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The Dresden Codex

Ancient History

The Dresden Codex

The Dresden Codex, first redrawing by Humboldt in 1810. Image Source Wikipedia

The Dresden Codex, first redrawing by Humboldt in 1810. Image Source Wikipedia

It is one of the few Mesoamerican writings that survived history, it is a pre-Columbian Maya book of the eleventh or twelfth century of the Yucatan Maya in Chichén Itzá, one of the treasures of archaeology and history believed to be a copy of an original text of some three or four hundred years earlier, it is the Dresden Codex. But what makes its value rise is the fact that it is the oldest book written in the Americas known to historians. It is believed that the Dresden Codex was produced in the late post-Classical era around 1200-1519 AD. According to research, the style in which it was written suggests that it may have been produced in eastern Yucatan, near Chichen Itza and Tulum (near modern day Cancun). The library that held the codex suffered heavy damage during the World War II in which the Dresden Codex was heavily water damaged but thankfully it was restored and some pages were placed into protective glass to maintain the integrity of the codex.

The images of the codex were painted with incredible clarity and precision which tells us of the importance the codex had to the Mayans. The Mayas used brushes onto which they applied basic colors made of vegetable dyes forming the color red, black and blue, it was written by six different scribes using both sides. There are 350 signs on the Dresden Codex out of which 250 have been successfully deciphered. It is one of the most accurate astronomical tables to have been discovered, it is famous for its Lunar Series and Venus table. According to researchers, the Venus Table correlates with the apparent movements of the planet. All three of the existing Maya codices are constructed out of amate, a Mesoamerican paper made from the bark fibers of a Ficus. A coating of white lime was then applied to the pages to create a clean surface for painting. Unlike similar screen-fold books from Central Mexico, all of the Maya codices are oblong in shape, approximately twice as tall as they are long. It is the most comprehensive ancient Mayan text available for study.

Originally folded in accordion folds, it consists of 39 double sided sheets with an overall length of 3.56 meters. Each sheet measures 20.5 centimeters  by 10.0 centimeters. At the moment, the Dresden Codex is located at the museum of the Saxon State Library in Dresden, Germany. It is a key document that helped in the deciphering of Mayan hieroglyphs. Without this Codex, we would know very little about this great civilization.

The Dresden codex made its way to Vienna mysteriously, as a matter-of-fact it is believed that it was sent to Europe as an example of native art and tribute to King Charles I of Spain. Once in Vienna this invaluable piece of history was purchased by Johann Christian Götze, Director of the Royal Library at Dresden in 1739. It was a unknown treasure at the time, passed on to Eastern Europe from Spain who at the time of Cortes, were more interested in shiny metal things than invaluable (extremely useful; indispensable books). Apart of its historical nature, the Dresden codex is of high value for science and astronomy, due to the fact that results of Mayan observations and calculations of astronomical phenomena are concentrated in the Dresden Codex, making it even more valuable. Onve the word about the Dresden codex was spread, researchers began showing interest in the text and data contained in the Dresden Codex was studied by many researchers like  M.Meinshausen (1913), C.E.Guthe (1921) and H.Spinden (1930). Linda Schele, Nikolai Grube (1997) and Michel Davoust (1997) provideD extensive new readings of the Dresden Codex inscriptions. As Thompson suspected, some of the language of the Dresden appears to be Yucatec, in contrast to the almost exclusive Ch’olan characteristics of the Classic monumental texts.

The data contained in the Dresden Codex were studied by many researchers who suspected they contain astronomical data. M.Meinshausen (1913), C.E.Guthe (1921) and H.Spinden (1930) were the first who had been interested in the eclipses tables. E.Foerstemann has drawn our attention to Venus visibility ephemerides tables; he also issued the Dresden Codex with a commentary in 1892. The analysis of these ephemerides has been made by J.E.Teeple (1926). R.W.Wilson believed that some of the data could concern the observations of Mars, Jupiter and Saturn (1924). The above-mentioned researchers, and lots of others, worked with the calculation coefficients of 584,283 or 584,285 days accordingly to Goodman-Martinez-Thompson when converting the Mayan dates into the Christian dating system, or tried to calculate their own coefficient. For this reason their conclusions were very diverse.  –

You can download the Dresden Codex in PDF:

The complete Förstemann version of the Dresden Codex in PDF format (95.7 MB).

The complete Kingsborough version of the Dresden Codex in PDF format. (48.2 MB).



Ivan is editor-in-chief at, he also writes for Universe Explorers.
You may have seen him appear on the Discovery and History Channel.

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