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Maya Papermaking and the Dresden Codex Research Paper

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Updated: Mar 29th, 2019


Papermaking is a very useful activity that occurs in almost all the countries in the world today. Considering that the technology in the whole world is rising, with many nations introducing and improving their many facilities of learning and the requirements of office work, it has always occurred and it seems to be very useful for every nation to have a source where they can easily obtain papers.

This is because without papers, there would be nothing by the name, documentation of issues. It would be impossible to produce books, journals, articles as well as other publications that generally contain useful information, without having any sources of wood. Thus, for the industry of paper making to continue, preservation and conservation of forests should always be encouraged (Biermann 13).

Many books have been written, and continue to be written, using materials, which are obtained from wood. Some of these books happen to be ancient books, which contain a lot of information that is beneficial to many. At times, the information contained in ancient books may not be needed by many.

The book can thus end up getting lost or being destroyed without the intention of doing so. Later when some information is needed and the information is believed to be contained in the book, a search for the book is usually done. This case used to happen during the early times.

A writer who had some information to convey to the people would put their ideas down in a book and keep it for all interested in finding what the writer wanted to convey. The information would at times not be useful just after being written but later. Most of the times, human beings tend to value the things that seem to be important and valuable at the present time, not bearing in mind that something may not be useful at one time but another.

This is why some useful information in books gets lost through improper handling of the book, not considering the possibility of the book being important during some other time. This was a common condition in the ancient period when, information was only stored through the written word. To avoid such cases, libraries were set up for the storage of important documentations as well as those that were thought to be useful in the future (Graham 118).

Maya paper making

As we know, paper is obtained from wood. In trying to explain what paper is, we would say that paper is a substance made of thin sheets made from fiber that has been macerated until each individual filament is a separate unit. The fibers are then allowed to mix with water and by the use of a sieve-like screen; the fibers are then lifted from the water in the form of thin layers.

The water in the thin layer is then allowed to drain through the small pores of the sieve. The outcome of all this, is a thin sheet of matted fiber that is the product referred to as paper (Hunter 5). Considering Maya, we find that, Maya extended throughout the Southern Mexican states in the Central America. Maya had an important activity of papermaking.

The paper that was produced by Maya was used to make a wide range of writing materials (Von). This included books, journals as well as other writing materials. In the process of making paper, many different materials were and continue to be used. In order to produce good quality paper, the combination, and the proportions used of each material matters a lot. This is the reason why from the ancient times up to now, some papers are of good quality while others are not.

Maya in particular employed the best materials for papermaking and this is why, books that were made from the Maya paper continue to exist up to today. The Dresden codex was a book that was made from the Maya paper. The materials used for making this book seemed to be of high quality since the book is still in existence today.

Apart from paper making, the Maya wood is also used for many other purposes such as; firewood for cooking and firing pottery, construction as well as for making different instruments (Sharer 136). Thus, as we can see, wood, the primary source of papermaking, has many other uses, a factor that calls for the preservation and conservation of trees and forests at large.

The climate of most of the Maya area is humid, a condition that was very conducive for burying books. Burying books was usually done by the kings and priests of Maya during the ancient times (Hunter 5).

Dresden codex

The Dresden codex is a Maya book that was produced during the twelfth century. This shows that the book has survived for more than seven centuries as per today. The book has been researched upon and found to be one of the oldest books that continue to exist. This book was actually bought for the Dresden library in 1937 by its director, who had found it in a private library in Vienna (Van 152).

The history of the book is not very much known although; it is believed that the book was severely damaged during the Second World War whereby some pages of the book were damaged. The Dresden codex was made from the Amatl paper, which is a paper that is produced from the bark of a fig tree (Van 152).

Materials used and the processes involved in papermaking

Just as we know, different products are usually made by combining different materials. Certain materials are usually required in more amounts than other materials. The most important thing thus becomes the proportions in which each material is used. The quality of a final product depends on whether the correct proportions of primary materials were used.

This is why we find that some products are of low quality while others are of high quality. When we consider the materials used in making the Maya paper in the ancient times, we find that the major material was the bark of the fig tree (Graham 29). This same material was used in making the papers that constitute the Dresden codex book.

The bark of fig tree produces a paper that was referred to as Amatl by the ancient Americans. Today, the paper is referred to as the Amate paper. In many cases, this paper was considered the best paper since the bark of a fig tree was believed to produce the best quality paper. Up to today, this belief still holds its place in the society.

At first, the paper’s color depended entirely on the bark that was used to produce the paper. However, with time, paper makers added dyes as they processed the paper resulting in a variety of colors that can be appropriately used in a variety of artistic projects (Nations 305).

There are different species of the fig tree. Although there is a small difference in all the species, the bark of each species seems to give good quality paper. Particularly the Dresden codex book was produced from a combination of the bark of three different species of the fig tree. It seemed that, through the combination of the bark of different species of the fig tree, a higher quality paper would thus be produced.

We can attest to this because, the Dresden codex book has proven that its paper was of high quality. Most fig trees are found in the Central America, which is the area that constituted the Maya area. The fig trees are also referred to as the amate trees. The reason as to why the bark of the fig tree was used is because; it contains the strongest fibers (Linné 148).

Another material that was used by the ancient Maya in papermaking was plenty of water. Water was required for submerging the fibers obtained from the bark of fig trees. The fibers need to be submerged in water for a long time, such like overnight. During the ancient times, water was mainly obtained from rivers, lakes or even the ocean.

Since most of those sources were located far from the area where the fibers were produced, and it was tedious to transport all the fibers to the rivers or lakes, water was tapped and directed to the areas of production. The water would then be left to run over the fibers for a whole night. The reason as to why water was essential was for the coagulation of the fibers. In other cases, water was used to boil the fibers. In both cases, the outcome was the same, whether the fibers had been soaked in water or boiled (McKillop 193).

Apart from bark and water, beaters were also required. According to the people of Maya, beaters were instruments that were used for felting the fibers after they had been soaked or boiled in water. The ancient Maya papermakers mainly used two types of beaters. The first one was made up of a squat stone that had a handle in its top surface, and a bottom that was scored with striations.

Despite being still used by the Otomi, this instrument has had little modifications from that used by the Maya. The other beater was made of a round handle-like part and four other parts, which were larger and less rounded than the handle-like part. The four large parts had some striations, which were made, only on one side of each part.

These beaters were used to felt the fibers. Felting involved beating the fibers together to obtain a thin layer of closely packed fibers. Beating the fibers involved mechanical energy since during the ancient period, technology was not high. The length of the beaters varied depending on the size of paper that was intended to be produced. Since this was a manual process, striation marks were evident on the final paper product having resulted from a beating stone that constituted a beater (Linné 200).

The final step in Maya papermaking involved a material that was referred to as a board. This was a smooth surface. The felted fibers would then be laid on a smooth surface and be allowed to dry in the sun. The fibers would be pressed hard on the smooth surface such that when they were dry.

A smooth surface would then be obtained from one side of the paper while the other side that had not been pressed on a smooth surface would still be dry and rough.

This would then be called the final product of papermaking. After all these materials had been incorporated together to make paper, the paper would then be bend into the desired shape. Books like the Dresden codex would then be produced. In the making of the Dresden codex, the pieces of paper were aligned together properly in order for the page to be consistent in their sizes (Kronowitz 86).

Methods used in papermaking

When we keenly refer to reference materials of the past, we find that, only two methods were used in Maya papermaking. The two methods were very much similar with a very slight difference. The two methods followed the processes that have been discussed above with the only difference coming in, in the area of soaking the fibers.

In one method, the fibers would be soaked in running water overnight. This would enable the fibers to coagulate and come together forming a sheet of many fibers. In the second method, the same processes would be followed, but in this case, instead of letting the fibers to soak in water overnight, they would be boiled.

A large boiling dish-like usually made from curved stone that had been scooped at the middle would be used to boil the fibers. The first method seemed to be easier especially when, large amount of fibers were involved.

It also presented fewer difficulties since it involved leaving the fibers in water overnight without paying much attention to them. In the second method, there had to be someone present to make sure that the fire did not go down since by then, only traditional methods of heating were involved. Such methods of heating included the use of firewood and charcoal (Kronowitz 100).


Papermaking is an activity that begun long time ago. Although the paper that was made by then was not as refined as the paper that is made today, most of the purposes intended were equally served. Maya paper making in the ancient times was very important since most of the codices found in history were made from the Maya paper.

The primary raw material that was used to make paper was the bark of fig trees although other fiber producing sources such as cotton wool and other vegetable fibers were also used. The Dresden codex is a good example that was produced from the fig tree bark.

The long period of time that this book has existed shows that the quality of fig tree fiber was high and the method used in producing the papers was efficient. The surfaces of the Dresden codex book are not as smooth as the books of today due to the traditional method of production that was used then unlike the high technology methods of today (Van 43).

Works Cited

Biermann, Christopher J. Handbook of Pulping and Papermaking. San Diego: Academic Press, 1996. Internet resource.

Graham, Ian. Alfred Maud slay and the Maya: A Biography. Norman, Okla: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002. Print.

Hunter, Dard. Papermaking: The History and Technique of an Ancient Craft. New York: Dover Publ, 1978. Print.

Kronowitz, Ellen L, and Barbara Wally. Native American Arts and Cultures: Grades 4-8. Westminster, CA: Teacher Created Materials, 2000. Print.

Linné, Sigvald, and George L. Cowgill. Archaeological Researches at Teotihuacan, Mexico. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2003. Print.

McKillop, Heather I. The Ancient Maya: New Perspectives. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2003. Print.

Nations, James. The Maya Tropical Forest: People, Parks, and Ancient Cities. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2006. Print.

Sharer, Robert J, and Loa P. Traxler. The Ancient Maya. Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 2006. Print.

Van, Sertima. African Presence in Early America. New Brunswick, N.J: Transaction Books, 1987. Print.

Von, Hagen. The Aztec and Maya Papermakers. Mineola, N.Y: Dover Publications, 1999. Print.

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