As an undergraduate at Oxford University, Irish antiquarian Lord Kingsborough (1795-1837) became fascinated by the Bodleian Library’s collection of Mesoamerican codices. These vividly illustrated manuscripts painted on animal hide or tree bark were created in the 15th and early 16th by the scribes and priests of Mexico and Central America chronicling the histories, religious beliefs, and scientific knowledge of their ancient civilizations. Most of these documents, which filled the temples and libraries of pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica, were destroyed during the Spanish Conquest. The few that survived were sent back to Europe during the colonial period and wound up in various national libraries and royal collections.

Antiquities of Mexico by Viscount Edward King Kingsborough

Kingsborough became convinced that these codices substantiated his fervent belief that the indigenous Mexicans were descendants of the lost tribes of Israel. Intent on proving his theory, he spent most of his life and all of his fortune researching and compiling the nine-volume Antiquities of Mexico which includes several pre-Columbian codices, as well as a number of drawings dating from the first two decades following the Conquest . Kingsborough commissioned artist,  Agostino Aglio, to travel throughout Europe copying (and later lithographing) all the known Mesoamerican codices, including those in The Vatican, The Berlin Library and the Bodleian.

Producing his masterpiece was a monumental and, ultimately ruinous, financial undertaking. In 1837, Kingsborough succumbed to typhus fever while in a Dublin debtor’s prison for lack of payment to a paper supplier. He was just 42. Although Kingsborough will certainly not be remembered for having discovered the lost tribes of Israel, his Antiquities of Mexico, is among the first published documentation of the early cultures of Mesoamerica. Kingsborough secured his legacy by making these rare manuscripts available to a wider audience and opening up a new field of scholarship. These amazing volumes give us a glimpse of pre-conquest social life unmediated by Spanish influence.  Comparing the pre and post conquest drawings also allows us to see the overlaying of pre-Columbian style with Europeanized visual forms.

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