The History and Content of the Maya Dresden Codex

The Dresden Codex is probably the most well-known of the Maya codices. It was found in a flooded basement during the bombing of Dresden in World War II. The codex was apparently purchased from a private collector in Vienna by the director of the Royal Library in Dresden, where it remained until its rediscovery during World War II. 

But how did the codex arrive in Vienna? This answer is not so clear; however, the most popular theory is that it was sent to King Charles V of Spain by Hernan Cortes during or just after the Conquest period. Cortes did send many examples of Maya writing to the king while he was living in Vienna, and this would explain how such a precious document arrived on the other side of the world without clear documentation. 

Despite the significant water damage it sustained during the bombing in Germany, scholars have been able to decipher the content of the Dresden Codex through careful study over many years. It appears to contain tables that highlight the details of Venus cycles and lunar eclipses. In addition to these tables, the codex shows ceremonies or rituals that were performed at certain junctions in time, including the Maya new-year ceremonies. 

Based on studies conducted by various scholars, the Dresden Codex has been dated to somewhere between the 12th and 14th centuries, with one scholar in particular (J. Eric S. Thompson) narrowing those dates to between 1200 and 1250. Before the authentication of the Maya Codex of Mexico (formerly known as the Grolier codex), it was believed to be the oldest surviving Maya manuscript.

The Dresden Codex is currently on display at the Sächsische Landesbibliothek (SLUB) state library in Dresden, Germany. To see the codex, you must ask to be accompanied by security to the vault where the codex is stored.

However, for those of you who can’t visit Dresden anytime soon, you can access the codex online by clicking the link below!

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