Professor Robertson will present a paper at the American Association of Anthropology Conference in Chicago (Nov. 20-24), entitled: “Aztec Picture-Writing: Undoing the Teleological Judgments and Rethinking the Economy of a Picture-Based Writing Practice within a Primarily Oral Culture”


The pictures in the Codex Mendoza were painted in the early 1540’s, shortly after the Spanish conquest of Mexico, probably by a tlacuilo trained in the indigenous tradition of picture-writing. The images are lively and full of detail, not locked into rigid conventions or highly abstract stylizations, as in the case of Egyptian or Maya hieroglyphs.Beside each picture is the alphabetic transcription of a Nahuatl word or name, probably the work of a Spanish intermediary. The pictures have ever since been read as writing. But the pictorial material outweighs the written down words, the words aren’t fully rendered, and there are no texts. The writing system is accordingly judged to be in an early stage of development, or in a late stage of decadence, or just plain defective from the beginning.

Writing is supposed to evolve from pictography to ideography to phoneticism, emptying pictures of meaning and paving the way for a highly efficient alphabet. Aztec picture-writing does include phoneticism, but it’s not reductive; the puns that produce the sounds don’t empty the pictures of meaning, they multiply the meanings. Picture-based readings suggest other motives and another economy: there is storytelling, there is agency, and a process-oriented metaphysics identified with the divine concept of teotl (James Maffie, Aztec Philosophy: Understanding a World in Motion, in press) is built into the picture-writing. This writing was designed to do something—that’s the real story.