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Amate bark papera | by MCAD Library
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Amate bark papera

Amate (Spanish: amate [aˈmate] from Nahuatl: āmatl) is a form of bark paper handmade since the first millennium BCE by Pre-Columbian Meso-Americans. Prepared from the soft inner bark fibers obtained from trees of the ficus (fig) and mulberry families, amate was of particular importance to the Aztecs, who used it for communication, record-keeping, and ritual activities.


Amate paper is made by soaking the harvested fibers in water to soften them. The wet fibers are then laid in a grid pattern on wooden boards that have been treated with a release agent, and then macerated (beaten) to break down the plant’s cells, releasing soluble carbohydrates that act as a glue. The finish mass is smoothed with a rounded object and then sun-dried. The resulting paper is then trimmed into sheets. Depending on the specific type of fibers used, Amate paper can show a variety of colors and surface textures. It is soft and flexible, often variegated in appearance, and can be easily cut and trimmed. Amate can be colored with various natural dyes, or rubbed with substances such as stucco or fine clay to prepare its surfaces.


The Olmecs, Mayans, and later the Aztecs used amate paper for both practical and ritual purposes. Both the Mayans and Aztecs compiled elaborate codices – accordion-fold books documenting royal genealogies and chronologies, almanacs, and horoscopes. Each codex contained a number of amate leaves filled, not with narrative text, but rather with glyphs and symbolic images. Amate paper documents were also used to record government information, or for a ruler to give as gifts to favored individuals – much like today’s recognition certificates.


The Aztecs also used amate paper in religious rites. In sacrificial blood-letting rituals, the worshipper allowed self-inflicted wounds to bleed onto pieces of amate paper, which readily absorbed the blood. When dried, the blood-infused paper would be burned, the sacrificial smoke rising into the sky along with the prayers of the worshipper. The gods, it was thought, would be pleased by the scent of blood, as well as by the obvious fervor of the petitioner who made such an offering.


Because of its association with the native power elites, and with forbidden religious rites, Spanish colonial administrators and the Catholic Church tried to prohibit the making of amate paper. However, a few more receptive clerics and officials actually collected Aztec codices to gain a better insight into the minds of the conquered population.


Modern amate paper is still produced by indigenous peoples in southern Mexico. They use traditional fibers, but often take shortcuts by using various chemicals to speed the processing and finishing of amate sheets. It can be used for drawing and painting, bookmaking and bookbinding, and various paper crafts. Some rural Mexicans still make cutout figures from amate paper for religious ceremonies that combine Catholic practice with older ritual traditions.


These modern amate specimens were donated by Karen Wirth.


See MCAD Library's catalog record for this material.

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Taken on April 7, 2005