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Breaking the Maya Code Paperback – October 1, 1999

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Editorial Reviews

From Scientific American

The decipherment of the Maya script was, Coe states, "one of the most exciting intellectual adventures of our age, on a par with the exploration of space and the discovery of the genetic code." He presents the story eloquently and in detail, with many illustrations of the mysterious Maya inscriptions and the people who tried to decipher them. Most of the credit, he says, goes to the late Yuri V. Knorosov of the Russian Institute of Ethnography, but many others participated. They did not always agree, and some of them went up blind alleys. Coe--emeritus professor of anthropology at Yale University--vividly describes the battles, missteps and successes. What is now established, he writes, is that "the Maya writing system is a mix of logograms and syllabic signs; with the latter, they could and often did write words purely phonetically."

Coe concludes with a swipe at "dirt archaeologists" who believe the decipherment of Maya writing "is not worthy of notice." According to them, he asserts, "the Maya inscriptions are 'epiphenomenal,' a ten-penny word meaning that Maya writing is only of marginal application since it is secondary to those more primary institutions--economy and society--so well studied by the dirt archaeologists." Coe sees that attitude as "sour grapes" and ascribes it to "the inability or unwillingness of anthropologically trained archaeologists to admit that they are dealing with the remains of real people, who once lived and spoke."


A fluent, engaging, and informative account of the decipherment of Maya hieroglyphics. -- Publishers Weekly

A great story told clearly and passionately by a great Mayanist. It's an inspiring example of the ultimate triumph of truth in the knockdown, drag-out world of academic politics. -- Science

As good an introduction to the world of the Maya, and of the Maya scholars, as one is likely to get. -- USA Today

Combines impeccable scholarship with an unpretentious spirit--that is a rare feat indeed. -- Library Journal

One of the great stories of twentieth-century scientific discovery.... Rich in personal, even intimate, details, the book reads at times like a novel. It is well calculated to keep aficionados of Maya culture on the edges of their seats. -- The New York Times

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Thames & Hudson; Revised Edition edition (October 1, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0500281335
  • ISBN-13: 978-0500281338
  • Product Dimensions: 0.6 x 0.1 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (45 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,253,093 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Yale University, Michael D. Coe is a specialist in the comparative study of ancient, tropical forest civilizations. Coe's books include The Maya, Mexico, The True History of Chocolate, Breaking the Maya Code, Reading the Maya Glyphs, and Angkor and the Khmer Civilization.

Customer Reviews

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63 of 63 people found the following review helpful By Mike Christie on July 15, 2000
Format: Paperback
Michael Coe has been involved with Mayan writing for fifty years. The story he tells in "Breaking the Maya Code" involves his friends, his colleagues, and--in a couple of cases--his academic foes. The story is a scientific one, but Coe provides a look at the human history too.
Mayan writing has only really started to give up its secrets in the last twenty five years. Coe's primary thesis (for which he makes a convincing case) is that there are two reason it took so long: first, there was no large, widely available corpus of Mayan writing for epigraphers to work on; second, there was a widely held belief among Mayanists that the writing did not represent spoken language, but instead represented "not Maya words or construction, but universal ideas".
He spends some time on the story of Champollion's decipherment of Egyptian writing in the early nineteenth century, in order to be able to draw parallels with the state of play in Mayanist studies. Then he moves on through the history of the subject, with short biographies of many of the key academic figures, bringing the story up to 1992. There's a short postscript for the 1999 edition.
Coe makes no bones about the academic in-fighting. A couple of the reviews below object to his tone: he is very clear about who he thinks obstructed the field (Eric Thompson, for example), and who he thinks was critical to the successess (Yuri Knorosov). His comments about Thompson, while sometimes affectionate, attribute much of the delay in understanding Mayan writing to the deadening effect of Thompson's influence. Thompson, a well-respected and very influential Mayanist, believed that the glyphs had no relationship to any spoken Mayan language, and poured scorn (Coe quotes some reviews) on those who disagreed.
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54 of 55 people found the following review helpful By John A Carr on May 25, 2001
Format: Paperback
One reviewer wrote "There is some interesting information here, but the snide tone in which it's presented gets to be pretty hard to take." Another complains the book didn't enlighten her on the Maya. Both miss the point.
This is not a general history of the Maya. Coe, himself, has written an excellent book of that type, one he keeps current with frequent updates. What this book is a chronicle of a great intellectual endeavor that resulted on a remarkable breakthrough. It does a fine job of explaining the process to laymen. And it offers a unique, unvarnished insight into the process itself. This is not the Hollywood version that glosses over the real events. No one reading this will perpetuate the sort of mistake about what happened while learning to read Mayan glyphs that other reviews here make about the decipherment of Egyptian writing, for example... that Champollion did it unaided.
It is a book about a group effort that stalled for decades then took off in the right direction which explains how that happened and why, written by an man whose basic balance and fairness caused him to know and be friends with all of the parties involved at a time when, for example, knowing or even espousing the Russian scholar's views could get you, at the very least, trashed by the powers then in charge. [I know; I know Dr. Coe and knew some of the early players]. Dr. Coe's position and unique personality protected him from the consequences lesser scholars, like me, would have suffered had we taken his balanced view.
The book is not gossip, it is a remarkably fair chronicle of a great discovery which weaves in the stories of the people who both made the discovery and also delayed it. True science isn't done the way 30's Hollywood films portray it.
I cannot recommend it more highly.
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30 of 31 people found the following review helpful By Pierre Weydert on April 18, 2004
Format: Paperback
It took a long time before Maya script could be read in a coherent way. Up to the 1950s, no one was able to decipher the inscriptions chiselled into the Maya temples and palaces in the jungles of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and Belize. Although many attempts at decipherment had been undertaken in the 19th and early 20th century by a number of - in some cases rather quixotic - Maya enthusiasts, they all lacked the linguistic training and the touch of genius that might have led them to a breakthrough. Thus, by the middle of the 20th century the generally accepted view among Maya scholars was that those glyphs represented neither words nor syntactical constructions but rather that they were to be interpreted as purely mythological allusions. The undisputed leader of this school of thought was Eric Thompson, Maya expert at Washington's Carnegie Institution.
Opposing views of the Thompson school had occasionally been heard before, but only in 1952 did there arise an opponent formidable enough to effectively challenge the established opinion on the Maya glyphs. That year, Yuri V. Knorosov, a researcher at then Leningrad's Institute of Ethnology published his view that the Maya script was logographic, meaning that it consisted of a. logograms that express the meaning of words and b. phonetic-syllable signs (comparable to modern Japanese). Although the ensuing dispute between followers of Thompson and supporters of Knorosov continued for many years, today it is the Knorosov apporach that is being recognized as having given the decisive impetus that led to the decipherment of most Maya glyphs. Over the years, Knorosov's method was refined by generation after generation of gifted Maya scholars, among them Michael Coe, the author of this book and now professor emeritus of Anthropology at Yale University.
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