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A lively guide to the decipherment of Mayan writing
am 15. Juli 2000
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.
In the end, I think Coe gets the balance about right. There really is in-fighting in academe, and what he shows of it doesn't obscure the excitement of the decipherment. Coe tells a whole story: it's his personal view, but it's a view from the inside. He's enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and he writes well. Recommended.