The city archive in Cuzco, Peru, was under an eviction notice when historian Kathryn Burns arrived to do some dissertation research. Documents were stacked everywhere inside the rented apartment—“precious stuff that was centuries old,” Burns says. There were heaps of papers piled in the hallways and even stashed in the shower stall in the bathroom. There was never any toilet paper. This troubled Burns as she looked at the loose documents stacked next to the commode.

That was in 1990. Since then, Burns has gone back again and again to follow a paper trail left by Spanish notaries that wanders through centuries of conquest in Latin America. Historians from all over the world have long tracked it for their research. In Cuzco’s archives, while Burns was researching her first book—Colonial Habits, on Peruvian convents—she noticed some bizarre things about those records. Namely, many of them were missing. Once, she turned up evidence that an eighteenth-century notary’s apprentice—a kid named Palomino—had made some side money by selling documents to one of the local convents, which presumably was filling holes in its own archive.

Click to read photo caption. Kathryn Burns

There were other things, too. Strange doodles. Forms that were blank except for a cluster of signatures on the bottom. “I thought it was just a little notarial malfeasance around the edges,” she says. “But it wasn’t.”

And then in 2004, while Burns was working in the archives on her new book, Into the Archive: Writing and Power in Colonial Peru, one of the archive’s underpaid employees tried to sell her a document from the collection. Of course, it wasn’t his to sell. But for the equivalent of about five dollars, he was offering her a centuries-old, one-of-a-kind record that, for all he knew, would become part of a private collection somewhere and never be seen again.

“Over time I realized the archive isn’t this straightforward thing,” she says. “There’s a kind of cloak-and-dagger element to it. And people have been ripping it off for centuries.”

While Spain was laying claim to South America and feverishly filling galleons with gold and silver bound for Europe, Spanish notaries in Latin America were busy documenting everyday land sales, lawsuits, wills, property disputes, and deathbed confessions. Cuzco was a bustling place. Almost everyone was a merchant of some kind, and so almost everyone had to work with notaries occasionally. The Spanish notarized practically everything, Burns writes in Into the Archive. For them, power was all about getting their words into writing, the only form that carried the weight of the law (see “Native Archives”). And notaries were the only ones who had the power to make words and documents legally true.

Native archives

When the Spanish arrived in the Americas, they were surprised to find that the Inca natives did not live a lawless existence. In fact, the Inca had various bureaucracies of their own. But their documents came in the form of complex, colorful textiles, Burns says—a kind of writing without words. Some Andean groups even used knotted cords called quipus to record their information. This technology was intriguing but incomprehensible, the Spaniards declared, and inferior as a form of record-keeping.

Eventually Spanish notarial practices began to rub off on the Americans, who were soon producing the kinds of documents—land titles, loans, wills—that the Spanish recognized as official. A Spanish viceroy in the sixteenth century felt the situation was getting out of hand and prohibited native Andean mayors and notaries from writing lengthy legal petitions, saying indigenous lawsuits should be conducted through oral argumentation. One Spanish priest even declared the Andean natives were using their considerable linguistic skills “to penetrate our usages, the better to resist us.”

Still, the Andean natives produced piles of documents in both Spanish and Quechua for use in their own communities. These were never allowed to be gathered and stored in the big Spanish-run archive in Cuzco. Any documents that survive are scattered and stowed away in local archives across Latin America, Burns says.

“I’m interested both in the archives we do have and the massive archives that we don’t have,” she says. “What might be out there, or might have been out there? Is the archive we have today just the record that powerful people felt comfortable having because they could pay for it? And what does that mean for historians?”

—Margarite Nathe

“Notaries were the gatekeepers to the archive that we still use,” Burns says. “But these sources were made in the midst of all kinds of juicy, fascinating colonial power plays.”

Maybe it was because notaries knew all about their clients’ private business. Maybe it was because many bought their positions. Or maybe it was because they had a reputation for being greedy and conniving. Whatever the reason, notaries were generally detested. They were the butt of casual jokes, Burns writes, lampooned even in novels at the time. (In Guzmán de Alfarache, for example, a priest speculates about what heaven’s angels might say if a notary were to approach the gates: “A notary in heaven? That’s new, that’s new.”) Burns lists some old common sayings: “Notaries, whores, and barbers: all pasture together and follow the same path.” “Between a notary and a dead man, there’s no difference.” And on and on.

But really, Spanish notaries had gone to Cuzco for the same reason every other Spaniard had: to make their fortunes. They were hired directly by the king and were expected to be professional, unbiased, and of the highest moral caliber. But they were a long way from home. Mostly, they were left to be their own supervisors and make a living however they could. Plenty cut corners to get ahead. In those days, Burns writes, everything was for sale—“even the sworn, documented truth produced by notaries.”

Many of the notary’s daily duties were mind-numbing—there were endless forms to be filled out—and those were usually relegated to apprentices who started training from childhood. “The notary and his trusted right-hand guy might go off and take down a piece of business, but someone back in the office would then have to fill it in,” Burns says. “The archive we have today is basically a gigantic homework assignment for all these kids, who were the actual writers.”

Click to read photo caption. Kathryn Burns

The apprentices were ordered to follow strict protocols—they used specific kinds of paper, filled in only a certain number of lines on each form. They powered the whole industry. But their bosses spent a great deal of time away from the office, and Burns found some evidence of how the kids spent their unsupervised time. Doodles, insults, bits of poetry, unflattering caricatures of the bosses, practiced signatures, and fragments of text in Spanish and Quechua can be found throughout some old notarial records, particularly on blank endsheets of volumes bound together. Burns and her colleagues in the archives would call each other over whenever someone came across a particularly funny one.

Click to read photo caption. Kathryn Burns

While the apprentices were doodling and occasionally stealing and selling documents (property deeds were especially popular), the bosses were cutting their own deals, Burns says. Merchants who were literate and had money to spend knew how to work the system. If properly persuaded, some notaries were happy to massage the facts and wording to create whatever loopholes and ambiguity their clients wanted. Their creativity when it came to the official record was incredible. “Notaries were very good at producing the best truth money could buy,” she says.

And they weren’t above certain illegal time-saving measures. “For example,” Burns says, “a lot of documents start off something like, ‘We here witness this and our signatures below attest that we were Johnny-on-the-spot when this was sold or conveyed or rented or whatever.’ You read a bunch of that and you just assume that someone is writing this while observing an action. But their practice itself didn’t work the way they said it did.” Some notaries, she eventually discovered, made a habit of convincing clients to sign their names to pages that were yet to be filled in. These cartas blancas were made to be sold, she says, and filled in later with who-knows-what.

Click to read photo caption. Donn Young

“We think of archives as transparent windowpanes on the past,” Burns says. “But what if they’re not? The sources themselves are selective and are contoured by forces of history.” To get the most from the archives, she writes, historians have to know the rules of the game, read between the lines, and be able to recognize sleight of hand. “For example, we don’t expect our mortgages to be the record of what actually happened in our house transactions. We need them because we want to attest that we own something and certain things happened, but a mortgage is very templated. Is everything in the document true? We might say, ‘I don’t know, but my lawyer told me to sign it.’”

Over time, Burns learned to understand and work around those aspects of the archives, and Into the Archives is the result.

Click to read photo caption. Kathryn Burns

But she kept thinking about all those documents that have vanished during the past few centuries. She’d often come across stubby paper edges in bound records that showed where pages had been razored or torn out. That’s usually the work of autograph hunters, she says, “but there’s just no way to know if that was yesterday or that was hundreds of years ago. It could have happened any time for any number of reasons. It could just be that something came unstitched and fell apart. But a lot of the colonial stuff is in remarkably good condition.”

Other documents have disappeared entirely. Papers that should be in the collections—that are clearly referenced in other materials—are simply no longer accounted for. Land records and deeds are especially apt to walk off, Burns says. “And there’s not a handy-dandy catalog that we can just look at. There’s no good way of keeping track in an archive if it’s not cataloged. This is why things can disappear so easily.”

Click to read photo caption. Kathryn Burns

Today’s keepers of Cuzco’s archives don’t always know what their collections contain. Disorganization makes theft especially easy, and that’s a problem libraries, archives, and museums around the world struggle with. Most employees in Cuzco can’t even read the older documents, Burns says. “But they know they’re important and that there are some important peoples’ signatures in there.”

The last time Burns visited the Cuzco archives, the director’s assistant, who was retrieving documents for Burns, casually asked her for a loan. Could she give him twenty soles?

Burns politely told him no, she couldn’t lend him the money, and then went back to her work. Later in the day she requested another document, a seventeenth-century record of sale. The assistant motioned for her to join him in a quiet corner, away from anyone who might be listening. He murmured, “Would you like to buy it for twenty soles?

Burns had heard of this happening to researchers before, but she was still shocked. She thrust the money into his hand—“Here, just take it,” she said—and rushed back to her seat, leaving him with the document.

The whole episode left her shaky. Negligent apprentices, corrupt notaries, oblivious archivists. How are we supposed to trust the only records we have left of the past, she asks, if even mundane, everyday documents are so susceptible to manipulation? “Sometimes knowing about how the archive is made and unmade affects your interpretation in very important ways,” she says. “We need to recognize that the archive itself is a historical artifact.” This doesn’t mean that Cuzco’s archive is worthless to us. In fact, understanding these things—who made the archive, how they did it and why, and how they used the records—makes the collection an even richer resource for historians.

Click to read photo caption. Kathryn Burns

Today Cuzco’s archive is housed at a local university, where it’s safer than it was in its former apartment home. Locals use it on a daily basis. Indigenous groups often search for materials during land disputes to find proof that their land has always belonged to them, back to the oldest records in the city. “But rumor had it that communal land titles to a local indigenous community were fairly recently entrusted to the archive in Cuzco, and then got lost,” Burns says. She frequently overheard heated conversations about it, often in Quechua.

“A lot of this stuff in the archives, one way or another, has disappeared over the years,” Burns says. “And we’ll never know their stories.”

Kathryn Burns is an associate professor of history in the College of Arts and Sciences.