The following is an article excerpt from the Spring 2020 Issue of American Archaeology Magazine. Become a member to subscribe and read the full story!
By Tamara Jager Stewart
With the passing of Michael Coe at age ninety in October 2019, the world lost one of the foremost scholars of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. “His breadth of interests was astonishing—from astronomy to beekeeping to Zuni culture and everything in between—but even more remarkable was his unflagging enthusiasm,” said his youngest child, Natalie Coe. “Even at age 90, he was pursuing new interests.”
Michael Coe (center) with archaeologists Stephen Houston, Richard Diehl, and Maria del Carmen Rodriguez at El Manatí, an Olmec site in Veracruz, Mexico in 2006. | Credit: Karl Taube
Poncianco Ortíz, Coe, and Stephen Houston examine early ceramics from the San Lorenzo region in Veracruz in 2006. | Credit: Karl Taub
Coe stands next to the Charles W. Morgan, the last surviving wooden whaling ship.
Coe was planning to write a book about whaling; his great-great-grandfather, Peleg W. Gifford, was a whaling captain who captained ships similar to the Charles W. Morgan. | Credit: Natalie Coe
Coe (second from left), Diehl (far right), and Diehl’s wife pose with members of the San Lorenzo archaeological team. | Credit: Michael D. Coe Estate
Coe looks out a window of a building in the ancient city of Angkor in Cambodia. |
Michael Douglas Coe served as instructor and professor of anthropology at Yale University from 1960 to 1994, and he was curator of the Peabody Museum of Natural History from 1968 to 1994. He was an advisor at the Center for Pre-Columbian Studies at Dumbarton Oaks and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. He earned the Tatiana Proskouriakoff Award from Harvard for distinction in Mesoamerican research as well as the Order of the Quetzal, the Guatemalan government’s highest honor, for his numerous publications about the Maya. “I have always been fascinated by exotic people, their languages, and their writing systems,” Coe wrote in his 2006 autobiography Final Report.
Coe was born in Manhattan and grew up in a wealthy family in Oyster Bay, New York. At age seven, he was sent off to the Fay boarding school in New England. He spent his summers at his grandfather’s spacious ranch in Wyoming, which he said were “the happiest days of my youth,” and led to his becoming a “lifelong outdoorsman.” He vowed to become a cowboy when he grew up and to never leave Wyoming, a vow he broke when he enrolled in Harvard as an English major.
Coe saw his first Maya sites during family visits to the Yucatán region of Mexico. “I knew little or nothing about the ancient Maya, but I burned to find out about them,” he wrote. “When I returned to Harvard, I would scrap English literature and major in Maya archaeology.”