Chicago museums examine artifact for secret message

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Two Chicago museums examined an ancient artifact from Mexico on a joint mission to find a secret message.

Curators at the National Museum of Mexican Art called on their colleagues at the Field Museum to help them with an exciting project: taking an X-ray of a cristo, or figure of the crucified Christ. It's believed to date back to the 1600s and was made in Michoacan, Mexico. But this closer look could reveal something else.

"In the past they have found in Christ figures in the dimension within them they have found the written manuscripts known as codices," said Rebecca Meyers, National Museum of Mexican Art.

The codices were a way for the indigenous people of Mexico to secretly document their native religion during colonialization. They would be stuffed in a cavity of a cristo. Video shows a codex retrieved from a similar artifact.

"Typically, those are written on material which is called 'papel amate,' which is a paper made from fig tree," Meyers said.

The cristo has been stored at the National Museum of Mexican Art since 2014, when it was donated by a private collector. It's lightweight, made out of a mixture of corn paste and corn stalks. It was put through the same X-ray process as mummies and other heavy artifacts.

"It's great for the majority of our objects, but for something that is so lightweight like this pasta de cana, it's a little bit uncertain what we're going to see at the moment," said J.P. Brown, Field Museum.

And at that moment, it appeared there was no codex. But spirits were still high.

"It's just a tremendously exciting project to be able to do and it's nice to work with other institutions in Chicago," Brown said.

The National Museum of Mexican Art will take the X-rays and consult with scholars in Mexico to get their insight. In the meantime, they're looking into making the cristo an exhibit.
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