This irreverent dean of Mesoamerican studies challenges canons to reveal what lies behind the written word
Archaeologist Michael Coe is that rare scholar who avoids getting too fixed or entrenched in his opinions. His ideas constantly evolve in fresh ways because he remains receptive to a broad range of interpretations. Coe possesses the impeccable credentials of a veteran dirt archaeologist by dint of his historic excavations in the mid-1960s at the Olmec site of San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan in the Mexican state of Veracruz. He has also earned his spurs riding the academic range for thirty-five years as a professor of anthropology at Yale University and curator at the Peabody Museum in New Haven, Connecticut. As author of more than a dozen books on Mesoamerican archaeology, anthropology, and epigraphy, Coe has documented the revolutionary discoveries of his time and whetted the appetites of specialists and amateurs alike with definitive, highly readable texts like The Jaguar's Children (1965), The Maya (1966), and America's First Civilization: Discovering the Olmec (1968). But, despite all these impressive accomplishments, Coe never emerges as the myopic turf defender, frozen in his thinking, arrogant out of some belief that he's got it all right. Quite to the contrary, he embraces the paradox that says the more you know, the less you know. Challenging himself and colleagues alike to test weary assumptions, he hopes everyone will reconsider evidence as a beginner does - without preconditions.
As a boy growing up on the north coast of Long Island, New York, Coe took almost daily note of a phrase inscribed over the portal of the local high school. "The teachers must have resented it continuously. Most teachers would," Coe recalls. "But anyway, it said, 'Who dares to teach must never cease to learn.' I don't know where that comes from, but I've tried to remember that all my life. It's absolutely true!" Coe later made another pact with himself as a student at St. Paul's School, the stern prep school in Concord, New Hampshire. "There the teachers were your masters, and you called them sir! Thereafter, I promised myself I would always question authority. I wanted to be a writer, but Harvard, my next stop, wasn't strong on creative writing. Their brand of Johnsonian criticism wasn't for me, and I never managed grades much above a C. Then by chance, I went to Yucatan one Christmas in the late 1940s, and that was it! I said to hell with literature. Back at Harvard, at the Peabody Museum, the chairman of the Department of Anthropology informed me that nothing but straight A's would get me into graduate school, and without a doctoral degree I'd be finished. So I never worked harder in my life."
It was during graduate school in the late 1950s, especially after taking a seminar with Dr. Gordon R. Willey, that Coe became interested in the Pre-Classic (or Formative) cultures, especially the Olmec civilization (1800-200 B.C.). He fell under the powerful spell of Miguel Covarrubias, Alfonso Caso, and Matthew W. Stirling, all dedicated olmequistas convinced that the mysterious culture famous for its large stone heads and so-called were-jaguar iconography indeed predated the more famous Maya. "In those days," Coe explains, "the Carnegie Institution was right next to Harvard so I used to see these people, including Sir Eric Thompson, who was the dominant man in the field. Quickly I felt his ideas - that the Olmecs were late - were wrong. So I started researching that, and [in 1957] I wrote a paper. I got it published. It was an attack on Thompson. I had the nerve to do that. As it turned out, I was right and he was wrong." This pivotal event aside, Coe went on to write his doctoral dissertation on a pre-Olmec people who once lived on the Pacific coast of Guatemala, the Ocos (ca. 1800-1500 B.C.), based on excavations he conducted in 1957 and 1958 at a site called La Victoria. "They didn't have writing, but they produced some of the most complicated and beautiful pottery I've ever seen. These were big, big village cultures in which complex social organization first began in Mesoamerica. In fact, recently John Clark at Brigham Young University has done marvelous additional work on this. Ocos is a hot field right now."
Coe finished his doctoral dissertation in 1959 while teaching to some eight hundred students in a beginning anthropology course at the University of Tennessee. "Mainly I had all the football, baseball, and basketball players because the class was the biggest 'gut' at the school, at least it was until I was through with it." The next year Coe moved on to Yale, where he spent the remainder of his academic career. "I've always enjoyed teaching. I've had some wonderful graduate students...