Re: Michael Coe's Book on Mayan Decipherment

Dr Richard Luxton (
22 Aug 96 14:09:56 -0700

The argument over the exact nature of Mayan writing is by no means
settled. David Stuart, for example, has referred to "performance
literature" which brings back the old discussion on an oral
component. Likewise Barbara Tedlock's work on the Highland Quiche
shows that they regard ( at least the day names) as "readable" only
through complex wordplay and soundplay. Knorosov's absence in
discussions on the "American" phoneticism school is also worthy of
note. He has not endorsed it.

Coe's book is indeed marred by a personal attack on Thompson.
Thompson did miss the value of the phonetic approach until late in
the day but his ideographical readings and his detailed analysis of
the system in [1960] and later publications far outweighs this gap.

The Maya left their own "readings" of late hieroglyphic materials -
These are the Books of Chilam Balam - written in Roman script.
Curiously Coe's book does not dwell on the lack of success Mayan
decipherers have had in understanding these Roman script texts. We
are to believe that while scholars can read hieroglyphs they cant
read Mayan explanations of these even when written in Roman script.

In sum while Coe's book offers a reasonable account of US attempts at
decipherment it obscures and distorts in some significant areas.