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Breaking the Maya Code Among the 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 decipherment; the realization that many small citystates were dominated by two rival giants, Tikal and Calakmul, through a potent combination of military conquest, diplomacy, and royal marriages Reviewed for The Bibliophibian.This book is, I’ll warn people right up front, also a history of how the Mayan specialists in the West failed to break the “Maya code” for far too long, due to petty jealousies and larger than life characters Quite often Coe sketches a minibiography of someone who was involved in the decipherment (oroften, the failure of decipherment); sometimes the biography isn’t so mini.Still, I think it’s better written than his other book on the Mayans, which I read not that long ago — it certainly worked better for me, anyhow Perhaps because there are glimpses of the scholars and larger than life characters who put in the work, erroneous though it often was.The book is illustrated, both with full reproductions and sketches For me, the fullpage spreads of Mayan characters were meaningless, but I’m sure it would appeal a lot to some people to be able to have a crack at it themselves I know I’m not visually inclined enough, so I tended to skip the examples and such, but they are there and I’m surevisually inclined people could pick out some of the features Coe discusses. This is a must read for students of MesoAmerican studies It gives the background on uncovering the meaning of the Glyphs and the efforts to thwart the deciphering by fellow archaeologists in the field most notably the revered (perhaps feared) Thompson The backgrounds on two of my professors: David Kelley and Peter Mathews was enlightening I had always favoured Kelley's correlation preference over Thompson's yet Coe (the author) sticks by Thompson when he was wrong in so many other areas (Thompson not Coe) And Coe is incorrect in his assertion that you have to read a language before you can write it In Arabic I learned to write it in a year yet still could not read it (because they leave out the vowels) Or take English I can't imagine reading it without having learned to make the letters one by one.The book offers insights as to how to decipher Mayan script but is not a primer Iton the steps and missteps attaining what Coe calls one of the most significant achievements in archaeology. 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 Maya, particularly the children, asking them where interesting things were Then, following the paths of generations of little kids, I would go into the jungle to the places the tourists never venture, the places without roads There, among other things, I found a cave with an island in it, and many square limestone structures, open on their sides, ranging in size from buildings a dozen feet tall to stupas the height of one's chest And, yes, of course, I also went to Tulum and Xelha and Coba and othertouristic sites, pretty much covering the coast from Cancun to the southern border with Belize, much of it on foot.Now, three trips and dozens of books into the matter, I'm an amateur student of the Maya, a culture at once so distant from ours and so close The conquest of it only happened 400500 years ago The paint on some of the ruins, compared to those of ancient Greece or Rome, is still fresh.One of the better introductory works on the Maya that I read was Coe's book by that title Published in 1966, it still looked at Mayan civilization as a mystery We could read their numerations, but not their language at that time This book, published in 1992, tells a very different and muchhopeful story, the written Mayan language having been substantially deciphered in the intervening years.Breaking the Maya Code is at once a history of the study of Mayan civilization and an explanation as to how their written language workedand why we took so very long to come around to understanding it The historical part of the book is very accessible, almost as exciting as a good mystery The linguistic part of the book tends to get technical, though the author does adequately explain things for the layperson. I was really excited to read this book; as a linguistics dork this sounded great The pseudoanthropologist in me felt his heart go pitterpat 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.

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