Amergraph baner

Graphic Communication System in Mixtec narratives and Mesoamerican divinatory codices

Graphic Communication System in Mixtec narratives and Mesoamerican divinatory codices

The subproject focuses on the graphic communication system of the historical and divinatory Mesoamerican manuscripts, also called codices.

Mixtec prehispanic codices tell the accounts of the local ruling dynasties and are characterized by a narrative construction, manifested mainly in the spatial organization of content.

These documents have been studied so far by a whole constellation of important researchers, who developed and adopted different approaches. In our project primarily the recent philological-cognitive method by Mikulska (2008, 2015) and Dehouve (i.e. 2009, 2018) will be applied with the aim to:

  • investigate how the GCSs applied in Mixtec historical codices create meaning,
  • examine what graphic (notational) strategies are applied at the structural level to create the effect of narration in the Mixtec historical codices and parts of divinatory ones,
  • determine whether —and if so, how— this narrative reflects the characteristics of the discourse used while telling the same stories aloud,
  • confront the theories of writing and literacy with central Mesoamerican GCS which do not meet the classic narrow definition of writing but possess a syntax and is clearly capable of codifying narration.
Page from a Mixtec codex Zouche-Nuttall p.22 . © The Trustees of the British Museum

The graphic discourse of the divinatory—and possibly also the historical— codices share some structural characteristics with the oral discourse (Mikulska 2015; Dehouve 2019), although they are codified in different ways using different media (visual vs. verbal). These solutions encompass a variety of means, such as the graphic display of information and the use of metonymic series (lists of specific characteristics defining the subject through extension (Dehouve 2009, 2019) on the basis of conceptual metaphor (Lakoff & Johnson 1980), also present in the oral discourse and ritual performance). On the level of sign, the codification of meaning is made through three meaningful components, namely forms, patters and colors, subsequently creating a higher number of possible combinations (Mikulska 2020). A preliminary insight into the Mixtec historical codices allows the assumption that their GCS operates in a similar way, but this assumption is being verified by working on the codices Vindobonensis and Nuttall.

Page from a divinatory codex Borgia p. 56 (source:

Until now no records of a possible oral rendering of the graphic discourse from the codices have been proved. However, the comparison of graphic ways of codifying information in the analyzed codices (in the construction of the composed sign, as well as in the arrangements of signs on the graphic surface), together with the formal structures of contemporary ritual discourse – highly paralellistic, constructed in the form of metonymic series based on metaphoric principle– allow the supposition that the graphic register served as kind of “visual detonator”.

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