Breaking The Maya Code

Michael D. Coe
New York: Thames and Hudson, 1992
255 pp., $21.95 hc

David Metzger
Montana State University

Although Michael Coe's Breaking The Maya Code is both a disciplinary history and a story of detection, its interest thankfully does not depend solely on the ebullience and eccentricities of so called "key figures" in Meso-American studies. In fact, most of Coe's discussion is focused on two major stumbling blocks to deciphering Maya glyphs: (1) the lack of a body of Maya texts; (2) the "mentalist, ideographic" mindset of would-be "translators." Coe, however, cannot always avoid the temptation to pepper his presentation with the exploits of "great men" and fools.

On the one hand, there is Constantine Samuel Rafinesque-Smaltz (1783-1840) who persevered despite the paucity of Meso-American material available:

I will have to lake my hat off to Rafinesque. Here is what he has accomplished, using the sketchiest and most unpromising material:
  1. He has seen that the inscriptions of Palenque and the writing of the Dresden codex represent one and the same script.

  2. He was the very first to realize the values of the bars and dots in the Maya number system, anticipating Brasseur de Bourbourg by over three decades.

  3. He has suggested that the language represented by this script is still spoken by the Maya of Central America, and knowing this, it will be possible to decipher manuscripts like the Dresden.

  4. Once the manuscripts can be read, so can the monumental inscriptions. (91)

On the other, there is Athanasius Kircher (1602-80) who accepted the Plotinian view that "hieroglyphs" (in this case, those from Egypt) were thoughts directly impressed into script without the intervention of letters, words, or sentences: "Kircher was one of the first students of Coptic, and one of the first to insist that it was descended from the ancient language of the pharaohs. Thus, while on the one hand he paved the way for decipherment that was made much later by Champollion, on the other, by this stubbornly mentalist attitude towards the hieroglyphs, he impeded their decipherment for almost two centuries" (17).

Coe's treatment of the history of decipherment in the first chapter is expansive, as his discussion of Kircher and Rafinesque might indicate. I am puzzled, then, that he makes only brief mention of the interest nineteenth-century American writers took in hieroglyphics (see John Irwin's American Hieroglyphics). Subsequent chapters are concerned with the accomplishments of Eric Thompson and Tania Proskouriakoff, among others. Special attention and tribute is made to Yuri Knorosov whose work demonstrated that, contrary to predominant "mentalist" perceptions, there are phonetic components to Maya writing. In Coe's words, Knorosov's articles lead "to the cracking of the Maya script and enable[d] those distant Lords of the Forest to speak to us in their own voice" (146).

Infrequently, Coe's writing style approaches that of a clumsy melodrama--usually when he writes of Knorosov. I'll provide two examples: "With Thompson's influence waning and Knorosov's star rising...something was bound to happen. And happen it did, just before Christmas 1973, in the most beautiful of Maya cities: Palenque" (194); "Then, shortly after Cerezo left office, a sinister phone call came to them in Guatemala City: leave Guatemalan territory within seventy-two hours or be killed.... The man [Knorosov] who had allowed the ancient Maya scribes to speak with their own voice was still unable to walk freely among the cities in which they had lived. But who knows? Perhaps we are all headed for destruction" (275). There is here (and in the last twenty pages of the book) an apocalyptic tone which seems naive even as we approach the beginning of a new century and even if "we are all headed for destruction."

Yet, even after such nit-picking, I would say Breaking The Maya Code is a delightful book: truly informative and, at times for academics, the nonfictional counterpart to the "university novel." In addition, the book has a number of maps and diagrammatic analyses of the glyphs, both of which are helpful. The bibliography is wonderfully brief from the standpoint of the interested nonspecialist; there is just enough reference material to get started, yet there is no danger of losing sight of the chickens because of all of the eggs.

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