Rediscovering Lost Mayan Text

Researchers regularly make discoveries in the reading rooms of the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. Curators, catalogers, and conservators can make their own discoveries when describing and preparing materials for research use. A case in point is the recent recovery of Mayan textual fragments during conservation treatment of an eighteenth-century Latin American manuscript in the Garrett-Gates Collection of Mesoamerican Manuscripts (C0744.01, no. 177), gift of Robert Garrett (1875-1961), Class of 1897. It was written in 1759 by a scribe named Tomás Ossorio, at San Sebastián Lemoa, Guatemala, and is one of nearly 300 Mesoamerican manuscripts, documents, and related items in the Manuscripts Division, each written in whole or part in one of the indigenous languages of the Americas. Garrett acquired most of his Mesoamerican manuscripts from the collection of William Gates (1863-1940).

This Mesoamerican manuscript contains a single text: Domingo de Vico (1485-1555), Teologia indorum, translated from Latin into K’iche’ (or Quiché), a Mayan language spoken by the people of central Guatemala. It was written in the Roman alphabet and disseminated by scribal copying during the Contact Period. Vico was a Dominican friar, who left his native Spain for the Kingdom of New Spain. He prepared this treatise in Chiapas, Mexico, for the use of Dominicans at the parish level to interact with the indigenous populations and their ancestral religious beliefs, which Spanish conquerors and missionaries viewed as a form of “idolatry.” The Teologia indorum is filled with brief Christian lessons drawn from the New Testament and lives of the saints, with explanations of basic Christian concepts. Vico’s text was translated by native speakers into the Mesoamerican languages of K’iche’, Kaqchikel, and Tzutuhil between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. The present manuscript includes pen-and-ink drawings, perhaps the work of the scribe himself, depicting the Cross with the Virgin Mary and St. John (fol. 1 v); and the Virgin Mary and Christ Child (fol. 113v). In total, there are at least a dozen extant manuscripts of Vico’s text in translation, of which Princeton has seven (C0744.01, nos. 175-180, 227) and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (Paris) has five.

When the manuscript arrived in the Library in 1949, it was in a crudely made, repeatedly repaired one-piece animal-hide cover or wrapper, not a contemporary binding. The binding was dysfunctional and was damaging the fragile paper leaves. Whoever was responsible for this later binding had ignored original folio numbers and bound the manuscript out of order. Moreover, one could see portions of five leaves of unrelated contemporary K’iche’ text, written in different hands. These leaves were upside down relative to the Vico text and lined the inside of the animal-hide cover that wrapped around the text block The lining was possibly an attempt to stiffen the wrapper. Mick LeTourneaux, Book Conservator in the Library’s Preservation Office, disbound the manuscript, cleaned and mended the text leaves, reassembled them in the correct order, and rebound the manuscript in a conservation binding employing long-stitch sewing for flexibility. LeTourneaux was able to recover the unrelated text leaves from inside the cover. These leaves were then separated, mended, encapsulated, and rehoused in a custom drop-spine box, along with the rebound manuscript and animal-hide cover.

Don C. Skemer, Curator of Manuscripts, sent digital images of the recovered leaves to Matthew Restall, Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Latin American History and Anthropology, and Director of Latin American Studies, at Pennsylvania State University. Restall has been a frequent research visitor to the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. He reads several Mayan languages and does research on the ethnohistory of the Yucatan and Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize. Scott Cave and Megan McDonie, two of Restall’s graduate students, studied the digital images and were able to identify three folios of prayers and other liturgical text, written in K’iche’ with some crossover into Kaqchikel. Like most Mesoamerican religious texts of this era, the text incorporates Christian sacred names and other loan words in Spanish and Latin. The remaining two folios are in K’iche’ and may deal with church business. The texts did not precisely match any known texts and will require more study.

The Manuscripts Division has been working with the Preservation Office for years to conserve scores of Mesoamerican manuscripts that came to the Library in poor condition nearly seventy years ago. Several of the manuscripts have also been digitized in the Library’s Digital Studio and added to “Treasures of the Manuscripts Division,” in the Princeton University Digital Library (PUDL). For more information about the collection, contact Public Services, at

no 177  opening 2
Rebound manuscript, fols. 1v-2r

no 177 fragment
Recovered text leaf