UICB Annual Nancy Brownell Lecture on the History of the Book with John Hessler

A Blue as No Other - The Science and Philosophy of Color in the Mesoamerican Codex
Thursday, April 11, 2019 - 7:30pm

E105 Adler Journalism Building

Of the thousands of pre-Columbian books produced in the Americas, only a handful have survived to the present day, all of which shed a bright light on the history, language, and the book production methods and techniques of the Nahua and the Maya. This lecture will focus on the construction, material make-up, and pigments of these codices, and also consider broader cultural questions regarding the linguistics and philosophy of color, amongst the ancient Maya.

We will examine the latest scientific and imaging research on the Maya Codices from Madrid, Paris, Dresden, and the so-called Grolier codex, concentrating on the chemical and ethnobotanical composition and creation of the dyes and pigments that thousands of years ago appeared on the palettes of ancient scribes and painters. We will look deeply at the current research on Maya Blue, made from a complex mixture of indigo, derived from the Indigofera tinctoria plant, that when combined with palygorskite clay forms a stable nano-material and is one of the most unlikely inventions of the ancient Americas.

This multidisciplinary talk will combine science, book history and the philosophy of color in order to place the Mesoamerican book in a wider cultural context than it is usually given, and present a complex picture of how scribes, artists and consumers of pre-Columbian books interacted and produced these important artifacts, long before the arrival of Europeans.

When not searching through Maya ruins in Central America, climbing in the Alps or mountain biking through some jungle, John Hessler is the Curator of the Jay I. Kislak Collection of the Archaeology and History of the Early Americas at the Library of Congress and a Lecturer in Quantum Mechanics, Materials and Computing, in the Graduate School of Advanced Studies at Johns Hopkins University. His research interests focus on the ethnobotany, chemistry and materials science aspects of archaeological remains, concentrating on the science of color and ancient nano-materials like Maya Blue. 

A Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society in London, he is the co-director of the Mesoamerican Language, Theory and Decipherment Seminars, and is also on the faculty of the Rare Book School at the University of Virginia where he teaches a seminar called the History & Construction of the Mesoamerican Codex. The author of more than 100 books and articles, including, the New York Times bestseller MAP: Exploring the World, his research and writing has been featured in many national media outlets including Discover Magazine, Wired Magazine, CBS News, the New York Times, the Washington Post and most recently on NPRs All Things Considered. His current research involves developing quantum mechanical models to help understand the stability and resistance to degradation of ancient nano-materials, including Maya Blue. He is at work on the forthcoming book, Collecting for a New World: Treasures of the Early Americas at the Library of Congress that will be published in 2019.