Fragments Of Ancestral Memory Image Credit: Archaeology
Fragments Of Ancestral Memory Image Credit: Archaeology

Fragments Of Ancestral Memory

Native texts discovered in a remote church in Mexico belong to an ancient sacred tradition

Eric A. Powell

LYING IN THE FOOTHILLS of the Sierra Madre del Sur mountains of southeastern Oaxaca, the remote town of San Bartolo Yautepec is home to about 700 people. Some still speak the native Zapotec language, and many women in the town maintain a strong link to the past by creating textiles—widely admired throughout Mexico and beyond—using traditional weaving techniques. The town’s eighteenth-century church remains an important center of community life.

In 2001, musician Cicely Winter, director of the Institute of Oaxacan Historic Organs, led a delegation to inspect the church’s nineteenth-century pipe organ. While photographing and measuring the instrument, she noticed two wooden boxes with elegant old iron locks stored nearby. “We asked the local authorities what was in the boxes,” says Winter, “but nobody knew and there were no keys for the locks.” The community leaders decided to use a hammer to prize the nails out of the back hinges of the boxes, which proved to be full of documents. One contained loose sheets of nineteenth-century religious music, as well as band music and popular songs dating to as late as the 1960s.

In the other were documents of an entirely different character. “We wanted to whoop for joy,” says Winter. What they had discovered was an extraordinary trove of bound manuscripts of seventeenth-century Gregorian chants and Latin liturgies. Upon closer inspection, Winter noticed that one book of chant scores was bound with two fragments of a still older manuscript. Placed upside down and facing the last page of finely copied musical notations, the deerskin parchments were painted wi

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