JAIC 1998, Volume 37, Number 3, Article 1 (pp. 240 to 270)
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Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 1998, Volume 37, Number 3, Article 1 (pp. 240 to 270)




At the outset of this project I believed that the colorants used on the six Relaciones Geográficas maps would be a combination of Native and European pigments. This assumption seemed obvious because the maps uniquely combine indigenous and European artistic styles and because at least five of the maps are drawn on European-made paper. However, after the colorant analysis and the literature survey, I now feel that the pigments and dyes on these maps are predominately of Native origin. There is one possible exception: the use of iron gall ink for the Spanish and Nahuatl inscriptions. It is likely that the Spanish glosses were added by Spanish officials after the drawing of the maps was completed; the Nahuatl glosses were likely added by indigenous scribes. It is possible that both glosses were written with European iron gall ink supplied by Spanish officials. However, it is also possible that these inscriptions were written with the indigenous nacazcolotl black ink that was similar to the European ink.

I found no correlation between the colorants and the pictorial styles on the maps. The Native colorants Maya blue and cochineal were found in samples from both indigenous and European pictorial elements. Also, the indigenous colorants Maya blue and indigo, as well as two unidentified organic yellows, were found on the map Meztitlan. This map, created by a Spanish colonist, was drawn solely in the European artistic convention. Its painter, Gabriel de Chávez, was known to have studied and admired Native pictorial texts (Mundy 1996). Therefore, it is possible that he learned about and consequently used colorants made by the indigenous inhabitants of his township.

Native Mexican painters manufactured an extensive variety of organic and inorganic colorants before the Spanish arrived in 1519. Because Mundy (1996) believes that most of the RG maps were made by painters of the Native elite, it seems likely that these painters possessed the knowledge and experience for making paints in the preconquest tradition. If so, the indigenous painters had a wide array of colorants available for the creation of manuscripts and artifacts under Spanish supervision. Mundy indicates that in most cases the Spanish officials were more concerned with answering the questionnaires themselves than with producing the maps; consequently they left the task of mapmaking to indigenous scribes and painters. Since the creation of the maps was not a priority in most instances, it therefore seems implausible that these Spanish officials would have provided the painters with a variety of paints. In addition, it is unlikely that a large selection of European pigments and dyes would have been brought by the Spanish to the various remote regions of New Spain where many of the maps were made. For these reasons, I believe that the paints and inks on the six Relaciones Geográficas maps were made by indigenous painters from colorants of local origin.

A survey of the literature reveals that certain colorants (cochineal, annatto, indigo, and Maya blue) were used and traded in various regions of New Spain before and after the arrival of the Spanish. There was extensive trade among various pre-Columbian peoples. The Spanish quickly discovered the value and richness of many Native colorants such as cochineal, indigo, and logwood and exploited their cultivation for export to Europe. Given the geographic distribution of the RG maps, the presence of cochineal, indigo, and Maya blue on several of the maps shows an apparent widespread pattern of use in New Spain during the 16th century.

Inorganic colorants such as green earth and red lead, both of which I identified on the maps, are not widely documented in the historical literature as being indigenous Mexican colorants. Although the literature that I surveyed fails to mention these mineral pigments, they occur naturally in mineral deposits throughout Mexico (Panczner 1987). Since these inorganic colorants were manufactured in Europe in the 16th century, I cannot claim that all of the colorants of the six Relaciones Geográficas maps are strictly of indigenous origin. With the possible exception of iron gall ink, it is my opinion, however, that the colorants of the six maps are Native given the presence of the aforementioned minerals in Mexico and the manufacture of a variety of organic, inorganic, and synthetic colorants by indigenous painters.

In conclusion, this project has revealed that more research is needed on the identification and classification of colorants used during the early colonial period of New Spain. This study fulfilled its purpose of identifying several colorants on the six Relaciones Geográficas maps and of providing a general overview of the types of pigments and dyestuffs used in 16th-century New Spain. However, the results of the analysis were limited by budgetary and time constraints. Areas that I feel need more attention follow.

First, additional analytical methods should be used to identify 16th-century New Spanish colorants, particularly those not identified, such as the yellows. Also, larger pigment particles than the ones removed from the RG maps would aid the analysis. Second, this study would benefit from research and identification of binders of 16th-century paints, particularly those used for manuscripts. Third, the development of New World pigment standards would aid conservators and scientists in identifying pigments from pre-Columbian and postconquest eras by optical microscopy. Finally, I am curious to know when European paints and inks gained widespread use in New Spain. It is possible that European pigments were used on the RG maps, but I have found no direct evidence of this. I believe that European paints, or paints made from European recipes, eventually replaced indigenous paints. That assumption can best be proven by the study of primary sources, such as the cargo logs of ships that sailed from Europe to New Spain and recipes of paints made in New Spain in the 17th and 18th centuries.

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