Primary historical and literary sources provide valuable information about the individuals and cultures that produced and consumed them. Beyond their literary value, the “extra-textual” elements of primary sources—physical characteristics such as size, shape, and format, as well as the materials used to create it, such as the paper, parchment, or other supports that might be used to carry the “text;” the inks and pigments used to record and embellish textual and illustrated content; and other materials added to the object to help package and preserve it and facilitate its use—constitute “texts underneath the text” replete with insights about the complex material, cultural, artistic, and intellectual contexts underlying historical texts of all types.
Written in the early 1600s, Felipe Guamán Poma de Ayala’s letter to King Phillip III of Spain is a 1,189 page document, including 398 full-page drawings. Guamán Poma’s writing and illustrations deliver a wealth of information about indigenous experiences and intercultural encounters during the early colonial period. As Rolena Adorno’s (2000) seminal work on the intersection of image and text in Guamán Poma’s manuscript shows, the spatial organization of the drawings reveals a second interpretive outlook inscribed with a moral commentary, legible to those proficient in this literacy and hidden to those who are not.