropriate days to travel, to celebrate a deity’s beneficence with sacrifices, to plant crops or to name a child.”

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Arsenic Contamination Of Artifacts

This armadillo's hairy underbelly is not contaminated with arsenic. Credit: Sarah Everts

A few weeks ago I got to touch the hairy underbelly of an armadillo.

Even though it hadn’t been alive for some time, I was still pretty chuffed about the whole experience—I mean, it’s unlikely I’ll ever have such an intimate moment with an armadillo again.

The beast in question had been briefly removed from its basement cupboard home at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences as part of a behind-the-scenes tour during the recent Science Online conference.

The experience of handling a stuffed armadillo was not just exceptional because it’s a stuffed armadillo. The experience was exceptional because it’s rather unwise to spontaneously handle animal or plant-based artifacts found in museum storage rooms.

Until the 1970s, many biologically-based artifacts were doused with arsenic (as well as lead, mercury and some organic pesticides such as DDT) to keep insect and microbial invaders at bay, explained Lisa Gatens, the NCMNS curator of mammals who let me and others on the tour touch the animal. (For the record, the armadillo was safe.)

Since the practice of adding pesticides to biologically-based artifacts began in the 1800s, there are an awful lot of contaminated museum artifacts out there. And many have levels of arsenic that could pose a problem to human health if handled without protection. Continue reading →

Bringing A Controversial Mural in LA Back To Life

By David Alfaro Siqueiros. From www.olvera-street.com

In 1932, David Alfaro Siqueiros got kicked out of Mexico for his political leanings so the artist spent six months in Los Angeles, California, where he produced a controversial mural called América Tropical.

Siqueiros may not be as well-known as his teacher and contemporary Diego Rivera, but these two, along with José Orozco, formed “Los Tres Grandes,” the big three Mexican muralists of the early 20th century.

During his stint in LA, Siqueiros was asked to paint a mural on a second story wall that overlooked Olvera Street, which was–and still is–a romanticized, somewhat kitschy Mexican market set up for tourists.

The idea was for Siqueiros to produce something that celebrated tropical America. The expectation was probably that it might be a romanticized vision of Mexico—just like the street below.

Instead Siqueiros, who was a die-hard Communist, produced a profoundly political piece of art: A crucified indigenous Mexican is at the forefront of the mural, with an American Eagle flying ominously above. A sharp shooter approaches from the right with his gun aimed at the Eagle.

To say the piece made a splash is a pretty major understatement. Continue reading →

Traces Of Tobacco In Mayan Pottery

This 1000-year-old-plus Mayan pot has tobacco leaf residues inside. Credit: Library of Congress.

Conservation scientists went spelunking in to this Mayan pot from 700 A.D. and found traces of nicotine, the first physical evidence of tobacco use by the ancient civilization.

Staff at the Library of Congress, where the pot is housed, might have been tempted to guess that tobacco was indeed inside, since the Mayan script on the container says so.

But they were wiser than that. There have been many cases where the inscription outside a vessel does not match what’s inside-sometimes intentionally so, as is the case with certain Mayan rituals, the researchers note in their article, which will be imminently published in the journal Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry.

In fact this is only the second case to-date (with Mayan artifacts) where the packaging information has accurately matched the goods. The other example dates back to 1989 when scientists found traces of cacao in a correctly-marked Mayan container from Guatemala.

Researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the University of Albany used a technique called mass spectrometry to identify the traces of nicotine at the bottom of the pot.

There's blood in the coating of this animal sculpture from the Mali Empire. Credit: C2RMF

They were lucky that the residues had not been degraded over the past thousand years and that the pot hadn’t been stuffed with iron oxide, a commonly used burial material that would have drowned out the nicotine signal.

The analytical technique they used is also helping to identify all sorts of other day-to-day products and ingredients used by ancient civilizations.

Researchers at the Louvre have used mass spectrometry to help identify pink powders in ancient Greek and Roman cosmetics, as well as blood in the coating of animal artifacts from Mali–to name only two of many examples.

Conserving Canada’s Valuables

The Pimple, Evening, by Group of Seven painter A.Y. Jackson. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Canada may not be rife with Roman ruins and Rembrandt masterpieces but the country has more than enough art and artifacts—such as one-of-a-kind First Nations leather work, Group of Seven landscape masterpieces and famous hockey gear–to keep cultural heritage scientists at the Canadian Conservation Institute in Ottawa very busy.

With an annual budget of $12 million (CAD) from the federal government, the CCI’s mission is to provide scientific support to some 2500 museums and 1000 archives across Canada.

I was passing through Ottawa last weekend and managed to slip in a visit to the CCI headquarters, where Charlie Costain, the CCI’s director of research, conservation and scientific services took me on a great tour of the warehouse laboratories. Continue reading →