Turning History's 'Lost' Into 'Found'

Released: 7/5/2012 4:05 PM EDT
Source Newsroom: University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Contact Information

Available for logged-in reporters only

Newswise — A rare 17th-century Latin American document that was “lost” for nearly a century resurfaced earlier this year. The kicker: It was right where it should have been all along – in the American Geographical Society (AGS) Library at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM).

But it’s a wonder that the document – a pictorial history-map of Santa Catarina Ixtepeji, a village in Mexico – was rediscovered at all.

The 7-foot-long painted scroll is one of the few known pictorial documents that contain text in the indigenous Zapotec language. It had been in the hands of private collectors early in the 20th century, including California mining engineer A.E. Place, who sold it to the AGS in 1917 for $350.

Fast forward to 1978. The AGS collection moved from New York to UWM, where archivists have been piecing together the stories of the more than 1 million items in the collection bit by bit over the last 34 years. The contents include maps, globes, diaries and other memorabilia gathered by the society’s member-explorers, from Charles Lindbergh to Teddy Roosevelt.

In 1995, AGSL curator Christopher Baruth came across a tattered scroll containing both writing and pictures. There were no markings on it to link it to a card in the collection’s catalog. “I had asked someone about it at that time,” he remembers, “but that person didn’t think it was anything of significance.”

That could have been the end of the story. Baruth formally retired in 2011 after 31 years with the AGSL, 16 as curator. After fielding a staff member’s question about the scroll while organizing his office, Baruth decided to get a second opinion.

He called Aims McGuinness, UWM associate professor of history, who could tell that the scroll was written in both Spanish and an indigenous language. To home in on its origin, McGuinness consulted with someone who specializes in colonial Latin America – and she was just downtown at Marquette University.

It takes a community
Laura Matthew, an assistant professor of history, remembers being psyched to see the “mystery document,” which, she says, recounts the history of leadership and land ownership in a specific town in Mexico. “It continued an older tradition of documents kept by royal houses that were intended to accompany an oral presentation, like a visual aid.”

The document was written in both the native and Spanish languages because it would have been used to legitimize land ownership in a bureaucratic process involving Spanish officials. Two dates inscribed on it – 1691 and 1709 – were probably the dates it was used, Matthew surmises.

Matthew is not an expert in Zapotec, but she knows someone who is. Michel Oudijk at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México knew exactly what the scroll was from looking at emailed photos – and he knew because he had been looking for it for more than a decade.

“That’s when we knew we had something valuable,” says Matthew. “And luck played a part, because he had already studied this type of document and that made for a fast identification.”

Oudijk and colleague Sebastián van Doesburg had found scholarly reports from the 1960s indicating two documents from Santa Catarina Ixtepeji had been sold in the early 20th century. One was sold by a British consular official in Oaxaca named Rickards, a Mexican of Scottish descent. But the research did not reveal that mining engineer Place was the buyer, or that it had ended up at the AGS.

Mystery solved
That information came some 50 years later when UWM’s Baruth consulted the last batch of archival material – 10,000 pounds of it – that arrived in Milwaukee from New York in 2010. He unearthed a letter from Place, dated 1917, stating the price he wanted for his piece of antiquity. It provided the final piece in the puzzle of how the rare scroll had found its way from Mexico to Milwaukee.

Baruth believes that Place probably secured the artifact from Rickards, as the two were both in the mining community around Oaxaca.

By the time Place wanted to sell the artifact, the AGS was preoccupied with boundary disputes in Europe as World War I drew to a close. Baruth suspects that’s why the document entered the collection with little notice. It was mostly likely shelved without sufficient identification and forgotten.

The discovery and identification of this piece illustrates the value of the work by librarians, archivists and the global community of scholars, says McGuinness.

“This is more than just a curiosity,” he says. “This document tells us in the present something about Mexico that we would not otherwise have known. So UWM and Marquette are part of a circuit that creates and disseminates information of worldwide significance.”

Collaboration extended beyond the academic. Jim DeYoung, senior conservator at the Milwaukee Art Museum, advised that the scroll never be rolled again. He designed and constructed the frame that it is now displayed in.

Through it all, McGuinness’ and Matthew’s students witnessed the mystery unfold. “This has been invaluable to teach students about the impact of research,” says McGuinness. “My students could see knowledge being produced and the cooperation among institutions that made it happen.”


Comment/Share