Tour guide for foreign fields

March 2, 2001

Michael Coe writes textbooks that also appeal to tourists. Andrew Robinson meets the scholar of Meso-america.

My interest in ancient Mesoamerica began with my interest in its art. When I was in my sixth-form year at boarding school in the mid-1940s, I bought a selection of postcards of early Mexican sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and wondered who had made such beautiful objects. My interest in the Maya sprang from reading the first accounts soon after of the discovery of the murals at Bonampak in the rainforest on the Mexico-Guatemala border published in The Illustrated London News , to which my grandfather subscribed -this was really exciting stuff."

Michael D. Coe is an art historian, archaeologist and above all an anthropologist based at Yale University in the United States. He has written some of the most respected books on ancient Mesoamerica of the past 40 years. One of them, Breaking the Maya Code , published in 1992 by Thames and Hudson, quickly became the definitive story of the recent decipherment of Mayan hieroglyphic writing, in which Coe was a significant participant from the 1950s onwards. Nature called his book "a masterpiece that transcends the boundaries between academic and popular writing". It is also "immensely entertaining", wrote its THES reviewer, because it "vividly illustrates the heights that Maya academic infighting reached". Coe is as fascinated by the people who produce new knowledge, and their mixed motives, as by the scholarly results of their labours.

Today, the book is required reading - an honorary textbook - for any student studying the Maya. But typically, its author had no intention of producing a textbook per se . In writing his books, says Coe, "I'm interested in two things: first, to carry out and publish new, innovative research at a frontier -like the Olmec, or Maya vase painting, or Mayan hieroglyphs -and, second, to write a clear, up-to-date, non-boring introduction to something in which the educated public might be interested."

That is what he achieved in his two best-selling books, Mexico (1962) and The Maya (1966), which are concise, copiously illustr-ated introductions that remain as valuable to the beginning student as they are appealing to the curious tourist. Both have been thoroughly updated with new discoveries over the past four decades. Mexico is now in its fifth edition (with a sixth planned for 2002), while the younger book, The Maya , is already in its sixth edition.

"I wrote Mexico because I thought that there was room for a clearly written book on the subject, one that would be comparable to other volumes in the Ancient Peoples and Places series edited by Glyn Daniel. I found large parts of previous books on Mexico, such as George Vaillant's Aztecs of Mexico , incomprehensible to the layman. There was also much exciting new material in this area, such as Scotty MacNeish's work on the origins of agriculture."

When The Maya first appeared, at the height of the cold war, Coe (who had married a Russian-American, a fellow student at Harvard University) decided to include some highly controversial new work by a "communist" scholar, Yuri Knorosov, who claimed that he could read some of the writing of the ancient Maya. According to Knorosov, the hieroglyphs were the writing of ancient Mayan languages closely related to languages spoken by the much-oppressed modern Maya peoples of Mexico and Guatemala, just as the Egyptian hieroglyphs were used to write the ancient Egyptian language, related to Coptic - as first shown by the celebrated decipherment of the Rosetta stone in the 1820s. But according to the leading Mayanists of the day - working mostly in the US - the Mayan inscriptions were not writing, rather a kind of priestly mumbo-jumbo having no linguistic connection with the unregarded modern Maya. "For this crime" - of writing that he knew better than majority scholarly opinion, in favour of a renegade Russian scholar, and that, too, in a book intended for students and the world in general -" The Maya was panned by the 'experts'," notes Coe sardonically.

Unfazed, he used successive editions of the book to report the latest insights of the growing number of scholars who supported Knorosov's pioneering work. The Maya became an introduction to the subject that also contained cutting-edge research results: an unusual combination in a textbook. At the same time, the disputes he witnessed among the scholars gave Coe the inside story of the burgeoning decipherment that emerged as Breaking the Maya Code .

He has always been something of a fighter. Perhaps he inherits some of the contradictions of his grandfather, William Robertson Coe, a fabulously wealthy businessman who owned an estate and a great house on Long Island - now a state historic park and museum - and, at one time, a million acres of land around Cody in Wyoming (where his grandson spent summers with cowboys on the ranch learning to ride horses and to fish). "My grandfather" - a crack rider - "was a 'super-American', but he never forgot his English roots. He most surely had some bitter enemies, yet he had a number of good friends - not the least of whom were Mark Twain and Buffalo Bill."

Although grandfather Coe never went to university, had no interest in art or the native peoples of the Americas (except for the paintings of the American West), and disapproved of his favourite grandson's desire to become an archaeologist, towards the end of his life he was persuaded to give millions of dollars to Yale University in endowment funds, part of which helped to create chairs in ornithology and western American history.

Coe shares many of his grandfather's interests (but not his arch-Republican politics), and these enrich his research and his writings. They make him somewhat impatient with too narrowly focused scholarship -though he is more than capable of analysing the arcana of Mesoamerican archaeology and epigraphy where appropriate. Having officially retired from Yale, he is working on a book in a completely different field: a study of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. His passion for this city goes back almost as far as his more familiar interest. "I was first fired up by reading Osbert Sitwell's fine 1939 travel book, Escape With Me! Then my CIA assignment during the Korean war was on an island off the China coast. After my two years were up in 1954, I had a lot of leave coming, so I travelled home leisurely through the Orient, and managed to get to Angkor." He even thought of doing graduate work on pre-Angkor Cambodia but dropped the idea, luckily, given the horrors that later befell the country.

Angkor is a very exciting place for scholars, Coe says, as there are many ongoing projects doing real field archaeology instead of just the reconstruction of the city, which was the French contribution over the past century. "It seems to me that Angkorian archaeology is about 50 years behind Maya studies in this respect." As usual, he does not intend his forthcoming book to be purely for scholars. It will be similar in format and outlook to Mexico and The Maya - "in other words, an anthropologically informed culture history of the Khmer from earliest times until the French colonial period".

Work is progressing and the aim is to publish in 2002. But in between, there are other plans and projects: a salmon-fishing trip to the Kola Peninsula in Russia's northwest followed by a lecture in Moscow to colleagues of the late Knorosov; a guidebook to deciphering the Mayan glyphs; a magazine article debunking some of the non-scientific pretensions of the "star" physicist Richard Feynman, who claimed expertise in Maya decipherment -and, Coe hopes, another expedition to the rainforest in Central America in search of the quetzal (a gloriously plumaged bird much sought after by the Maya, the Aztecs and other peoples of the region). Then, he claims: "Some day I might really retire and write down some of the interesting things I've seen and experienced during my lifetime." That should be a book that a remarkably wide circle of people will want to read.

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