Manuscript ‘lost’ for 500 yrs reveals ancient Mexico’s gender-equality (PHOTOS, VIDEO)

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A spectacular, ancient document housed in the Bodleian Libraries at Oxford University since the 17th Century has finally been revealed - and the story it tells gives a dazzling insight into Mexican civilizations prior to the arrival of the conquistadores.

The Codex Selden, a pre-colonial manuscript written in about 1560, was donated to the libraries by art collector John Selden in the 1600s. It is one of fewer than 20 Mexican codices surviving from the period prior to Spanish colonization and, through colorful pictures and symbols, describes wars, dynasties, religious beliefs and general culture of the native peoples of the Mixtec region (now Oaxaca).

However, since the 1950s researchers believed it was a palimpsest, that below the surface of the 5-meter long (16.4ft) deer hide concertina there existed an even older manuscript, hidden from view behind a plaster layer made up of gypsum and chalk.

The trick was to unveil it in a non-invasive manner and so avoid damaging the artwork. Due to the types of bright paint used in the manuscript, X-ray analysis proved ineffective in revealing what was underneath.

However, scientists have recently employed the hyperspectral scanning technique, sometimes used by astrophysicists to learn more about planets, to finally get a clear look at the original work. And what they found was spectacular.

The images depict, among other things, a king’s council including both men and women, a prominent individual who is thought to be the ancestor of two major family lines, people wielding spears, females wearing headdresses and place signs for a river.

“What’s interesting is that the text we’ve found doesn’t match that of other early Mixtec manuscripts. The genealogy we see appears to be unique, which means it may prove invaluable for the interpretation of archaeological remains from southern Mexico,”  said Ludo Snijders from Leiden University, one of those who conducted the research.

That women are represented so frequently and apparently in positions of power suggests a degree of gender-equality rarely seen in societies from this period.

It’s not yet clear exactly how old the original text is, but it certainly dates prior to 1560.

Heritage Science chief at the Bodleian Libraries, David Howell, believes this new hi-tech imaging technique could prove vital for similar projects in the future.

“Hyperspectral imaging has shown great promise in helping us to begin to reconstruct the story of the hidden codex and ultimately to recover new information about Mixtec history and archaeology.This is very much a new technique, and we’ve learned valuable lessons about how to use hyperspectral imaging in the future both for this very fragile manuscript and for countless others like it.”

Seven pages from the newly-discovered codex have been scanned using hyperspectral imaging and scientists will continue to work on the document in the hope of discovering its full story.