Mexican Government Acquires Rare Centuries-Old Aztec Manuscripts

The 16th- and 17th-century artifacts provide historical accounts of events such as the founding of Tenochtitlán

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The Mexican government has acquired three Aztec codices from the 16th and 17th centuries. SC / INAH / BNAH

The Mexican government has acquired three illustrated Aztec codices from the late 16th to early 17th centuries that had been passed down within one family for generations.

The newly purchased documents, known as the Codices of San Andrés Tetepilco, are written in Spanish and the Indigenous Nahuatl language. One of them provides an account of the founding of Tenochtitlán, which is now Mexico City.

María Castañeda de la Paz, a historian at the University of Seville who helped locate the codices, first learned about the documents in 2009. A colleague told her of a friend in Mexico City who possessed “some potentially interesting manuscripts,” so she went to see them for herself, as El País’ Carlos Maldonado reports.

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The codices contain illustrations and are written in Spanish and the Indigenous Nahuatl language. SC / INAH / BNAH

“It’s not every day you come across documents like this,” Castañeda de la Paz tells the publication. “I was thrilled and surprised because documents about the history of Tenochtitlan are very rare.”

Mexican citizens are allowed to keep important historical artifacts from this era as long as they don’t take them out of the country, as Baltazar Brito Guadarrama, head of the National Library of Anthropology and History (BNAH), tells El País.

This month, Castañeda de la Paz and a team of experts announced the acquisition of the documents at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. The Mexican government paid the family, who has opted to remain anonymous, 9.5 million pesos (over $500,000) for the manuscripts.

“These three documents are added to the 200 Mesoamerican codices—of the approximately 550 that are recognized in the world—in the custody of the BNAH,” according to a statement from Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), per Google Translate. “Thanks to this transfer of ownership, the people of Mexico now hold the Codices of San Andrés Tetepilco.”

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The manuscripts describe important events in Aztec history. SC / INAH / BNAH

Experts from Metropolitan Autonomous University in Mexico City examined the artifacts ahead of the sale. They found that “two of the sheets were written on amate, or bark paper, and that the codices’ inks were made from plants, charcoal and indigo, creating the colors red, yellow ochre, black and blue,” per Live Science’s Owen Jarus.

One of the codices is especially exciting to historians. Castañeda de la Paz tells El País this “jewel in the crown” covers “Tenochtitlan’s history through four main themes: the city’s founding in the 14th century; records of pre-Hispanic tlatoque lords; the Spanish conquistadors’ arrival in 1519; and the viceroyalty period until 1611.”

Researchers and conservationists will continue to study the documents, which will eventually be stored in BNAH’s codex collection.

As historian Rafael Tena tells El País, “It’s remarkable that centuries later, we are still discovering new materials that enrich our national heritage and historical knowledge.”

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