Social Sciences

Decoding the Codex

Abel Cerros is deciphering historical documents that are more than 500 years old

Picture a huge scroll—say, 30 feet long—that tells the story of a Mexican tribe.

It might spell out the steps in a certain ceremony, for example, or serve as a calendar or record of activities. The “sentences” are written as a series of images along the edge of a panel or page within the scroll. To read them, you rotate the scroll, reading right to left.

These rich historical records, called codices, capture more than 500 years of history of Mexico’s indigenous peoples, in elaborate and extremely complicated imagery. Ethnic studies major Abel Cerros is decoding one of them, answering questions not just for academic purposes but personal ones.

Assistant professor Ana-Maurine Lara introduced Cerros to codices as a way to learn more about his family history. She and Cerros established an independent study course in anthropology, and he was one of three UO students to travel to Mexico with her recently to conduct field research.

Cerros concentrated on the Borgia Codex, which was created before the 1400s by the Mixtec people who lived around the region of present-day Mexico City.

Each page in a codex has a central, highly detailed, brightly drawn image, usually of a person or an animal, with several symbols in different colors around it, similar to the hieroglyphics inside an Egyptian pyramid. A dozen or so similar but smaller pictures surround that, but show different actions and use different colors and symbols.

“Each page,” Cerros said, “has so much stuff going on.”

There is no key or reference guide that tells the meaning behind the symbols and colors of codices. Instead, scholars have accumulated knowledge over generations and relied on the breakthroughs of other researchers to decode small parts.

Abel Cerros

Abel Cerros

For Cerros, a trip to Mexico City last April gave him some special insights.

The Borgia Codex captures the annual cycle of weather patterns in an elaborate fashion. Cerros was able to better understand the mysteries of the codex in interviews with tribal elders. He also attended workshops on the ornate documents, discussing their meaning with experts.

There was also a true “Eureka!” moment.

While looking over the codex, he came across an image of a man holding an object that loosely resembled a torch. Then he thought back to a dance he had seen earlier during that same trip to Mexico—a “danza”—during a ceremonial festival hosted by several tribes. He recalled a performer holding a small bundle of plants above his head and waving it, representing clouds. Then the dancer did a sweeping motion with the greenery, an allusion to rain.

An elder later helped him connect the dots: The drawing and the dance both symbolized an entreaty for rain, either to summon it or keep it away (Cerros wasn’t able to determine which).

Though Cerros was introduced to codices in a high school class, he has gained a much deeper appreciation of them through his research in college. Through the codices he has decoded something of lifelong value—a better under.standing of his family’s roots.

“It means a lot to me,” Cerros said. “I’m more in charge, culturally, of who I am as a person.”

—Jim Murez

Photo caption: The Borgia Codex, from the Mixtec people, captures the annual cycle of weather patterns in symbolic imagery.