Breaking the Maya Code

Breaking the Maya Code❴Epub❵ ❥ Breaking the Maya Code Author Michael D. Coe – Among the more exciting advances to be described are: the discovery of the specific Maya language and sophisticated grammar used by the ancient scribes on stone monuments and painted vases;  archaeol Among the exciting advances to be described are: the discovery of the specific Maya language and sophisticated grammar used by the ancient scribes on stone monuments and painted vases;  archaeological explorations of tombs and buildings of the ancient founders of the great city of Copan, whose very existence had been predicted by epigraphers through glyphic decipherment; the realization that many small citystates were dominated by two rival giants, Tikal and Calakmul, through a potent combination of military conquest, diplomacy, and royal Breaking the PDF/EPUB or marriages.

Michael D Coe was an American archaeologist, anthropologist, epigrapher and author Primarily known for his work on the Maya civilization.

Breaking the Maya Code PDF ¿ Breaking the  PDF/EPUB
  • Paperback
  • 304 pages
  • Breaking the Maya Code
  • Michael D. Coe
  • English
  • 16 March 2019
  • 9780500281338

10 thoughts on “Breaking the Maya Code

  1. Helio says:

    This is a must read for students of MesoAmerican studies. It gives the background on uncovering the meaning of the Glyphs and the efforts to thwart the deciphering by fellow archaeologists in the field - most notably the revered (perhaps feared) Thompson. The backgrounds on two of my professors: David Kelley and Peter Mathews was enlightening.

    I had always favoured Kelley's correlation preference over Thompson's yet Coe (the author) sticks by Thompson when he was wrong in so many other areas (Thompson not Coe). And Coe is incorrect in his assertion that you have to read a language before you can write it. In Arabic I learned to write it in a year yet still could not read it (because they leave out the vowels). Or take English I can't imagine reading it without having learned to make the letters one by one.

    The book offers insights as to how to decipher Mayan script but is not a primer. It more on the steps and missteps attaining what Coe calls one of the most significant achievements in archaeology.

  2. Erik Graff says:

    Although reluctant to be a first world tourist in a third world area, my wife Linda eventually got me to go down to Quintana Roo in the NE Yucatan with her. Ultimately, I made three trips, all of them to the area midway between Cancun and Belize, preparing for them each time by reading up on the region and its original inhabitants, the Maya.

    While Linda preferred the beach, I preferred exploring the ruins which are abundant in the area. To do so I befriended the locals, the descendants of the Maya, particularly the children, asking them where interesting things were. Then, following the paths of generations of little kids, I would go into the jungle to the places the tourists never venture, the places without roads. There, among other things, I found a cave with an island in it, and many square limestone structures, open on their sides, ranging in size from buildings a dozen feet tall to stupas the height of one's chest. And, yes, of course, I also went to Tulum and Xelha and Coba and other more touristic sites, pretty much covering the coast from Cancun to the southern border with Belize, much of it on foot.

    Now, three trips and dozens of books into the matter, I'm an amateur student of the Maya, a culture at once so distant from ours and so close. The conquest of it only happened 400-500 years ago. The paint on some of the ruins, compared to those of ancient Greece or Rome, is still fresh.

    One of the better introductory works on the Maya that I read was Coe's book by that title. Published in 1966, it still looked at Mayan civilization as a mystery. We could read their numerations, but not their language at that time. This book, published in 1992, tells a very different and much more hopeful story, the written Mayan language having been substantially deciphered in the intervening years.

    Breaking the Maya Code is at once a history of the study of Mayan civilization and an explanation as to how their written language worked--and why we took so very long to come around to understanding it. The historical part of the book is very accessible, almost as exciting as a good mystery. The linguistic part of the book tends to get technical, though the author does adequately explain things for the layperson.

  3. Dave says:

    I was really excited to read this book; as a linguistics dork this sounded great. The pseudo-anthropologist in me felt his heart go pitter-pat. But the book itself is so incredibly tedious in tone that I quickly lost enthusiasm. Praise for certain academics and descriptions of their quirks as people; crotchety indictments of others, along with descriptions of their quirks as people. Shut up and tell me about the role of phonetics in the deciphering of the script already! Sheesh.

  4. Elizabeth K. says:

    Well, this certainly had a lot of content. I sought this out after reading the recent book about the Stephens and Catherwood expeditions.

    Overall, I enjoyed it, although my impression of it perhaps suffered a little because it wasn't exactly what I was looking for.

    Roughly the first half covers the major personalities in Mayan studies and the history of the field. It was interesting, and it set the stage, and it went into more detail than I was prepared for. Some of it had a ... weird? ... tone because the author himself is a Mayan scholar, and knows (or knew) the more recent folks working in this area, and it felt like he was trying to say nice things about the individuals but for me, seeing as I don't know these people and don't care what they think of me, it felt wedged in. Or maybe an editor told him oh, for human interest, you should add some tidbits that show the personalities of these people and then he randomly stuck in odd descriptors that ended up feeling really out of context (and in addition to the nice things, some of them were rather salty, which seemed even stranger). The main takeaway from this section is important, however, which is that there were a lot of incorrect assumptions about the Mayan writing that shifted the focus away from avenues of inquiry that might have produced better results sooner -- namely that Mayan civilization wasn't advanced enough to develop a truly coherent writing system (wrong), that the written language was entirely symbolic and not related to spoken Mayan, variations of which are still spoken by actual people (wrong), and that the writing was only used to express dates and calendar calculations (there are a lot of dates, but still wrong).

    The second part of the book got more into what was actually happening as researchers started to make more progress with the Mayan writing. The book was impressively successful at broad-stroking the general idea of the thing -- how you (if you are a linguist) can suss out the relationship between sounds and symbols. For the curious, the signs can act as either outright symbols of a thing (a picture of a jaguar is a jaguar) but they can also be used as phonetic markers so you can use them to spell out any word. Or any word that a Mayan person wanted to carve into a lintel or paint on ceramics.

    As interesting as all of that was, I suspect it's the kind of thing where Coe isn't that used to explaining it to beginners, and this stuff probably seems very obvious to him. What was really missing, for me, and again, this might not have been his goal at all, was a deep explanation of how the glyphs work visually. They're incredibly hard to suss out for a person outside of that tradition. It was extremely challenging to match up the Mayan images with the explanations. And of course, you have a body of writing that spanned centuries, ranging over a large geographic area, and so there are a lot of differences from example to example and it was utterly unclear which threads of commonality I was supposed to be looking at. What I wanted was more of a visual history of the writing itself. (As an example, one of them is supposedly the image of a frog, and I'm staring at this thing and I can't see a frog -- is it a frog in profile? A birds-eye view? Is that squiggle a leg? A hat? WHAT IS THIS?)

    But it definitely succeeded in showing the complexity of understanding Mayan writing and makes a real impression of how dedicated and smart and determined folks had to be to make progress.

  5. Scott says:

    Breaking the Maya Code is not so much about deciphering the Mayan script as it is about the adventurers, divines, scholars, librarians, insurance salesmen, and students who contributed to -- and often befuddled -- our understanding of Mayan epigraphy for over four centuries.

    Before actually discussing how the Mayan code has been recently deciphered, Coe indulges himself in nearly two-hundred pages of scholarly anecdotes, brief biography, and sometimes curious, though often pointless trivia as he traces in great detail how, in spite of centuries of effort, the writing on the monuments of Chichen Itza, Copan, and Palenque was misunderstood or intentionally disregarded by feuding scholars. With perfect hindsight, Coe waspishly criticizes predecessors and colleagues whose attempts at decipherment either failed or whose opinions and renown in academia hindered others from making progress toward understanding the true nature of the glyphs. With great embellishment, he heaps praise on the work of the Young Turks who have finally adopted phonetic principals to crack the code.

    What results is Coe's book of remembrance, his memoirs of fifty years in some of the more privileged corners of academia (he never fails to mention he took his degrees from Harvard and taught at Yale) spent trying to make sense not only of the Lords of the Forest but also of the gods, men, and monsters in the university.

  6. Jacques Coulardeau says:


    Sir Eric (Thompson) was knighted by the Queen of England in 1975, just before his passing away, to thank him for all he had done in the field of Maya research. But what on earth had he done?

    He had blocked for at least forty years all research about Maya writing because for him all these signs and carvings and paintings and decorations in stone, in paint, on walls, on pots, on plates, on bark-paper, all those monuments in the jungle were not writing, were not the written form of an oral language that had been in existence for thousands of years, but was the aesthetic beautiful artistic expression of no scribes but visionary shamans of some kind able to see beyond the surface of things and able to express directly the depth and beauty of the soul of the shamans, of the artists, of the Maya people. It was decreed by this Sir Eric (Thompson) that apart from the mathematical glyphs with numbers and long count, short count or whatever, all the rest was in no way linguistic and the dates and mathematical symbols were only the sign of the absolute addiction of the Maya to numbers, mathematics, time, and other figments of their somewhat troubled imagination during the long bouts of absolute drunkenness (drunken coma?) they enjoyed by enematic injections. They might even be astrologers, you know, these people who are predicting your future from the stars, telling you your horoscope in two sentences for the day, the week, the month, the years to come, even your life, though then they need a crystal ball or a pack of tarots cards. And mind you for them the planet Venus is supreme, male and vindictive in HIS request for blood. In other words, they were – and still are – barbarians according to these intellectuals who must be attracted to the subject by the scent of blood.

    The damage was so deep that it took twenty years for the epigraphers, ethnographers, archaeologists, and linguists, plus a myriad of other scientists or undergraduate and graduate students to finally recognize the truth that was first said and published in 1952 by a Soviet linguist in Leningrad, Yuri Knorozov, the truth that Maya writing was comparable to Egyptian hieroglyphs: on the basis of some logographs (glyphs that represented an object, an animal, a person or a god, and at times something more abstract, like the sun, the moon, sunrise and sunset) that have kept their recognizable forms, the writing system developed as a phonetic system whose architecture was that of a syllabary. And that had been suggested in the 16th century by Landa, the monk and later on a bishop who had thousands of Maya books burnt up in an autodafe.

    We are luckily far beyond this sorry phase of the forty years of feudal and aristocratic dictatorship from one single man, Sir Eric (Thompson). Kukulkan, please, bless the child! If that had not happened the Maya might have been able to resist against the last episode of genocide and ethnocide they had to suffer in Guatemala at the end of the 20th century, not to mention the systematic segregation they are the victims of everywhere in Mesoamerica since they pretend to speak Maya languages, they consider Spanish as a second language, and they identify to Christianity because in a way Jesus Christ is Quetzalcoatl, aka Kukulkan. D.H. Lawrence said that in the 1920s with his famous novel The Plumed Serpent, (1926). Let’s hope this resurrection, restoration, renascence of an ethnocided, genocided and ecocided culture will bring La Malinche back into the light, the interpreter of Hernán Cortés who has been diabolized and Satanized by the Mexicans.

    You will find here the long study on Michael D. Coe’s essential book on the saga of how Maya script was finally deciphered, and Coe knows what he is speaking of since he was a direct witness of the whole dys-adventure because he managed to get a modest position in academia in Thompson’s time and he remained modest in his suggestions that could not, had not to appear like a challenge. He informed the “Master” about Yuri Knorozov, he did his own thing under the table, and he let the “Master” exorcize the communist devil from Leningrad. And that lasted from 1952 to 1975. That was the Cold War in academia. That was, plain and simple, intellectual academic McCarthyism. Really God, please, Kukulkan, pretty please, Quetzalcoatl, with sugar on top, do bless the child and try to save us from the deeply rooted anti-communistic prejudices that reign in the USA so powerful that it makes everyone blind, like some onanistic sin of the past, according to absolute experts about it, viz. priests of any affiliation and confession, who happened to speak of it between two episodes of child molesting.

    Enjoy that descent into hell, the hell of the good fundamentalist and sectarian – we would have said Stalinist in my days – academic totalitarianism of the “intellectual elite” of a nation, of the Western world in days of globalization.

    Dr. Jacques COULARDEAU

  7. NannyOgg says:

    There are really two independent works tucked away in this book: one is actually on solving the Maya hieroglyphic system, and the other is a case study presenting pretty much everything I hate about academia.

    I've been casually tinkering with pre-Columbian archeology since my big sister left me wandering in a library at the age of about 10 - which, for reference, was a long time ago -, and so I had drawn this idealistic, candy-coloured image to myself that (a) Mayas are great, (b) archeology is great, so (c) scientific research involving Mayas, perforce, has to be this grand adventure that everyone feels honoured participating in, and so archeologists, as a society, work towards solving the mysteries of the past selflessly, unified, possibly riding unicorns during the process. Yeah, I was that young. Then academia happened, and by the time I got my own dirt-digging license, I had been through a few Eric Thompsons of my own field, so I have no illusions about academics anymore. But this book, this was still sort of a kick in the teeth, because it makes me think that if we, geologists, are bad, archeologists are truly the worst. What I've learned is that having clashing schools of thoughts within one area (i.e., Maya epigraphy) is one thing, but then, reportedly, field archeologists completely disregard and/or dismiss(ed? I am hopeful and naive enough to give past tense a chance...) the historic events unraveled by epigraphy. On the other hand, those working on the inscriptions don't seem to give enough credit to the people who actually find them by digging in the jungle amongst mosquitoes and the heat and spiders, without, I have come to learn, the aid of unicorns. Coe himself falls into this trap, and I was slightly uncomfortable reading his tone, because he very openly and unmistakably takes sides and indulges in sarcastic little remarks about sour grapes and embarrassing misinterpretations of glyphs at almost every chance. This is a popular science book, so I guess the author may use whatever tone he wants, but I, personally, don't like bashing in a science book, may it be ever so mild and possibly justified.

    Apart from the off-putting clinical picture of what academia has been and probably always will be like, it's an enjoyable read for the one so inclined. The glyph illustrations are pretty neat and informative (and made me realize I likely will never be able to read them...), and it gives a handy walkthrough at the beginning about how languages, writing systems and decrypting texts work, which I found myself fascinated by. So much so that I actually bought Coe's other book on reading the Maya glyphs about one-quarter in.

    (Also, don't miss the Nova documentary that was based on the book. It has a more sensationalist tone, of course, but as far as I remember it leaves out the trash-talking and focuses on the story. It's on YouTube; totally worth it.)

  8. Jim says:

    Michael D. Coe's Breaking the Maya Code: Third Edition is about a conflict between the diggers and the linguists. When Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, he had his scholar Champollion with him. It was not too many years after the discovery of the Rosetta Stone during that expedition that Champollion had figured out how to translate Egyptian hieroglyphs.

    There was a Rosetta Stone for Mayan hieroglyphs as well -- one dating all the way back to 1566. It was Bishop Diego de Landa's book Relacion de los cosas de Yucatan, which included the bishop's own study of the language. (Darn nice of him, since he was the man responsible for burning so many of the Maya condexes at Mani years earlier.)

    What prevented the glyphs from being translated was that the diggers -- the archaeologists, rather than the linguists -- were in control. One man, Sir J. Eric S. Thompson had, for four decades, insisted that the glyphs didn't mean anything. It was not until Thompson died in 1975 that the glyphs yielded up their meaning. Oddly, the impetus came not from America, but from two Russians, Tatiana Proskouriakoff and Yuri Valentinovich Knorozov.

    When I first visited Yucatan in 1975, I believed Thompson that the thousands of glyphs were not important. (For all his renown, Thompson never learned any dialect of Mayan.) It was the linguists who gave the Maya a history, complete with names, dates, and events.

    Coe's book is actually exciting. It is a detective story about how to overcome stodgy entrenched interests.

  9. Areli Vázquez says:

    I really like that the book is dedicated to Knorosov:
    Coe's book is a very interesting one about the story of the decipherment of Mayan script. I did not even know that the Mayas had a system of writing that represented their spoken language. And due to Knorosov work now we can read Mayan stelas, inscriptions, pottery, codices.

  10. Nicky says:

    Reviewed for The Bibliophibian.

    This book is, I’ll warn people right up front, also a history of how the Mayan specialists in the West failed to break the “Maya code” for far too long, due to petty jealousies and larger than life characters. Quite often Coe sketches a mini-biography of someone who was involved in the decipherment (or more often, the failure of decipherment); sometimes the biography isn’t so mini.

    Still, I think it’s better written than his other book on the Mayans, which I read not that long ago — it certainly worked better for me, anyhow. Perhaps because there are glimpses of the scholars and larger than life characters who put in the work, erroneous though it often was.

    The book is illustrated, both with full reproductions and sketches. For me, the full-page spreads of Mayan characters were meaningless, but I’m sure it would appeal a lot to some people to be able to have a crack at it themselves. I know I’m not visually inclined enough, so I tended to skip the examples and such, but they are there and I’m sure more visually inclined people could pick out some of the features Coe discusses.

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