You Never Know What Might Be In That Old Desk - Like, Say, a 17th Century Map

Mar 25, 2013

For more than thirty years, the library of the American Geographical Society has resided within the Golda Meir library at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.  One key artifact in that library is a scroll representing the history of one family from the Zapotec culture in Mexico. 

But while the library has had the document for a long time, librarians and historians have only recently figured out the true significance of the item – or that they even had it at all. That's because the scroll was tucked away in a desk that sat unused for three decades. 

Marcy Bidney, the curator of the American Geographical Society Library, says her predecessor found the scroll in 1995, but the expert who looked it over at the time was unaware of its historical significance.  So it continued to reside, rolled up, in the desk.

That changed when former curator Chris Baruth, retired last year.  Before he left, Baruth went through the items in his office and found the scroll once again.  "One of our staff members, " Bidney recalls, "urged him to get a second opinion.  And it started the whole ball rolling."

The second opinion turned into a third opinion when Marquette University history professor Laura Matthew was brought in.  Matthew is an expert in Latin American history, and right away, she suspected the document was remarkable.  "I could tell that it was Mexican and colonial," says Matthew, who is currently working in Spain.  "I could tell the dates it was produced, because it says them on the document, and I could tell the type of document.  And I knew there was an indigenous language there that wasn't the language of central Mexico.  And I thought the document was about a place that a friend of mine had written a book about."

So the third opinion turned into a fourth, as Matthew got in touch with her colleague, Michel Oudijk, at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. "As it turns out," Matthew says, "it wasn't about that town at all, but it was a document that he and a colleague of his had been looking for, for ten years." 

The scroll, which is the subject of an article by Avrum Lank in the March issue of Milwaukee Magazine, dates to the 17th Century, and depicts the history and lineage of a Zapotec royal family back to the 1300s.

Besides its academic interest, the scroll - called a lienzo is simply remarkable to look at.  "It's cloth, with painting on it," Bidney describes.  "And in Mezo-American cartography, the maps look very different from what Western cartographic maps look like."  And so it doesn't look much like a 21st Century road atlas.    


"This map is the history of this town." - Marcy Bidney

"[The map] shows time and it shows the different rulers that came along for this particular place."  Also, it's big: at seven feet long, an expert at the Milwaukee Art Museum helped the library by specially constructing a case to store the item.

And Matthew believes it will allow she and other scholars to understand more about that particular culture at that time in history.  "There's such a rich picture that comes out of it," she says.  And best of all, she says, technology will allow historians from Mexico to study the document as well - and maybe more.  "It would be wonderful to digitally enhance the lienzo, because there are parts that are very faded and broke, and there's a corner that's been rolled a bazillion times, and parts are lost.  But it's amazing what some kinds of digital restoration can bring to light that aren't so apparent."

Regardless, writer Avrum Lank says he's thrilled to have helped bring the entire story to light. "The thing that fascinated me - beyond the fact of the map itself - was this cooperation amongst all these cultural institutions," he says.  "So my old reporter instincts went into overdrive, and it turned out that what the story was about was more than just the story of the map, obviously."

You can view a slideshow of images related to the scroll here.