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Breaking the Maya Code Paperback – October 1, 1999
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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
Top customer reviews
The first chapter seems to mar the whole work, which is a bit too long, and is not very accurate. For example, the Chinese writing system doesn't have "214 determinatives" as the author claims (p. 32) -- there're 214 "section headers" in a traditional Chinese dictionary, which were devised by lexicographers, and are not supposed to tell "one the general class of phenomena to which the thing named belongs" (p. 31), although the two concepts have overlapping. Of course these're only minor mistakes, and to them we should not pay too much attention, as the author warns us, unwittingly: "It will be recalled that Thompson dealt posthumously with Whorf by paying no attention whatsoever to Whorf's larger points, and devoting much ink to the latter's minor mistakes (and mistakes they were), like a terrier worrying a rat." (p. 152). All the same, one star has been deducted!