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The Americas 59.1 (2002) 147-148

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The Decipherment of Ancient Maya Writing. Edited by Stephen Houston, Oswaldo Chinchilla Mazariegos, and David Stuart. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2001. Pp. xx, 551. Illustrations. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $65.00 paper.

Anyone interested in the tale of the decipherment of Maya hieroglyphs (as the script is popularly known) has probably read Michael Coe's Breaking the Maya Code (1992), and thus may wonder what Decipherment has to say that is new, especially as this volume declares at the start that it, like Coe's book, "does not stand as a description of this rich ancient script" (p. 3). Stephen Houston and his fellow editors are aware that readers may question the need for their book, and they point out that it was conceived before Coe's was published. They also argue that Coe "inspired a useful and informative debate" (p. 4) that actually provides further rationale for this volume's existence. In addition, the editors suggest that whereas Coe offers "a history of Maya decipherment per se," their "compilation represents the pieces of a history of ideas" (p. xvii). In my view, this is a small distinction; both are intellectual histories of the decipherment of Maya hieroglyphs, albeit articulated through different formats. But no matter; the reader needs only to begin reading the book to see how far it is from being redundant.

The collection of material in Decipherment is so rich that one could write reams on the book. I shall restrict my comments to three aspects of the book, observed within the context of a comparison with Coe's Maya Code. First, two of the editors of the volume, Stephen Houston and David Stuart, are among the dozen top Maya epigraphers in the world (and that is a conservative evaluation). Coe's record is also extremely noteworthy, but Houston and Stuart make a formidable team that appears to have benefited considerably from their collaboration with Guatemalan scholar Oswaldo Chinchilla Mazariegos.

Second, Coe adopted the tone of a biographical essayist, deciding for his readers who would be the heroes and the villains of his narrative; Houston, Chinchilla Mazariegos, and Stuart (hereafter HCS) allow readers to make their own judgments, or to suspend them, by presenting forty-eight articles and excerpts by the professionals and amateurs who have played roles in this fascinating story. These range from a few paragraphs written by Peter Martyr in 1519 (translated from Latin) to a 1990 article by Nikolai Grube on the decipherment of glyph T68:586 (translated from German). In between are not only scholars such as Coe, Stuart, and Houston themselves, but also Spanish clerics, a Maya nobleman, French antiquarians, businessmen, and gold prospectors. The range and diversity of ingredients makes for a rich stew indeed, permitting the reader to find satisfaction either by dipping in to taste an excerpt here and there, or by tucking in to digest the whole concoction.

Third, Coe's book is a good length, one appropriate to its genre, but HCS's compilation offers an impressive quantity of material; the text is five hundred pages long, with an additional fifty pages of end matter. Furthermore, every source ("chapter") has its own introduction and every cluster of sources (or "part," of which there are seven) is also introduced; these editorial introductions provide clear and valuable context. [End Page 147]

This brings me to the two minor quibbles that I have. Although the introductions to the parts and chapters are well executed, they tend to be no more than two pages and half a page respectively, leaving this reader hungry, or at least peckish, for more commentary, even in the form of notes (of which there are none on the sources themselves). This may be more of a tribute to the attraction of the volume than a criticism of it. My other quibble relates to the quality of the illustrations, some of which have a photocopied look and could be larger and crisper; above all (and here we enter into admittedly pedantic territory) the use of editorial drawings of the glyphs in Landa'...


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