Michael Coe's Book on Mayan Decipherment

John O'Meara (jomeara@cs_acad_lan.lakeheadu.ca)
14 Aug 1996 13:26:26 GMT

I'm interested in getting some opinions from people familiar with the
decipherment of Mayan writing about Michael Coe's recent book called
"Breaking the Mayan Code" (Thames and Hudson 1992).

In this book Coe rather heavily criticises Eric Thompson, one the major
20-twentieth century scholars of Mayan. The focus of the criticism
concerns Thompson's denial that the Mayan hieroglyphics were in fact a
writing system (it turns out that Mayan writing is a mixed
logographic/syllabic system). A few articles by Mayanists I have consulted
at least implicity support Coe's criticism of Thompson. Coe takes the
position that Thompson held back the decipherment of Mayan writing during
much of the twentieth century. Coe's criticism is lengthy and sustained,
and (to a complete outsider) at times seemed like a personal diatribe.

In his recent article entitled "Methods of Decipherment" Peter Daniels
(1996, in Peter Daniels and William Bright, "The World's Writing Systems",
141-159) describes Coe 1992 in the following terms: "though useful for
certain historical information, cannot be recommended as an account of the
decipherment, since it omits essential details of methodology, and is
marred by a pervasive, inexplicably personal animosity toward Thompson."
(pp. 154-155)

What I would like to know is the following: Is Coe's criticism of Thompson
justified? I would be interested in references to reviews of Coe's book,
or any other insight on the matter.


John O'Meara
Native Language Instructors' Program
Faculty of Education
Lakehead University
Thunder Bay, ON P7B 5E1
Phone: 807-343-8054
FAX: 807-346-7746
E-mail: jomeara@cs_acad_lan.lakeheadu.ca