On October 8, the New York Times reported the death of Yale anthropologist and Mayan language expert, Michael D. Coe (1929-2019). Dr. Coe was responsible for translating and authenticating the so-called “Grolier Codex,” a ca. 12thc Mayan astronomical calendar discovered in a cave in Mexico in the 1960s and considered the oldest manuscript on paper of the Americas. It is one of only four Mayan hieroglyphic manuscripts that are known to have survived the Spanish conquest.
The manuscript, recently renamed the Códice Maya de México by the Museo Nacional de Antropología e Historia where it currently resides, was dubbed the “Grolier Codex” because it was first exhibited in the United States at The Grolier Club . However, it has never been part of The Grolier Club Library’s own collection. The exhibition, curated by Coe, was entitled “Ancient Maya Calligraphy” and was on view in our main exhibition hall from April 20 to June 5, 1971. (The New York Times obituary features a photo of Coe in our hall at the time of the exhibition.) The “Grolier Codex,” which was in private hands at the time of the exhibition, was one of nearly 90 objects on view that featured ancient Mayan writing, including stones, plates, vases, flasks, figurines, bones, shells, and manuscripts. Almost none of these objects had been previously exhibited or published. A young member of the Grolier Club’s exhibition committee, Alfred Bush, initiated the idea for the show. Another Grolier member, Gillett Griffin, then curator of Ancient American Art in the Princeton University Art Museum, helped in locating Maya texts. Michael Coe was then asked to curate the exhibition and write the catalogue, which was printed in 1973 as one of the Club’s publications.
The catalogue, entitled The Maya Scribe and His World (New York: Grolier Club, 1973), is a large oblong folio bound in blue cloth with a Mayan design stamped in orange on the cover. It was printed by the Meriden Gravure company in an edition of 1000 and reprinted in 1977 in an edition of 500 (both editions quickly sold out). Although the catalogue was based on the exhibition, it omitted some objects that were on view in 1971, and it added others. Coe explained the rationale behind this decision in the preface: “Those omitted have either already been published in some detail or do not possess sufficient interest to the connoisseur of Maya art or student of Maya writing. On the other hand, in the long interval that has passed since the exhibit closed, various persons have brought to my attention some superb Maya vessels in their possession which add highly important data substantiating my principal thesis on the nature of pictorial ceramics and their texts. These have therefore been included.” The “Grolier Codex” is featured in the catalogue as item no. 87, where it is given a lengthy essay and color reproductions of all of the leaves (front and back). Since the catalogue has long been out-of-print, The Grolier Club gave permission in 2016 for a free digital facsimile to appear on the website of the Mesoweb Press.
Although the Grolier Club is not, and never has been, the owner of the Códice Maya de México (it was repatriated to Mexico in 1976), we have a small archive of material relating to the exhibition and the catalogue, such as the invitation to the exhibition opening on April 20, 1971 featuring a lecture by Michael Coe; newspaper clippings; the original exhibition labels; photographs from the exhibition; correspondence; the prospectus for the catalogue; and proofs. A particularly charming discovery is a group of drawings sent by school children to a certain “Miss Lewis,” thanking her for giving them a tour of the exhibition .
For questions about this material or for appointments to use the Library, please contact the Grolier Club Librarian.
By Meghan R. Constantinou, Librarian
* I wish to thank Alfred F. Bush, retired curator of Western Americana in the Rare Book and Manuscripts Division of the Princeton University Library, for his comments on an earlier draft of this essay.
. In English, it is known as the Maya Codex of Mexico. See the Wikipedia article and the website of the 2018 INAH exhibition cited in the References.
. The Grolier Club files also have an attendance record (imaged above), which is attributed to “Ms. Lucy Lewis,” presumably the same person.
Bender, Rose. “America’s “New” Oldest Book: Researchers confirm the authenticity of the ancient Mayan Grolier Codex,” Yale Scientific (January 11, 2017) http://www.yalescientific.org/2017/01/americas-new-oldest-book-researchers-confirm-the-authenticity-of-the-ancient-mayan-grolier-codex/ (accessed October 21, 2019)
Coe, Michael D. The Maya Scribe and his World. New York: Grolier Club, 1973.
“El Códice Maya de México,” Instituto Nacional Antropología e Historia, https://codicemayademexico.inah.gob.mx/. Website produced to accompany an exhibition of the codex at the INAH held September 27-October 28, 2018 (accessed October 21, 2019)
“Maya Codex of Mexico” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Maya_Codex_of_Mexico&oldid=922016599 (accessed October 21, 2019).