Michael Coe, Maya Scholar and Codebreaker, Is Dead at 90


“He was always willing to take unpopular positions and prove them correct,” said Richard A. Diehl, professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Alabama, who was a graduate student when he began working with Dr. Coe in 1966.

Reviewing “The Art of the Maya Scribe” (1997), which Dr. Coe wrote with Justin Kerr, Souren Melikian said in The International Herald Tribune, “The moment you open the book, you feel you have been handed keys to hitherto impenetrable secrets.”

Dr. Coe’s other books included “Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs” (1962), “The Maya” (1966), “The Maya Scribe and His World” (1973) and a memoir, “Final Report: An Archaeologist Excavates His Past” (2006). His book “Breaking the Maya Code” inspired a 2008 documentary.

After his wife, Sophie D. Coe, an anthropologist and food historian, died of cancer in 1994, Dr. Coe fulfilled his promise to finish her book “The True History of Chocolate.” It was published in 1996.

Michael Douglas Coe was born on May 14, 1929, in Manhattan and was raised on Planting Fields, a 400-acre estate in Oyster Bay, on Long Island; it is now a state park. His father, William Rogers Coe, was vice president of the Virginian Railroad and a grandson of Henry Huttleston Rogers, a founder of Standard Oil. His mother, Clover (Simonton) Coe, was a dress designer.

Michael originally hoped to become a writer. But at St. Paul’s School in Concord, N.H., as a prize for his religious studies work, he won a copy of “The Book of a Thousand Tongues,” which translated the gospel of St. Mark into multiple languages. The book propelled him toward the study of anthropology.

“It hooked me from the beginning,” he said in a memoir.

After graduating from St. Paul’s, he enrolled at Harvard, where, he later said, he couldn’t find a relevant creative writing course. Then, while on a family vacation to the Yucatán, he toured the ancient Maya ruins at Chichen Itza and was mesmerized by the mysterious wall paintings and hieroglyphs he found there. When he returned to college, he switched his major from English literature to anthropology. He graduated in 1950.

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