A Rare Public Display of a 17th-Century Mayan Manuscript

When you take a close look at the flowery but meticulous lettering in the 17th-century book, you can see that many people wrote the script, at different times. The book includes everything from sermons to poems, and there’s a dedication to Pope Urban IV.

The Libro de Sermones Varios en Lengua Quiche, from 1690, is the oldest manuscript in the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Anthropological Archives. It provides not only a fascinating look at the evolution of the Maya K’iche’ language, but it also tells a stark tale of religious history.

“When I see a document like this it just blows me away to see the care with which the language was put on paper by so many different people,” says Gabriela Pérez-Báez, curator of linguistics in the anthropology department at the National Museum of Natural History. She says the book is written in four different languages, including K’iche’, Latin, Spanish and Kaqchikel. “The paper is thicker, the book smells differently, it is really amazing to see the care with which it was written,” Pérez-Báez marvels.

The Libro de Sermones is part of the Objects of Wonder exhibition now on view at the National Museum of Natural History. The book has also been digitized so that scholars can peruse the book both to answer questions about history, but also to document the changes in the K’iche’ language as the Spanish were taking over the Maya empire in the 16th century. The text in the Libro de Sermones is very similar to the K’iche’ language that was spoken before contact with the Spanish. The book was given to one Felipe Silva by Pablo Agurdia of Guatemala in 1907, and Silva apparently donated it to the Smithsonian Institution sometime after that, but there are no documents explaining exactly how that happened. Today, Pérez-Báez says the book is quite relevant and important to scholars.

Read more: Smithsonian