01) Intro & Searches

This digital collection of hieroglyphs was conceived in Germany in 2017 by a team of researchers that includes Stephanie Wood (general editor of the companion online Nahuatl Dictionary) of the University of Oregon; Gordon Whittaker (a leading scholar of Aztec hieroglyphs) of the Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, Germany; Edward Trager (who has shaped our idea for using Scalable Vector Graphics and creating a Unicode set of glyphs) of the University of Michigan; Daniel Werning (an Egyptian hieroglyph and Unicode specialist) of Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Germany; and, Matthew Coler (a Digital Humanist specializing in language and technology and the creator of a collection of Aymara texts) of the University of Groningen, The Netherlands.

We also wish to acknowledge the financial contribution of the National Endowment for the Humanities by way of a subcontract on the Scholarly Editions and Translations grant, “The Corpus Xolotl Project: Indigenous History and Performance in Aztec and Colonial Texcoco, Mexico,” October 2018–September 2021, held by Professor Benjamin Johnson at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. Glyphs from the Xolotl codex will be added to this database in due course.

The vast majority of hieroglyphs in this database will be drawn from manuscripts prepared in the pre-Hispanic Aztec tradition but painted after the colonization of Mesoamerica by Europeans was underway. While some observers would argue that Spanish colonization made the label "Aztec" obsolete, we are using it here to point to the pre-contact origins of the glyphs, even if some glyphs would show influences that came with colonization. Pre-Columbian manuscripts are rare, as are the small numbers of glyphs carved in stone or marked on ceramics, so the bulk of surviving glyphs are found in colonial-period manuscripts. The hieroglyphs we include here might also be called "Nahua," as an adjective, given that the language Nahuatl was spoken both inside and outside the Aztec empire, not just by Aztecs.

Evidence that the Nahuatl language is specifically tied to these hieroglyphs, which this collection aims to document, is significant when considering this as a writing system. We approach this study of hieroglyphs (which we will also call "glyphs" for short, even if this more popular label is less precise), fully believing that this was a writing system. The reading of these glyphs is clearly tied to a specific language, Nahuatl, with a strong presence of phoneticism, occasional verbs, and a few complete sentences. (citation to Gordon Whittaker and further explanation forthcoming)

We have chosen to begin building this collection with a focus on the Codex Mendoza, seeing these glyphs as exemplary: they are beautifully drawn and painted, of a good size for visual access to their details, excellent digital photos have been provided to us, and most glyphs are glossed in alphabetical Nahuatl, making identification of the glyphs and their elements fairly reliable (even if there are a few errant glosses). The four-volume study of the Codex Mendoza by Frances F. Berdan and Patricia Anawalt published by the University of California Press in 1992 has been of enormous help in analyzing material included in this database. We will keep our citations to them short (Berdan and Anawalt, Codex Mendoza, volume and page number). A number of additional codices—and the analysis of their glyphs made by a number of collaborating scholars—will flesh out this collection as time goes by.

We have created this collection by sorting glyphs into "content types," each of which will be searchable separately and in the aggregate. Compound glyphs comprise one content type. Compound glyphs are place names in the vast majority, but they were also employed for use with personal names and titles. Compounds, by definition, contain multiple elements that can be studied individually. An example would be the glyph for Cuauhnahuac, which is represented by a tree (cuahuitl) and a speech scroll (nahuatl). Typically, the locative suffix -c was left out of the visual equation.

Simplex glyphs are another content type, consisting of glyphs that have only a single visual element. Simplexes can have have a second, invisible (though not necessarily silent) component, such as an implied locative suffix. An example would be Cuauhtlan, represented by an eagle (cuauhtli) and nothing more. The -tlan locative suffix would be part of the place name to be read aloud, although in this case, again typically, it is not represented visually.

Elements from compound glyphs have been carved for this database, intending to more accurately capture the number of possible logograms, although we must admit we have not captured every possible element from every compound. The elements are like simplexes in that we have them standing alone in association with a given word in Nahuatl, but they have been extracted and separated from some combination of elements where they originally appeared. Because they have yet to be seen (precisely as they appear, as carved) in isolation, and might only be imagined to stand in that way on their own, we categorize them differently from simplexes.

Notations are another content type. Into this group we are placing supplemental numerical symbols. The user will also find, however, that some numbers were expressed in glyphs, such as the flower representing 20 days that appears on our home page, a flag (pantli) representing 20, a clump of human hair (tzontli) representing the number 400, or a bag that held incense or cacao beans (xiquipilli) representing 8,000.

We also have a content type we call Attestations, where we are filing extra copies of compounds, simplexes, elements, notations, etc. Sometimes the attestations of a given glyph are significantly different from one another; more often, however, they are fairly similar repeats. Nevertheless, we believe it important to include them in all their variety as an aide for the decipherment of glyphs from other codices, perhaps manuscripts that have yet to be analyzed, where a given detail or differentiation could be important. Furthermore, if we end up developing a mechanized glyph recognition process, we will need to "train" the machine reading of glyphs, and this will be more reliable the more variations we have on a given visual element.

Additionally, we have built into this database a content type we are calling Iconography, which consists of supportive iconographic material, meant to help decipher glyphs or to support interpretations of a glyph as representing a certain Nahuatl word or phrase. These images will tagged as iconography, clarifying that these are not necessarily glyphs, although they might overlap with glyphs.

Finally, we are developing a number of short Articles, to be found on the navigation bar on the left side of our home page and this Introduction. In these articles, we will offer some extended commentary on certain glyphs and writing patterns that we are identifying as we compile this database. All of the articles at present have been written by Stephanie Wood, but we are hoping to crowd source this part of the project with donated short articles by glyph experts.

Our searching mechanisms will gradually be expanded with more advanced options. Currently, you may use the Quick Search window to enter a word in Nahuatl, English, or Spanish (although our Spanish offerings are slim at present). To see all of a given content type, such as all compound glyphs, please use the Advanced Search interface, click the "Type is" drop-down list, click on Compounds, and hit "Apply." You will be given pages of compound glyphs in alphabetical order. Follow this same process if you wish to see all the isolated Elements we have chosen to make, all Simplexes, all Attestations, etc. The Advanced Search also allows you to ask for exact matches to the string of letters you enter, or to request that those letters are contained within another word, start a word, or end a word. That same drop-down list offers the opportunity to ask that all of more than one word you enter might be found in a given record. You can also choose a theme in our "cultural content" drop-down list, if you wish to see glyphs related to flowers or feathers, architecture or agriculture, to provide some examples. Once we have content from a greater range of manuscripts, you would be able to ask for glyphs from a certain manuscript in the list. We are also experimenting now with searches by semantic types, syntax, and shapes. We hope to expand and improve this project if we are able to gain further funding. (SW)