The reconstruction of the codex Añute palimpsest using hyperspectral imaging data
A technique originally developed for satellite imaging can now be used to recover pictographic texts from underneath the surface of a five hundred year old Mexican manuscript.
Codex Añute is an early colonial Mexican manuscript made around AD 1560. Today it is kept in the Bodleian Libraries of the University of Oxford. Ever since the investigation in the early 1950’s it was known that on the back of this manuscript, images were hidden under the surface. The ancient Mexican scribes made books by applying a layer of white gesso to a long strip of leather and then drawing images on them, which they used as a way of writing. It appears that an old manuscript like this was re-used by covering up the images with a new gesso layer and using one side to make the pictographic text we now know as codex Añute. If we want to see what these underlying images originally looked like, we have to look through this gesso.
Normally X-ray based techniques can be used to look for such palimpsests. The problem with that however is that the pictures were drawn with organic materials, which would not show up in an X-ray image. Luckily the new technique of hyperspectral imaging is able to recover at least part of the hidden text. Making reconstructions of these fragmented images requires an understanding of Mixtec writing styles and conventions. These reconstructed images can then be interpreted in a collaborative effort, involving the many Mexican indigenous experts in this research group.