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Michael D. Coe
Michael Douglas Coe
May 14, 1929
New York City, U.S.
|Died||September 25, 2019 (aged 90)|
New Haven, Connecticut, U.S.
|Known for||Maya civilization|
|Fields||anthropology, archaeology, epigraphy|
Michael Douglas Coe (May 14, 1929 - September 25, 2019) 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 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.
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.
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.
Coe attended Fay School 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. Sophie translated from Russian, the work of epigrapher, Yuri Valentinovich Knorosov, The Writing of the Maya Indians (1967). 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; 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, 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," 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, 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 and on the Wrestler, 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, and the same was said for the Wrestler. Nevertheless, such criticisms were based on what other scholars considered poorly or undefined notions of Olmec iconography and of rulership.
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:
Coe led tours for Far Horizons Archaeological and Cultural trips.