Codex Mendoza: Digital Repatriation of a Pre-Hispanic Document

The Codex Mendoza is the most relevant and iconic document that describes the empire controlled by Huey Tlatoani Moctezuma Xocoyotzin on the eve of the arrival of the Spaniards. In 1542, the Spanish viceroy Antonio de Mendoza ordered its creation to detail the sources of riches, Aztec expansion, territorial tributes, and chronicles daily life and social dynamics, and inform the king of Spain about the conditions in the viceroyalty. This digital edition of the Codex Mendoza represents the first attempt in the world to create a digital resource that permits an in-depth study of a Mexican codex. It demonstrates the broad-based utility of this type of edition and the need to seek new forms of representation for such complex systems of knowledge. At the same time, it inscribes a vocation to study, preserve, and spread awareness of the cultural patrimony of the Mexican people.

Institute of Anthropology and History (Mexico)
Cultural Education, UX/UI Design, Mobile/Web Dev
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The Challenge

The original Codex Mendoza was compiled by Aztec and Spanish artisans to inform the king of Spain about conditions in the viceroyalty. But the boat carrying it to Spain was attacked by French buccaneers and it never reached its destination. In the mid-17th century it came to be in the collection of University of Oxford, and it has remained there since. Researchers who wanted to consult the codex had to track down one of the rare copies, which were only available in English, or make a costly trip to England. Creating a digital resource around Codex Mendoza is an effort to repatriate this important document, and provide first-time access to the wider public as well as to specialized audiences including historians, paleographers, and students of Mexican or Latin American literature, humanities, sociology, and anthropology.

Introducing the digital repatriation of Codex Mendoza

In collaboration with Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History, Oxford’s Bodleian Library and the King’s College London, the digital-interactive version of the Codex Mendoza lets users page through the virtual document, mouse-over the old Spanish text for translations into English or modern Spanish, click on images for richer explanations and explore maps of the area.

In 2015, the Codex Mendoza was featured in the New York Times and distinguished as the Best Use of Digital Humanities for Public Engagement by the Digital Humanities Awards.

The Digital Edition

The characteristics of the Codex Mendoza make it a unique document for study. In the first place, in form and content it displays an ongoing ambivalence between European and Mesoamerican cultures, Spanish and Nahuatl languages, between semasiographic and phonetic systems, text and images. This dialogue between different registers and ways of storing knowledge takes on greater complexity when we set out to translate it into a digital resource. Unlike a plain text, such as a colonial manuscript, transferring the codex to a digital medium implies completely different efforts.

Territorial expansion, tribute, and daily life

Given that Mexican codices operate on several semantic levels that come together in the codex, they can best be understood as multimedia devices, akin to what a digital edition can offer. In this sense, the design and structure of the site were conceived to be in sync with these characteristics, enabling the user to connect diverse types of media to the codices. In other words, text (monographs, studies, articles, and bibliography), images, and video can be incorporated into the digital edition of the codex to enrich its content.

How do codices work?

Mexican codices are pictorial and iconic documents that pre-Hispanic cultures (primarily the Mexicas, Mayas, and Mixtecs) used to preserve and transmit their knowledge. They were produced on different types of surfaces, mainly on deerskin or bark paper. Gordon Brotherston (1992) describes the essential characteristics of codices as non-phonetic, although some might record concept-sounds, such as those produced by the Mayas. They are highly flexible in terms of presentation, for they can be structured as a chronicle told through historical events, a map, or a tribute list. This holistic integration of writing, images, and mathematics, clearly breaks with Western notions of writing.

The digital Codex Mendoza demonstrates the importance of using technological tools to create a more open and accessible means of exploring and studying Mexican codices. The importance of this work resides in the fact that it is the first endeavor of this kind in the world, while it commits to finding new ways of thinking, studying, and spreading awareness of Mexico's cultural patrimony.