We Will Soon Get a Window Into Two Ancient Civilizations

The passage of time and ravages of war have together destroyed literally thousands of years worth of culture and knowledge from ancient civilizations across the world. We are often left with little more than fragments or the unverified and often biased accounts of outsiders and conquerors, depriving us of a fully fleshed out understanding of how ancient people lived, loved, thought, or struggled with day to day.

Now, two different archaeological breakthroughs have gleaned previously inaccessible information on two of humanity’s most enduring and influential civilizations: the Aztecs and the Egyptians. In the case of the former, they also reveal the horrific ease with which almost an entire culture can be eradicated in just a few years.

According to The Guardianan international team from the U.K. and the Netherlands, utilizing advanced imaging technology usually applied to geological research, discovered an extremely rare pre-Columbian manuscript hidden within another rare colonial era book.

The Codex Selden, a book of concertina-folded pages made out of a five-metre strip of deerhide, is one of a handful of illustrated books of history and mythology that survived wholesale destruction by Spanish conquerors and missionaries in the 16th century.

Researchers using hyperspectral imaging, a technique originally used for geological research and astrophysics, discovered the underlying images hidden beneath a layer of gesso, a plaster made from ground gypsum and chalk, without damaging the priceless later manuscript.

The underlying images must be older than the codex on top, which is believed to have been made about 1560 and was donated to Oxford’s Bodleian library in the 17th century by the scholar and collector John Selden.

The codex is one of fewer than 20 dating from before or just after the colonisation, which were saved by scholars who realised the importance of the strip cartoon-like images, a complex system that used symbols, stylised human figures and colours to recount centuries of history and beliefs, including religious practice, wars, the founding of cities and the genealogy of noble families.

Who could have imagined that the pages of book would yield such exceptional information all those centuries later? The Bodleian library — which already had the largest single collection of those lost codexes, at a mere five — can now add a sixth to its collection. This latest addition will likely yield even more well needed information about this cradle of civilization.

Scholars at the Bodleian and the universities of Leiden and Delft, in the Netherlands, are still analysing the newly revealed images, but believe they are unique, a previously unknown genealogy that may help unlock the history of archaeology sites in southern Mexico.

Some of the pages have more than 20 characters sitting or standing, similar to other Mixtec manuscripts – from the Oaxaca region of modern Mexico – which are believed to depict kings and their councils, but uniquely in this case depicting men and women. One so far unidentified figure appears repeatedly, and is symbolised by a twisted cord and a flint knife.

Other pages include people walking with sticks and spears, women with red hair or elaborate headdresses, and what appear to be place names with symbols for rivers.

Meanwhile, another Guardian piece reports on the efforts of a Cambridge academic to translate Egyptian rock faces and texts into English for the first time.

Toby Wilkinson said he had decided to begin work on the anthology because there was a missing dimension in how ancient Egypt was viewed: “The life of the mind, as expressed in the written word.”

The written tradition lasted nearly 3,500 years and writing is found on almost every tomb and temple wall. Yet there had been a temptation to see it as “mere decoration”, he said, with museums often displaying papyri as artefacts rather than texts.

The public were missing out on a rich literary tradition, Wilkinson said. “What will surprise people are the insights behind the well-known facade of ancient Egypt, behind the image that everyone has of the pharaohs, Tutankhamun’s mask and the pyramids”.

Indeed, while Egypt is probably one of history’s memorable and well known ancient civilizations, it is remembered mostly for its great monuments, iconic script, and rich mythology, with comparatively little known to the average person about its folktales, stories, and day-to-day life.

Hieroglyphs were pictures but they conveyed concepts in as sophisticated a manner as Greek or Latin script, he said. Filled with metaphor and symbolism, they reveal life through the eyes of the ancient Egyptians. Tales of shipwreck and wonder, first-hand descriptions of battles and natural disasters, songs and satires make up the anthology, titled Writings from Ancient Egypt.

Penguin Classics, which is releasing the book on Wednesday, described it as a groundbreaking publication because “these writings have never before been published together in an accessible collection”.

Wilkinson, a fellow of Clare College and author of other books on ancient Egypt, said some of the texts had not been translated for the best part of 100 years. “The English in which they are rendered – assuming they are in English – is very old-fashioned and impenetrable, and actually makes ancient Egypt seem an even more remote society,” he said.

In translating them, he said, he was struck by human emotions to which people could relate today.

Indeed, that is what makes these discoveries so insightful: they humanize ancient people and show how timeless their observations and thoughts were despite the gap of time and culture.

The literary fiction includes The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor, a story of triumph over adversity that Wilkinson describes as “a miniature masterpiece”. It is about a magical island ruled by a giant snake – his body “fashioned in gold, his eyebrows in real lapis lazuli” – who shares his own tragedy in encouraging a shipwrecked sailor to face his predicament.

“I was here with my brothers and my children … we totalled 75 snakes … Then a star fell and they were consumed in flames … If you are brave and your heart is strong, you will embrace your children, you will kiss your wife and you will see your house,” it reads.

Letters written by a farmer called Heqanakht date from 1930BC but reflect modern concerns, from land management to grain quality. He writes to his steward: “Be extra dutiful in cultivating. Watch out that my barley-seed is guarded.”

Turning to domestic matters, he sends greetings to his son Sneferu, his “pride and joy, a thousand times, a million times”, and urges the steward to stop the housemaid bullying his wife: “You are the one who lets her do bad things to my wife … Enough of it!”

Other texts include the Tempest Stela. While official inscriptions generally portray an ideal view of society, this records a cataclysmic thunderstorm: “It was dark in the west and the sky was filled with storm clouds without [end and thunder] more than the noise of a crowd … The irrigated land had been deluged, the buildings cast down, the chapels destroyed … total destruction.”

I am definitely looking forward to checking out both of these tomes when they (or in the case of the Mesoamerican codex, a copy or transcript) are made available.

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