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Scroll of the Centuries
A document forgotten in a desk is unlocking the forgotten tale of a Mexican kingdom. By Avrum D. Lank

Photo by Adam Ryan Morris

When the American Geographical Society Library moved from New York to the third floor of UW-Milwaukee’s Golda Meir Library in 1978, an old-fashioned desk was among the half-million-plus objects making the trip. Stowed on one of its shelves was a yellowing scroll that went largely unnoticed until 2012, when AGSL curator Christopher Baruth, who was preparing to retire, showed it to Aims McGuinness, an associate professor of history at the university.

Hear more about this story on WUWM’s “Lake Effect” March 25 at 10 a.m.
What followed was a game of academic telephone: McGuinness, intrigued by what he saw, described the scroll to Marquette University’s Laura Matthew, an expert in colonial Latin America, and Matthew emailed Michel Oudijk, a scholar at a university in Mexico City, the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. An astonished Oudijk recognized the scroll for what it was – a roadmap describing the lineage of a Zapotec royal line, all the way back to the mid-14th century. Also depicted by the centuries-old paint were a map of the Oaxaca village of Santa Catarina Ixtepeji, located in the mountains of southern Mexico, and inscriptions in an unusual form of Zapotec, a language indigenous to the region.

See a piece of Mexican history once feared lost.
The scroll was thought to have been lost to time. Mexican scholars knew it was created around 1690 to assert the land rights of Zapotec royals in Spanish colonial courts, but no one knew of its whereabouts. At some point after the AGSL purchased the document in 1917 for $350, it slid off the library’s radar and was forgotten. Baruth theorizes that it went AWOL in the wake of World War I, as the AGSL toiled over boundary disputes.

These days, it’s kept in a specially constructed box, and scholars hope that its ongoing translation will contribute to our understanding of “how indigenous people viewed the arrival of Europeans,” Matthew says, “and how they adapted to this new reality.”

“Spectacular!” was Oudijk’s remark this fall during a trip to Milwaukee to behold the scroll in person. It’s one of only two known documents written in its particular variant of Zapotec, and as the Mexican scholar looked on at its illustrations, Baruth, McGuinness and Matthew – the other players in the game of telephone – stood nearby in a line.

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