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Thursday, January 19, 2017

Writing in Ancient Aztecs

The Aztecs did not have an alphabet. Instead, they wrote in pictures, or glyphs. Some glyphs were simply pictures of objects, such as a tree or a knife. Other glyphs represented ideas. War, for example, was shown by a picture of a shield and a club. Speech was represented by small scrolls coming out of the mouth of the speaker. Motion was shown by a line of footprints. The glyphs were drawn first in black and then colored in.

Sound Signs
Some glyphs came to represent the sound of the object they showed. These glyphs were called phonograms and could be put together to spell out the sound of a word. This method was often used for writing the names of places. For example, by combining the glyph for a tree (quauitl) with the glyph for teeth (tlantli), the scribe created a new glyph that sounded like the city of Quauhtitlan.

Reading Pictures
Glyphs were not written on a page in regular order. They were drawn to make a scene that had to be interpreted by the reader, in the same way that we might try to solve a picture puzzle. The position and size of the glyphs were important. Things that were supposed to be further away were drawn at the top of the page, with nearer things at the bottom. Glyphs that were more important would be drawn larger.

This type of picture writing is not easy to understand, nor is it easy to use. It is not surprising that only a few skilled scribes, usually priests, could read and write.

Paper was made from the bark of wild fig trees, which was soaked in lime water and beaten to separate the fibers. The pulp was mixed with gum and beaten into thin sheets. The sheets were often stuck together to make a long concertinalike book called a codex. Some codices were painted on parchment made of animal skin.

Official Paperwork
Ruling the vast Aztec Empire required large numbers of written records dealing with tribute owed and collected, orders given to officials, and reports from other cities. In addition, each calpulli kept detailed maps and records of the land held by its members. Every temple had a large library of religious and astrological books. Priests believed the stars and planets affected the lives of their people, and they kept records of eclipses, planetary events, and star movements. All this writing meant that a lot of paper was used, and nearly half a million sheets were sent as tribute each year.

The Aztecs were also able to write numbers. Their counting system was based on 20, the number of fingers and toes each person has. The numbers 1 to 19 were represented by fingers; the number 20 was shown by a flag; the number 400 (20 X 20) was a feather; and the number 8,000 (20 X 20 X 20) was a bag, which could hold that number of cacao beans.


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