Michael D. Coe
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Michael D. Coe

Michael D. Coe
Michael Douglas Coe

(1929-05-14)May 14, 1929
DiedSeptember 25, 2019(2019-09-25) (aged 90)
CitizenshipUnited States
Known forMaya civilization
Scientific career
Fieldsanthropology, archaeology, epigraphy

Michael Douglas Coe (May 14, 1929 - September 25, 2019)[1] was an American archaeologist, anthropologist, epigrapher and author. Primarily known for his research in the field of pre-Columbian Mesoamerican studies (and in particular, for his work on the Maya civilization, where he is regarded as one of the foremost Mayanist scholars[2] of the latter 20th century), Coe also made extensive investigations across a variety of other archaeological sites in North and South America. He specialised in comparative studies of ancient tropical forest civilizations, such as those of Central America and Southeast Asia. He held the chair of Charles J. MacCurdy Professor of Anthropology, Emeritus, Yale University, and was Curator Emeritus of the Anthropology collection in the Peabody Museum of Natural History, where he had been Curator from 1968 to 1994.[3]

During the Korean War, Coe worked as a CIA case officer; as a part of a front organization, Western Enterprises (?), in Taiwan; the CIA's efforts at the time were intended to counter influences and actions of Mao's China in Asia.[4]

Coe authored a number of popular works for the non-specialist audience, several of which were best-selling and much reprinted, such as The Maya (1966) and Breaking the Maya Code (1992). He also co-authored the book Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs (1962, sixth edition, 2008) with Rex Koontz.

Early life and education

Coe attended Fay School[5] in Southborough, Massachusetts and St. Paul's School, Concord, New Hampshire. He graduated from Harvard College in 1950 and received his PhD in anthropology from the Harvard Graduate School of Arts & Sciences in 1959. Shortly after commencing his graduate studies program there, in 1955 he married the daughter of the noted evolutionary biologist and Russian émigré Theodosius Dobzhansky, Sophie, who was then an undergraduate anthropology student at Radcliffe College.[6] Sophie translated from Russian, the work of epigrapher, Yuri Valentinovich Knorosov, The Writing of the Maya Indians (1967).[7] Knorosov based his studies on De Landa's phonetic alphabet and is credited with originally breaking the Maya code.


Coe's graduate advisor was Gordon Willey.

Coe is considered, by most scholars of Mesoamerica and the Maya,[who?] to have done foundational work in three areas: 1) in his Harvard dissertation, at La Victoria, Guatemala, he established the first secure chronology of ceramics for southern Mesoamerica and which has served, almost without revision, to anchor chronologies elsewhere in Mesoamerica and the Maya world[]; 2) from his work (with Richard Diehl) at San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan, Veracruz, Mexico and employing the then new technology of magnetometry to locate and salvage most of the Olmec colossal heads now known, he greatly expanded knowledge of the Olmec civilization such that he is considered one of the discoverers of the Olmec;[8] 3) against the very public rebukes of the then reigning doyen of Maya archaeology, J. E. S. Thompson, Coe championed Yuri Knorosov and the phonetic decipherment of Maya writing,[9] and set about solving what was then the greatest research problem for the Maya, decipherment of Maya writing, along with his own fundamental discoveries, by stimulating and inspiring his Yale University students Peter Mathews and Karl Taube to great breakthroughs. Another student, Stephen D. Houston, became co-author of many of the papers with them and with the greatest epigrapher of the day, David Stuart. Coe also provided insights and guidance to Floyd Lounsbury, noted anthropological linguist at Yale, and to the authors of the acclaimed The Blood of Kings, a work about Classic Maya rulership, Mary Ellen Miller, at Yale, and Linda Schele, at the University of Texas at Austin, the latter who was also a central figure in Maya epigraphy for most of the 1970s and 1980s; Coe's Breaking the Maya Code (1992), which was nominated for a National Book Award, relates the story.

Coe was, also, the first to date El Baúl Stela 1 correctly (Coe 1957; cf. Parsons 1986:61); this sculpture from the Southern Maya Area (SMA) is one of three known with Cycle 7 Long Count dated monuments; since then, that it predated all Lowland Long-Count dated sculpture was not questioned. He also, with Kent V. Flannery, was the first to observe that the greatest southern area site, Kaminaljuyu, probably profited greatly from its proximity to and exploitation of the enormous El Chayal obsidian fields. Coe's own discovery of the Primary Standard Sequence, a sequence of hieroglyphs appearing around the rim of many Classic Maya ceramic vessels, and also of the fourth Maya codex still in existence, in themselves would have secured a place in the history of Maya research. Finally, his many insights, dropped casually to his students or written up in short reports, including that the Popol Vuh was but a fragment of a great lost pan-Maya mythology, and that Classic Maya rulers were shamanic figures as well as administrators, exemplify how he has been the singular leader of research in Mesoamerica and the Maya, and one of a handful of general figures in archaeology as a whole throughout the 1960s and even to today to rank with the founders of the discipline of anthropology. Considering everything, to many other scholars, researchers and students, such are his achievements that they warrant labeling the period from the 1960s almost until today as "the Coe Epoch."

In addition to many seminal publications about Mesoamerica and the Maya, Coe contributed several key papers outside of his own specialized foci, including "The Churches on the Green,"[10] which, during the height of the New Archaeology, succinctly pointed out how processualism failed. Indicative of the wide range and breadth of his intellect, his book on the Angkor civilization of ancient Cambodia, Angkor and the Khmer Civilization (2003, 2nd ed. 2018) is considered the best single volume on the subject,[11] following up on an early comparative interest.


Coe added qualified support to the "Cultura Madre" view of the Olmec as the "mother culture of Mesoamerican civilization"; another issue, use of information obtainable from looted Maya ceramics, brought criticism. Some of Coe's work came under scrutiny by two scholars of Pre-Columbian art. His work on, for example, the Cascajal Block[12] and on the Wrestler,[13] was called into question. Other scholars disputed these claims and found them inadequately supported by evidence. The Cascajal block in particular was argued to have many features fully consistent with Olmec imagery,[14][15] and the same was said for the Wrestler.[16][17][18] Nevertheless, such criticisms were based on what other scholars considered poorly or undefined notions of Olmec iconography and of rulership.

Awards and recognition

Over the course of his lengthy scientific career, Coe was the recipient of a number of awards in recognition of his substantial contributions to the fields of archaeology and anthropology. These included:

Major publications

  • Coe, Michael D. (1961) La Victoria, An Early Site on the Coast of Guatemala. Papers vol. 53. Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Cambridge.
  • Coe, Michael D. (1962) Mexico. Thames and Hudson, New York. (Four subsequent editions; with Rex Koontz, 2013).
  • Coe, Michael D. (1965) The Jaguar's Children: Pre-Classic Central Mexico. Museum of Primitive Art, New York.
  • Coe, Michael D. (1966) The Maya. Thames and Hudson, New York. (8th ed. 2011, 9th ed. in press).
  • Coe, Michael D. and Kent V. Flannery (1967) Early Cultures and Human Ecology in South Coastal Guatemala. Smithsonian Contributions to Anthropology, Vol. 3, Washington, D. C.
  • Coe, Michael D. (1968) America's First Civilization: Discovering the Olmec. American Heritage Press, New York.
  • Coe, Michael D. (1973) The Maya Scribe and His World. The Grolier Club, New York.
  • Coe, Michael D. (1978) Lords of the Underworld: Masterpieces of Classic Maya Ceramics. Princeton University Press, Princeton.
  • Coe, Michael D. and Richard A. Diehl (1980) In the Land of the Olmec. 2 vols. University of Texas Press, Austin.
  • Coe, Michael D. and Gordon Whittaker (1983) Aztec Sorcerers in 17th Century Mexico: The Treatise on Superstitions by Hernando Ruiz de Alarcón. Institute for Mesoamerican Studies, Albany.
  • Coe, Michael D. (1992) Breaking the Maya Code. Thames and Hudson, New York. (revised ed. 1999)
  • Coe, Michael D. (1995) The Olmec World: Ritual and Rulership. The Art Museum, Princeton University, Princeton.
  • Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe (1996) The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson, New York.
  • Coe, Michael D. and Justin Kerr (1998) The Art of the Maya Scribe. Harry N. Abrams, New York.
  • Coe, Michael D. and Mark Van Stone (2001) Reading the Maya Glyphs (2nd ed. 2005)
  • Coe, Michael D. (2003) Angkor and the Khmer Civilization. Thames and Hudson, New York (2nd ed. with Damian Evans 2018).
  • Coe, Michael D. (2006) Final Report: An Archaeologist Excavates His Past. Thames and Hudson, New York.
  • Coe, Michael D. (2006) The Line of Forts: Historical Archaeology on the Colonial Frontier of Massachusetts. University Press of New England, Lebanon.


Coe led tours for Far Horizons Archaeological and Cultural trips.


  1. ^ https://www.legacy.com/obituaries/nhregister/obituary.aspx?n=michael-d-coe&pid=194021713
  2. ^ Merrin, Edward H. "The Olmec World of Michael Coe". Edward Merrin. Retrieved 2011.
  3. ^ https://anthropology.yale.edu/people/michael-coe
  4. ^ Coe, Michael D. 2006. Final Report: An Archaeologist Excavates His Past. Thames & Hudseon.
  5. ^ "FAY MAGAZINE" (PDF). Fayschool.org. Retrieved 2017.
  6. ^ Coe (1992), p.154.
  7. ^ Stuart and Houston 1989: 15,85; Scarborough 1994: 40
  8. ^ https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/obituaries/michael-coe-influential-archaeologist-and-maya-scholar-dies-at-90/2019/09/30/e5d458b0-e2c3-11e9-a331-2df12d56a80b_story.html
  9. ^ https://news.yale.edu/2019/10/08/michael-coe-influential-archaeologist-helped-unlock-secrets-mesoamerica
  10. ^ in Dummell, R. C. and Hall, E. S. Jr. ed. Archaeological Essays in Honor of Irving B Rouse. Mouton, The Hague, 1978 https://www.academia.edu/22407422/The_churches_on_the_Green_A_cautionary_tale
  11. ^ Chandler, David (2019). "Review: Angkor and the Khmer Civilization, by Michael D. Coe and Damian Evans". Journal of the Siam Society. Siam Society. 107 (1): 147-149.
  12. ^ Bruhns, Karen; Kelker, Nancy (2007). "Did the Olmec Know How to Write". Science. Science Magazine. 315 (5817): 1365b-1366b. doi:10.1126/science.315.5817.1365b. PMID 17347426.
  13. ^ Kelker, Nancy L. 2004. The Olmec wrestler: Pre-Columbian art or modern fake?. Minerva 15(5):30-31
  14. ^ Freidel, David, and F. Kent Reilly III. 2010. The flesh of God, cosmology, food, and the origins of political power in southeastern Mesoamerica" in Pre-Columbian Foodways: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Food, Culture, and Markets in Mesoamerica edited by John E. Staller and Michael D. Carrasco. pp. 635-680. Springer.
  15. ^ "Dead Bugs and Olmec Writing". Decipherment.wordpress.com. April 20, 2010. Retrieved 2017.
  16. ^ Milbrath, Susan. 1979). Study of Olmec Sculptural Chronology. Studies in Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology No. 23. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Trustees for Harvard University.
  17. ^ Coe, Michael D. and Mary Miller. 2004. The Olmec wrestler: a masterpiece of the ancient Gulf Coast Minerva 16(1):18-19
  18. ^ Cyphers, Ann, and Artemio Lopez Cisneros. 2008. La historia de "El Luchador," in Olmeca: Balance y perspectivas, edited by Maria Teresa Uriarte and Rebecca B. Gonzalez Lauck. 411-423.
  19. ^ Museo Popol Vuh (n.d.)
    • 2008- Linda Schele Award, University of Texas.


Coe, Michael D. (1992). Breaking the Maya Code. London: Thames & Hudson. ISBN 978-0-500-05061-3. OCLC 26605966.
Museo Popol Vuh staff (n.d.). "Dr. Michael D. Coe - Orden del Pop 2006". Orden del Pop (in Spanish). Guatemala City: Museo Popol Vuh, Universidad Francisco Marroquín. Retrieved 2011.
Peabody Museum of Natural History staff (2005). "Anthropology - Michael D. Coe". The Collections. New Haven, CT: Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University. Retrieved 2007.

  This article uses material from the Wikipedia page available here. It is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.



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