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A Life in Ruins Volume 59 Number 3, May/June 2006
by Teresa Dombach

Small things have had a big impact on the life of pioneering Mesoamerican archaeologist Michael Coe, according to his autobiography, Final Report: An Archaeologist Excavates His Past (Thames & Hudson, $29.95). A brief trip to the Maya ruins at Chichén Itzá in his sophomore year of college led Coe out of his malaria-free life as a wealthy slacker and set him on a career path to uncover the past cultures of Mesoamerica. His life took another turn during a lab exercise where he met his wife, Sophie Dobzhansky, the daughter of evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky, as the two of them were measuring the volume of some skulls by filling them with mustard seeds.

Final Report

Coe's story moves seamlessly between his personal and scientific life and unfolds in a series of anecdotes starting with his childhood on Long Island, New York, leading to some pivotal moments in early Maya studies. His intimate storytelling style puts the reader at the site with him when he discovers the colossal Olmec heads at San Lorenzo, and behind the desk with him when he and his graduate students make the first translation of what is now called the Primary Standard Sequence, a series of glyphs that tell the Maya creation story and provide a cultural link between the modern Maya and their ancestors 2,000 years ago.

Coe does not attempt to make the book a report of archaeological discoveries. He does, however, enjoy the prerogative of a man who has outlived his rivals, and takes a few parting shots at colleagues who are unlikely to defend themselves from beyond the grave. The real value of this autobiography is that it shows what journal articles leave out: the human element of scientific research, and how the pursuit of knowledge can enrich a life. As Coe puts it, "I've been digging into my past and this is my report on what I've found."

Teresa Dombach is a graduate student in archaeology at State University of New York, Stony Brook.

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© 2006 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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