Aztec Books, Documents, and Writing

The administration of Tenochtitlán and its foreign provinces required a great deal of paperwork. Taxes had to be collected, lawsuits between villages or private individuals had all to be recorded, and the merchants kept accounts of their goods and profits. Instructions and reports passed to and fro between the capital and the outlying cities, and like any civilized people of today the Mexicans were familiar with both red tape and official correspondence. The clans maintained land registers, and when Cortés reached Tenochtitlán he had no trouble in procuring from the royal archive a map showing all the rivers and bays along a 400-mile stretch of the north coast. In addition each temple owned a library of religious and astrological works, while a large private household, like that of Moctezuma, employed a full-time steward to look after the accounts which were so many that they filled an entire house.

Ixtiuxochiti, a brother of the last native ruler of Texcoco, has left this account in the prologue to his Historia Chichimeca:

"They had scribes for each branch of knowledge. Some dealt with the annals, putting down in order the things. which happened each year, giving the day, month, and hour. Others had charge of the genealogies, recording the lineage of rulers, lords and noblemen, registering the newborn and deleting those who had died. Some painted the frontiers, limits, and boundary markers of the cities, provinces and villages, and also the distribution of fields, whose they were and to whom they belonged. Other scribes kept the law books and those dealing with the rites and ceremonies which they practised when they were infidels. The priests recorded all matters to do with the temples and images, with their idolatrous doctrines, the festivals of their false gods, and their calendars. And finally, the philosophers and learned men which there were among them were charged with painting all the sciences which they had discovered, and with teaching by memory all the songs in which were embodied their scientific knowledge and historical traditions."

In the law courts, especially those dealing with land and property rights, the disputants supported their claims with genealogies and maps, showing the king's land in purple, the lords' in red, and the clan fields in yellow.

Of this mass of paperwork hardly anything remains, and nearly all the surviving books from the Aztec homeland are of post-Conquest date. Some are copies of earlier works, while others are written in Aztec script with Spanish or Nahuati commentaries in European letters. The best collection of preConquest books comes from Oaxaca, the land of the Mixtecs, where more than a dozen examples have been preserved. Each book, or codex, consists of a strip, anything up to 13 yards in length and some 6-7 inches high, made of paper, maguey cloth, or deer skin, and folded in zigzag or concertina fashion like a modern map, so that wherever the user opened it he was confronted by two pages. The ends of the strip were glued to thin plaques of wood which served as covers and were some-times decorated with paintings or with discs of turquoise. Both sides of the strip were covered with writing and pictures, and the individual pages were divided into sections by red or black lines. Each page was normally read from top to bottom, though in some codices the arrangement is zigzag or even goes around the page. The strip was scanned from left to right. This enormous production of documents was dependent on a steady supply of the raw materials, and each year 24,000 reams of paper, the equivalent of 480,000 sheets, were Tenochtitlan. Aztec paper was made from the inner bark of various species of fig tree. The bark was soaked in a river or in a bath of limey water, and the fibres were separated from the pulp, then laid on a smooth surface, doubled over, and beaten with a mashing stone which had a ridged surface. A binding material (probably a gum of vegetable origin), was added, and the fibres were beaten out into a thin, homogeneous sheet. After smoothing and drying, the processed bark fibres had recognizably become paper, but the surfaces were still porous and rough, unsuitable for painting until they had been given a coating of white chalky varnish or size.

On this background the scribe drew his figures, first sketching the outlines in black, then adding the colors with his brush. The principal colors were red, blue, green, and yellow, and the pigments were sometimes mixed with an oil to give added lustre. Scribes were respected craftsmen, and the profession was probably hereditary.

The Aztecs wrote using symbols similar to the characters used by the Chinese and Japanese. All the symbols were pictures of one kind or another.

The symbols can be thought of as ideograms in which the objects express their own natures but also the underlying ideas and not concepts associated with them. Thus the idea of death can be represented by a corpse wrapped for burial, night by a black sky and a closed eye, war by a shield and a club, or speech by a little scroll issuing from the mouth of the person who is talking. Concepts involving the idea of motion, walking, migration, or the sequence of events were usually indicated by a trail of footprints going in the necessary direction.

Aztec personal names were of the descriptive type which could usually be written in glyphs. The name of the Emperor Acamapichtli means 'Handful of Reeds' and his glyph is a forearm with the hand grasping a bundle of stalks. Chimalpopoca, the name of the next ruler but one, means 'Smoking Shield', and his successor was Itzcoatl or 'Obsidian Snake'.

There was also a phonetic element in Aztec writing. Every word in spoken language has a sound as well as a meaning, and glyphs were sometimes used to indicate the phonetic value of a word rather than its sense. Thus, to give an example from English, a drawing of an eye may be a pictogram (meaning the eye as part of the body), or an ideogram (expressing the idea of sight and vision), or a phonogram (standing for the sound 'I'). In the latter case, the eye symbol can be used, as a sort of pun, to indicate the first person singular. It is possible to write the sentence, 'I can be hospitable', as a series of phonetic glyphs: an eye, a tin can, a bee, a horse, a pit or hole, and a table. The Aztecs applied the same technique to the writing of Nahuatl. Pictures were sometimes used for their sound, without reference to their meaning. The symbol for teeth (tiantli in the Aztec language) expressed the syllable 'tlan'; the glyph

for tree or forest (quauill) stood for the syllable 'quauh', a stone (tell) for 'te', a mountain (tepeti) for 'tepe', and so on. Vowels were sometimes represented phonetically; the sound 'a' by the symbol for water (all), or '0' by a road (olli).

Names of towns could be expressed by a combination of such phonograms. The sign for the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlán, was a stone (tell) from which sprouted a prickly pear cactus (nochili); Tochtepecan was indicated by a rabbit (tochtli) above a mountain (tepeti); quauhtitlan by a tree (quauitl) with teeth (tiantli), quauhnauac by a tree with a speech scroll issuing from it (nahuall -speech).

These symbols were not placed in sequence, one after the other like the letters and words in a book, but formed part of a larger composition which often took the form of a scene in which many things may be happening at once. An Aztec manuscript is not read in the normal sense of the word, but is deciphered like a puzzle picture in which the glyphs provide. labels and clues to what is going on. The lower part of the picture generally represents the ground, while the upper is the sky. Since the Aztecs had not discovered the rules of perspective, distance is shown by placing the furthest figures at the top of the page and the nearest at the bottom. Relative importance is indicated by size: a victorious king, for example, may be drawn larger than his defeated enemy. All figures are in profile, with no three-quarter views or fore-shortening.

Every item in a composition is there to give information, either directly or by implication, and the painter assumes that the person examining the document is familiar with the insignia of rank, the costumes appropriate to the various classes, and the iconography of the different gods. A priest, for instance, is always depicted with his face painted black, his hair long, and his ear-lobe stained red from blood-letting. He can thus be recognized as a priest even when dressed in warrior 5 costume or plain garb. In the same way, an old person can be recognized by the lines which represent the wrinkles on his face.

Color was also important. The signs for grass, canes, and rushes look very much the same in black and white, but in color there could be no mistake: in the Codex Mendoza grass is yellow, canes are blue, rushes green. A ruler could be recognized at once from the shape of his diadem and from its color, turquoise, which was reserved for royal use.

A scribe who could keep pace with court proceedings had every reason to be proud of his skill Aztec. Both writing and reading were therefore specialized skills, and it is no wonder that the mass of the population remained illiterate. Writing was not taught in the schools attended by plebeian children, and indeed the ordinary man would have no need for it. In a bureaucratic and centralized society the common man received his instructions from above, from the priests who looked after the religious side of his life, or from the secular officials who were drawn from the nobility and had the benefit of a calmecac education.


The Aztecs used a vigesimal system, counting by 20s. The numbers 1-19 were expressed by dots or occasionally by fingers; 20 was represented by a flag; 400 (i.e. 20 >(20) by a sign which looks like a feather or a fir tree; and 8,000 (20 x 20 x 20) by a bag or tasselled pouch which was imagined to contain 8,000 cocoa beans.

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