In Memoriam

Michael Coe: influential archaeologist helped unlock secrets of Mesoamerica

Coe, the Charles J. MacCurdy Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Yale, died on Sept. 25 in New Haven. He was 90 years old.
Michael Coe
Michael Coe

The anthropologist and archaeologist Michael D. Coe, whose work illuminated the earliest cultures of Mesoamerican civilization and inspired generations of scholars to follow in his path, died on Sept. 25 in New Haven. He was 90 years old.

Coe, the Charles J. MacCurdy Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Yale, was esteemed by friends and colleagues for his adventurous spirit, generous nature, and passionate scholarship.

Mike Coe spent his life breaking new paths in archaeology,” said Mary Miller, Sterling Professor Emeritus of History of Art and one of Coe’s former students.

Beginning with his work in the 1950s exploring evidence of the earliest high civilization of Mesoamerica to his recent project authenticating the Maya Codex of Mexico — once known as the Grolier Codex — Coe’s curiosity and enthusiasm “knew no bounds,” Miller noted.  

Coe pursued ecological archaeology, the study of the relationships between past societies and the natural world, before it was an established sub-field, and he “kept the material manifestation of high civilization — particularly for the Olmec and Maya of Mesoamerica — front and center in archaeology, even when many archaeologists dismissed the value of considering elite culture,” explained Miller, the director of the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles and former dean of Yale College.

At the start of his career, Coe braved tropical heat and malaria to perform excavations on the Pacific coast of Guatemala. His discoveries demonstrated that Mesoamerican civilization originated much earlier than archaeologists had previously believed.

That early work alone was a great contribution,” said Oswaldo Chinchilla, associate professor of anthropology at Yale and Coe’s friend.

Coe led excavations at San Lorenzo — an important archaeological site in the Mexican state of Veracruz — unearthing colossal stone heads and other monuments while confirming that Olmec civilization was much more ancient than many scholars posited at the time. 

There was great debate about the age of the Olmec civilization,” said Chinchilla.  “Mike was convinced at the outset that the Olmec were earlier than many scholars thought, based on their sculptural style and what little was know from existing archaeological sites. He went to San Lorenzo and produced evidence to confirm it.”

Coe possessed a keen intuition that helped him navigate (and win) scholarly debates, Chinchilla said.

Many of the questions he examined were the subject of intense debate and his positions proved right in many cases,” Chinchilla said. “He sought and produced hard evidence to confirm them.”

Coe was instrumental in deciphering Maya script. He was one of the first scholars to grasp the importance of studying inscriptions on ceramic vessels, which had been widely characterized as strictly ornamental, explained Chinchilla.

By comparing a number of examples, he realized that there were very clear patterns in the inscriptions that were painted or carved on Maya vases. Departing from previous wisdom, he argued that they were readable,” Chinchilla said. “That was the first step in the decipherment of an entire corpus of ancient Maya texts.”

Coe championed the work of Yuri Knorozov, a Soviet linguist and ethnographer whose argument that Maya glyphs had phonetic qualities drew fierce criticism from J.E.S. Thompson, a leading archaeologist and scholar of Maya culture. Coe defended Knorozov’s views in a 1968 paper co-authored with his Yale colleague Floyd Lounsbury that demonstrated the phonetic properties of the Maya glyph for “cage.” Coe’s wife, Sophie, the daughter of Soviet-born evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky, supported Knorozov by translating many of his works from Russian into English.

Knorozov is the main protagonist in “Breaking the Maya Code,” Coe’s 1992 best-selling book about the struggle to unlock the secrets of Maya hieroglyphs.

It’s a great story told clearly and passionately by a great Mayanist,” wrote a reviewer in the journal Science. “It’s an inspiring example of the ultimate triumph of a truth in the knock-down, drag-out world of academic politics.”

The book, which is in its third edition, was adapted into a 2008 documentary and was the subject of a “Nova” episode on PBS.

Mike was particularly engaged with the history and code-cracking of writing, and ‘Breaking the Maya Code,’ told the story of the decipherment of Maya writing in gripping prose, gently acknowledging the pivotal role he played in both the decipherment itself and the convening of scholars who would be the code-breakers,” Miller said.

Coe was born on May 14, 1929 in New York City. He graduated from Harvard College in 1950 and received his Ph.D. in anthropology from the Harvard Graduate School of Arts & Sciences in 1959. During the Korean War, he served with the Central Intelligence Agency in Taiwan. He met Sophie during a class on physical anthropology. At the time, she was an undergraduate anthropology student at Radcliffe College. The couple married in 1955 and had five children: sons Nicholas, Andrew, and Peter; and daughters Sarah and Natalie.

After a two-year stint teaching at the University of Tennessee, Coe joined Yale’s Department of Anthropology as an assistant professor. He and Sophie bought a house on St. Ronan Street in New Haven, where he lived for the rest of his life.

Coe served as curator of the anthropology collection at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History from 1968 until his retirement in 1994.

Mike Coe was one of the most influential anthropologists of his generation. His work transformed our understanding of the cultural history of the Americas,” said Peabody Museum Director David Skelly, the Frank R. Oastler Professor of Ecology.

Beyond his own research, he was a wise and generous person who went out of his way to support the efforts of younger scholars.”

Coe was an avid fly fisherman and travelled the world on fishing trips with friends and family. His experience in Asia with the CIA inspired lifelong fascination with Angkor Wat, the vast temple complex in Cambodia. His 2003 book, “Angkor and the Khmer Civilization,” charts Khmer cultural history from the Stone Age until the establishment of the French Protectorate in 1863.

His thinking about Mesoamerica stretched into other cultures and geographic locations, Miller noted.

He looked to Bali and to Venice for insights into Mesoamerica; he thought about the role of food in both elite and ordinary lives, and with special attention to the luxury feast food of Mesoamerica: chocolate,” she said.

After Sophie was diagnosed with cancer in March 1994, Coe completed a book she had been writing, titled “The True History of Chocolate,” which was published in 1996 and is now in its third edition. Sophie passed away two months following her diagnosis.

Coe wrote more than a dozen books, including survey books “Mexico” and “The Maya” that attracted generations of students to study Mesoamerica, Miller said, including herself among the inspired.

He wrote for scholarly and general audiences.

I remember the buzz at breakfast at the Maya site of Palenque in 1983 when eager travelers, his books in hand, discovered that he and Sophie were in the dining room,” Miller said.

Coe continued his scholarly work for decades after he retired. In 2014, he teamed up with three of his former students — Stephen Houston, the Dupee Family Professor of Social Science at Brown University; Karl Taube, professor of anthropology at the University of California-Riverside; and Miller — to put to rest a lingering scholarly debate.

In 1968, while visiting the home of an organizer of the Mexico City Summer Olympics, Coe encountered photographs of a manuscript that appeared to be a Maya book. He returned to Yale with the photos, which he studied intensely with Lounsbury, who was a noted linguist and anthropologist. The pair was convinced the manuscript was genuine, meaning it was one of four existing Maya codices and the oldest known book in North America.

Mike had seen lots of modern forgeries and putative discoveries of ancient books of the New World,” Miller said. “When he saw these photos he knew that there was more to know, and that he might have the chance to bring to light only the fourth known pre-Hispanic Maya book, and the only one not to have been spirited to Europe in the 16th century.”

A page of the Maya Codex of Mexico, in which a death god decapitates a captive.
One of Coe’s final projects involved authenticating the Maya Codex of Mexico, which is the oldest book in the Americas. Each page of the 13th-century manuscript features a fearsome deity to demonstrate the malevolent nature of Venus. This death god pictured on the sixth page is decapitating a captive.

In 1971, Coe curated an exhibit at the Grolier Club in Manhattan that featured dozens of painted ceramic vessels as well as the codex depicted in those photographs, which became known as the Grolier Codex. Scholars had dismissed much of the material on display, including the codex, as irrelevant or incomprehensible, Miller explained.

I did not see the show, but I have long treasured the catalogue from it, in which the supernatural subject matter of many Maya vases — painted with clay slip in a fine line comparable only to Greek vases of the 5th century B.C. — came to life, making sense out of what others had dismissed,” she said. “And there was the book itself, which would then become the subject of occasional controversy and denunciation as a forgery but also fall into near-oblivion, stored in a vault in the basement of Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology.”

Coe and his three co-authors marshaled all available evidence supporting the manuscript’s authenticity into a peer-reviewed article published in 2016. Their report made Discover Magazine’s top 100 science stories of 2016, landing at no. 64 on the list.

We’ve answered all of the questions,” said Coe in a 2017 YaleNews article about the project. “The codex is real. No forger could have produced it.”

For the three former students, the work was an opportunity to express thanks to a cherished mentor.

Mike was a peerless supporter of his students: If we needed recommendations, they were always impassioned letters; if we needed help, it came without hesitation; if we needed encouragement, Mike supplied it to endless extent,” Houston said. “He was also one of the most important archaeologists of the 20th century, with an enthusiasm for ancient American civilizations that lasted quite literally to his dying day. His flashes of insight had no parallel I know.” 

Following the publication of the article, the National Library of Mexico launched a thorough scientific study of the codex — now called the Maya Codex of Mexico — addressing all questions about its authenticity. A book describing the findings was published to great fanfare in Mexico in fall 2018, Miller said, adding that Coe called the book “magisterial” in a review he wrote that was published online the day before he died.  

Mike had the capacity to carry out difficult fieldwork while penning elegant and appealing prose — all while sometimes planning the next fishing trip he would take and the flies he would tie in preparation and on the spot,” Miller said. “He worked from both the big picture of the theoretical problem and the small scale of the individual object. He loved being part of a team that could change the world, and he would lead such a team again and again over the course of his long, happy, and productive life.”

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