Re: Michael Coe's Book on Mayan Decipherment

Eric Brunner (
15 Aug 1996 12:44:38 GMT

John O'Meara ( wrote:

: 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.

Oki John,

I'll be happy to oblige, I believe I've a copy of Daniels and Bright, and
two of Coe's 1992 work. Rather than simply rely upon sci.anth, which seems
to have an unending fixation with biological determinism and derailing all
forms of post-modernism, you could ask Jeff Baker (here and sci.arch), and
the mayanist lists. Jeff should have pointers to these and I've some I can

Of course, we could discuss both works here, and do some real anthro work
for a change. I still owe you the Stockton reference, and will send it RSN.

Eric Brunner