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Breaking the Maya Code
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Breaking the Maya Code

really liked it 4.0  ·  Rating details ·  438 Ratings  ·  47 Reviews
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;  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 decipherme ...more
Paperback, Revised Edition, 304 pages
Published October 1st 1999 by Thames Hudson (first published 1992)
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Dec 14, 2014 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Aus den Memoiren des Forschers Coe
Die süd- und mittelamerikanischen präkolumbischen Kulturen haben mich schon als Kind fasziniert; ich malte gern Maya-Schriftzeichen ab, war ein Azteken-Fan und träumte von versunkenen Dschungelstädten voller geheimnisvoller Stelen. Vielen ging es wohl so, und Leute wie wir werden dann natürlich von einem Buch, das einen so vielversprechenden Namen trägt, magisch angezogen.

Und wie das dann sehr oft so ist: Die Magie ist schnell verflogen. Coe beschreibt in seinem
Erik Graff
Oct 01, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: amateur Mayologists
Recommended to Erik by: no one
Shelves: history
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 May
Aug 12, 2007 rated it it was ok
Recommends it for: curmudgeonly professors
Shelves: nonfiction
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.
Areli Vázquez
Jul 24, 2017 rated it it was amazing
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.
Elizabeth K.
Apr 23, 2017 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2017-new-reads
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
Jul 01, 2009 rated it really liked it
Shelves: archaeology, for-fun
This book is great. The Mayan glyphs are so mysterious, so artistic. The author walks through the history of the attempts to decipher Mayan glyphs, spanning 150 years. It is a no holds barred, in your face primer on the basics of written language, yet not so technical that you lose interest. The storyline is interesting as Michael Coe introduces the reader to the great minds (and not so great minds) and their contributions to the decipherment. All along the way, the ancient Maya are brought to l ...more
Jul 14, 2012 rated it really liked it
Excellent and interesting. At the time I read this, I was all set to learn Mayan hieroglyphs. Then I realized that I would have to learn Mayan. Eesh. Chan Balam - Sky Jaguar. That's about as far as I got in my notebook I was keeping. Then I adopted an iguana and suddenly got very, very busy. The book however - it was great. Love reading about ancient languages and translations of ancient scripts.
Roger Hernandez
Jul 05, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Perhaps one of the best books I've read in many years. Breaking the Maya Code was as epic as deciphering the Egyptian Hieroglyphs in the 19th century. The Maya were the only civilization in the Americas with a complete writing system. This book discusses all of the facets of deciphering Mayan script and it's contemporary role in Mayan communities.
Bob Newman
Oct 31, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Ter-glyph-ic !

Having worked in academia for a number of years, Coe's story of overbearing professors belittling opposing views on a personal level, of scholars unwilling to grant even the slightest kudos to people who had made major discoveries, of jealousies galore, of careers threatened for failing to toe the line, was not surprising to me. It took several centuries to break the Maya system of writing. After any number of cockeyed theories had been mooted, it was a Russian scholar, who had nev
Aug 29, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book fulfils what its title promises: it details how the maya glyphs were deciphered and the struggle it took the many Mayanists to get there. If you are looking for a detailed introduction to a Classical (or living) Maya language, this is not your book. Nor will you find all the glyphs that have been deciphered so far with all their variants. No, what you do get is more to the core and possibly more interesting: an introduction to how the system worked and how it was suited to its needs.
May 11, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is a very interesting book. If I was the sort of person who needs to classify everything I would have a hard time classifying this book. It's a bit autobiographical, it is, of course, the story of the decipherment of Mayan script, also included are stories about about other great decipherments, especially the decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphics , and it's a bit of Hollywood tell-all tale. Dr. Coe rarely passes an opportunity to rip into the influential archaeologist, ethnohistorian, and ...more
A wonderful book about the history of decipherment of the Mayan glyphs. It is also a cautionary tale of how the strength of personality of a single scientist can stymie an entire field of study. I enjoyed learning about the late Linda Schele, a native Tennessean and an artist by trade, was a key member of the group that cracked open the barrier to understanding these ancient people as human beings.

It is a challenging book and one I will have to read again to better grasp the content. Still, it
Halfway through and after yes, reading on and off for three years, I finally gave up. This book is much more gossip about Mayanists (especially starting with the Thompson chapter) than actually about deciphering anything. I would have loved to know how the written language was finally figured out, but I couldn't take the slog through minor biographical details and opinions about personalities any longer.
Wailin Tseng
Nov 20, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Great book- for a serious subject it wasn't too hard to read. Very informative.
May 17, 2008 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: anyone considering a graduate program in the humanities
Shelves: codes, history, 1990s
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
Jun 05, 2011 rated it really liked it
This is a fascinating, if at times frustrating, history about the study and eventual decipherment of most of the ancient Maya writing system. This isn't a negative review, but it is one that complains about some drawbacks to an otherwise informative and entertaining book.

Coe is the best and worst person to write this book: best because he is one of the experts in the field, and worst for the very same reason. The story is extremely interesting but he gets in the way too often to supply personal
Oct 29, 2013 rated it really liked it
As impressive book by a scholar who knows what he is writing about. This is not for the faint of heart, for it takes one into the remote country for intense complex archeological exploration and detection back amid dim anthropological settings in deep forested land. So well set forth by Coe that even the educated person in fields of history and literature can follow the story he is laying forth.

It is indeed a tale of the unknown symbolic mysteries, the remains of cryptic writing and pictures, a
Bill Leach
May 31, 2016 rated it really liked it
Michael Coe tells the story of the increasing understanding of the Mayan Code from it's rediscovery in the 1800's to the book's publication date of 1999. Early chapters provide some fundamentals of linguistics. Interesting background is provided on each major investigator, and their ideas are examined.

Thought in the mid 1900's was dominated by Eric Thompson who believed that the glyphs were symbolic, not phonetic. His influence was such to discourage other lines of thought.

The Russian Yuri Knoro
Daniel G.
Sep 01, 2013 rated it really liked it
I finally had the opportunity to read this. Very informative. One thing, unrelated to the subject, was his running commentary about Eric Thompson, an earlier leading Mayanist with whom the author disagrees. Coe criticized Thompson's tendency to sprinkle literary references throughout his writings. Coe said that Thompson's style was not spare like Hemingway. Coe does not write like Hemingway, either, and he tends to scatter his own erudition throughout the text.

Setting that aside, I found it well
it lost its way in the middle of the book, throwing names and dates around like the worst high school history book. The last third, which focused on a few researches in a short span of time, was much easier to read and more enjoyable. One does get tired of constant bashing of the book's villain, Eric Thompson, who if you take the author's word for it, was the most racist (ancient Americans could never have developed writing! ) and near sighted (why learn the language of a culture you are studyin ...more
May 21, 2015 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: linguistics nerds, people interested in mesoamerica
i started this two years ago and then forgot about it, so i picked it up again (on and off) a few months ago, will finish the last chapter or so later. very informative, details, among other things, how the major breakthrough in deciphering Mayan hieroglyphics was actually made by a Soviet researcher (Yuri Knorosov) who had little contact with Western science due to the cold war. there's a bit of snark about Soviet science and politics iirc, but it gives credit where credit is due. overall i'd h ...more
Sep 16, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
With the entertaining narrative style of Michael Coe, he introduces the layman to the process of deciphering the Mayan Glyph. Coe has been one of the many scientists among linguists, mathematicians, epigraphists, and archaeologists working for several decades in understanding the lost language of ancient Mayas. He tells of the giant quest of cataloging and relating thousands of writing sources and how researchers used a modern day language like Lacandon, to reconstruct how ancient Maya might hav ...more
Leonide Martin
Jun 18, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: maya-nonfiction
Easy to read and entertaining, this book takes readers on a journey of discovery. For years the Maya glyphs frustrated scholars because of their complexity and strange imagery. Many despaired the code would ever be cracked, even after the numeric system was deciphered in early 1900s. This fascinating tale exposes the sleuthing process while revealing quirks about the researchers (from Coe's viewpoint). Coe is of the school that sees ancient Mayas as bloodthirsty and obsessed with warfare and dyn ...more
Mar 16, 2010 rated it liked it
Though this book was quite scholarly and focused a good deal on the different things that make up any language, I was fascinated by it. I have always been fascinated by the Maya, and I was shocked to learn about the difficulties that arose in deciphering their language. No significant progress was made in the deciphering until the '70s. I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in language or Maya history.
David Musgraves
Jul 26, 2014 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2014
A great, thorough review of the long effort of decipherment. This book starts off pretty slowly, as the author for some reason thinks that the uninitiated reader needs to begin with a lesson on logograms and phonemes. While these are interesting and useful, I nearly put down the book before the real action starts in chapter 3. It's pretty interesting stuff, but certainly not an easy read for everyone.
Feb 26, 2007 rated it it was amazing
If you can get past the textbook quality of the first layer of this book, the insides reveal a splendid morsel of detective novel about the decoding of the ancient Mayan civilization texts carved in stone. As with most great scientific discoveries, this book raises more questions about who we are as a race and how completely separate cultures developed written scripts at approximately the same time in our evolutionary development.
Dec 30, 2014 rated it it was ok
This book has some interesting information on writing systems and Maya languages in general, and then goes in laborious detail describing, it seems, each and every person who has ever worked on Maya inscriptions. The personal details are nearly always uninteresting and tedious. And sadly, after reading for a dozen or so hours, I find that I still need to simply wikipedia the subject if I want a clear understanding of the script. The whole thing seems quite amateurish.
This is an essential text for anyone interested in ancient languages. It tells the story of the decipherment of Maya hieroglyphs, from the misguided attempts at the turn of the century to eventual successes of the early 1980s. Best of all, its told by a researcher who was part of the action. It's an insiders view on the processes of archaeology and linguistics, not just a summary of the results.
Very interesting view of process of deciphering ancient writing systems and the politics of scholarship. It was sometimes hard to keep all the parties straight in my mind. But it was well written, and there was even a mild sense of suspense. Well worth reading if you're interested in language and writing, archaeology, or Mayan history.
Aug 01, 2016 rated it liked it
I'm glad that I read this book but found it difficult. I didn't find out that much about the Maya but I learned a lot about the wrangling that linguists and archeologists went through while deciphering the glyphs.
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Michael D. Coe (born 1929) is 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 has also made extensive investigations across a variety of other a ...more
More about Michael D. Coe

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