BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Digging it ...

This is a book that I picked up at a “discount outlet” a few months back, when a friend let me know that the store was doing a special book sale (5 hardcovers or 10 paperbacks for a dollar), and I hopped on the El and got over there (actually, that might be very well be where I got a book, previously reviewed, for which I could not recall the source), only to find the pickings rather slim. This, however, is quite a gem!

I have a number of books by Michael D. Coe in my library, natural due to my long-time fascination with the Maya (his area of expertise), so finding his Final Report: An Archaeologist Excavates His Past in that setting was somewhat serendipitous. Needless to say, this is quite different from his other books, as this is his autobiography, sort of summing up his life (although he's still extant), which came out a decade ago (a note on the book itself: it doesn't have any signs, other than the slightest wear to the corners of the dust jacket, of having been read or even handled much, so would certainly be in the “like new” category). As I've been finding is the case in a lot of autobiographies of figures I thought “I knew”, I had a bit of a surprise here – I have another volume, a guide book to Tikal, by another Coe that had come out in the 60's, which significantly preceded most of the titles by Michael D. Coe in my library, and I'd always assumed that that was his father, and that Michael D. had grown up in the archaeology biz (possibly in the 50's). While the name of that Coe was the same as Coe's father, it was actually his brother, who, as it turns out, was also an archaeologist (and, oddly, gets only scant mentions here).

And, rather than growing up with a trowel in his hand, it would be closer to say it was a silver spoon in his mouth, his family having benefited from the “robber baron” era (I believe it was his grandfather who actually managed to profit on the Depression), and by the time Michael D. Coe arrived, they had houses and estates in various parts of the country, and he hobnobbed with the likes of Gloria Vanderbilt in his childhood.

To be perfectly honest, I spent much of this book gripped by pure, naked envy, both of his wealth and resources, and his career in archaeology. There's not much I could have done about the former (although I got a whiff of that from my Mother's close friendship with one of the Rockefeller granddaughters in my early years), but had very much wished for the latter. It's interesting how those sorts of things seem to be at the whims of fate, as in this book he muses what might have happened if a particular teacher had not been on leave, resulting in him getting into a different class that led him into anthropological studies, and my having assorted events happen that channeled me away from a life digging in ruins.

Because of my misconception of his biography, I was somewhat surprised to find that he was born in 1929 – so much of his youth was spent in what is very much “another world” just in basic culture, even without the upper-crust aspects. He, at an early age, was sent off to boarding school. He notes that he had pretty much taught himself to read, having paid attention as his mother was teaching his brother (3 years his senior) to read – there appears to have been a significant amount of sibling rivalry in this relationship. But, I'm getting ahead of myself somewhat here.

His family did not have “old money”, as his great-grandfather had brought over his young family, coming out of a situation that appears to have been the upper level of servants in an “Upstairs Downstairs” sort of environment in England. The initial chapters dig around in his forebearers' past, including a photo of a church graveyard on the upper reaches of the Thames in Bisham, Berskshire where a couple of generations are laid to rest. There's quite a bit on how his family got established here, resulting in substantial estates by the time of his grandfather (although much of the money came by marriage to a daughter of H.H. “Hell Hound” Rogers, a competitor with the likes of J.P. Morgan and J.D. Rockefeller). As one might expect, Coe was shuttled off to the most exclusive schools of the time … of which he has mixed recall … with some aspects being positive, and some not so much. Interestingly, it was winning an annual prize in the “Sacred Studies” program (the school was very “churchy”) that started him down his eventual path – the award was a book which featured some bible verse translated into over 1,000 languages, but also included “a thumb-nail sketch of each tribe or people who spoke that language, and in the native orthography”. This led him into questioning a lot of things, and eventually getting his hands on Sir James Fraser's famed Golden Bough which:
argued that all of my cherished beliefs about Christmas, Easter, and even the death and resurrection of Christ could all be explained as cultural responses to universal concerns, that Christianity was not fundamentally different from any other religious system, such as those of Classical times and even so-called primitive peoples.
He continues …
Taking Fraser in conjunction with the Darwinism that I had absorbed in biology, by the time I graduated SPS, I had become a complete agnostic and skeptic, and have remained so throughout my life.
He ended up going to Harvard, initially to get a “gentleman's C” in English literature, and was well on his way to coasting through when his family went on a vacation to the Yucatan, staying at the famed (and still-operating) Mayaland Lodge at Chichen Itza.
To me it was a revelation to roam the Castillo, the great Toltec-Maya pyramid; the round Caracol, Chichen's observatory; the Sacred Cenote; the so-called Nunnery with its mysterious inscriptions; and all the other buildings and reliefs. I knew little or nothing about the ancient Maya, but I burned to find out about them. When I returned to Harvard, I would … major in Maya archaeology!
Unfortunately, there wasn't such a major available, but he was guided into anthropology, and had to really apply himself his last two years to get caught up with that major and get his grades up enough to look plausible for moving into an advance degree.

Coe and his brother returned to the Yucatan in the summer between his junior and senior years to work on an excavation (and have some rather bizarre experiences with the locals and assorted resident expats), giving him some initial experience in the field. He ended up having what was likely (given that he was still scrambling to get his GPA up to snuff) a stroke of luck, as a major course that he had in his senior year was being taught by a visiting professor from University of Chicago, and – in something otherwise unheard of at Harvard – was giving an “open book” exam. Coe and a study partner, taking the prof at his word on this (with much of the rest of the class not believing in the possibility), bought comprehensive notes with them, and received A's (while many of their classmates ended up with C's).

Having graduated with honors, he was able to skip the graduation ceremony and head off on a European vacation, staying with his Uncle, and going on a driving trip with him and the writer Evelyn Waugh. I found the following of interest (geopolitically, at least):
It was 25 June, 1950, and we were sitting in a Stornoway pub quietly sipping our pints when the news came over the radio above the bar: the North Korean army had just invaded South Korea across the 38th Parallel. Stalin, Mao, and Kim Il Sung had gambled that the U.S. and its allies would do nothing about it. As I found out later from persons in a position to know, if President Truman had not committed American ground troops four days later, Stalin had fully intended to invade Western Europe. Mao already had all of China except Taiwan and some nondescript offshore islands on his hands.
Coe had been young enough to miss WW2, but was heading to graduate school when this hit. His father, who had spent some time at Annapolis, encouraged him to join the Navy, but a medical issue led to his failing the physical. However, soon after, he was tapped (as was frequently the case in top universities in that era) for a job in intelligence. Coe is nothing but positive about his time with the CIA (which had him stationed in Taiwan and some of those “nondescript islands” off the Chinese coast). Most of what he did seemed to be assessing and funneling information as it leaked out of the mainland, but what I found most interesting here was the way “secrecy” was obsessively maintained, both state-side, when he was being trained (there were whole government offices that were nothing but fronts for this), and the supposed import-export business he was working for in Asia. There were some fascinating “fly on the wall” bits of formal dinners with local notables (including General Chiang Kai-shek, as well as Mme. Chiang, who was instrumental in the intelligence program), but, aside from his connecting with some famed archaeologists who had escaped to Taiwan, not a lot that bears on his eventual career. After three years in “the Agency”, he eventually heads home, but takes a leisurely path through southeast Asia, which includes a visit to Angkor Wat … which enchants him, and leads him to eventually returning and producing a book on the site (ironically, in his 1954 visit he was within ear-shot of guerrilla action on the outskirts of the region, and when he returned in 1993 similar fighting could be heard as the UN-supported government was still dealing with hard-core remnants of the Khmer Rouge). On his return trip he also spends time in India and in Rome, the latter totally engaging him. He has some interesting stories of his family (an Aunt had married an Italian diplomat some decades before the war), and how they only barely survived the conflict (among other things, his Norse surname of “Coe” was frequently misconstrued as being a variant on “Cohen”, resulting in being sometimes targeted with official or casual antisemitism).

Almost immediately upon his return to Harvard, he is introduced to his eventual wife (whom, as a “blonde, blue-eyed Radcliffe student”, he was instantly smitten with), Sophie Dobzhansky, daughter of famed evolutionary biologist, Theodosius Dobzhansky, who had escaped Stalin's USSR to settle in at Columbia University. They seem to be an ideal couple, and her Russian roots come in quite handy at a number of points, especially in their 1989 visit to Leningrad to meet with noted linguist Yuri Valentinovich Knorosov, who had spent decades being dismissed by the archaeological orthodoxy for his “decoding” of the Mayan hieroglyphics (to which Coe devotes a book).

The bulk of the rest of Final Report is on assorted reminiscences of his career … which, while interesting in the full sweep of it, is general enough (or, perhaps from too personal a stance) to not have a lot of individual things screaming to get highlighted here. There were a few things that did catch my eye a bit, however. One was an early position at the University of Tennessee following his digging at the La Victoria site on Guatemala's Pacific coast (which he spent years in follow-up research on the materials obtained there). While he welcomed the Tennessee job (as it allowed for said work), he also got assigned to do “archaeological salvage” in the Cumberland Basin, soon to be flooded behind a new dam. There were thousands of Native American sites through the region, plus post-colonial ruins, and very little time to access these. Plus, the local environment was very much (a fact that he specifically notes) like what was encountered in the movie Deliverance. As an archaeologist who was very systematic on setting out dig grids, etc. in his other work, Coe was dismayed to find himself sometimes having to resort to bulldozing a later site to get down to an earlier cultural level.

Coe eventually gets a position at Yale, and is able to return to Guatemala (in Ocós, on the Mexican border), and eventually to San Lorenzo Teochtitlan (between Veracruz and Tabasco on Mexico's gulf coast) to do more work on the Olmec. While the narrative here is very engaging to “an armchair archaeologist” such as myself, it is very much on the nitty-gritty of dealing with locals, with the government, with logistics (especially notable in terms of the food – some weird stuff got served up to them!), the weather, etc., and I can well imagine that this would be just so much blah-blah-blah to many. Oh, and speaking of "weird stuff", at two separate points in the narrative (I don't recall which sites were involved), he all but makes a "UFO report", one featuring a daylight sighting, and one of a very strange light encountered at night … not exactly what I was expecting in the general flow of this!

However, one has to remember that this is an autobiography and so is about the author's life experience rather than particularly about the elements that are encountered in the course of living that life. This especially comes into play in a chapter pretty much dedicated to the author's family finding a “country house”, which could have been, I suspect, effectively covered from the reader's perspective in a few paragraphs. The book puts a magnifying glass on things that are of personal concern for Coe, and, perhaps, glosses over things that the antiquities fan might be specifically looking for.

The penultimate story here is of the above-noted trip to Russia, and the author's involvement with the whole debate over the Maya glyphs/language. Having previously read Coe's book on the subject, I found this quite illuminating (there had been significant shifts towards Knorosov's work in the 14 years separating that publication and this). It then deals with his retirement (and Sophie's death, and his efforts to finish the book that she had been working on), his return to Angkor Wat, and a number of other bits and pieces. Given that Final Report is 10 years old at this point (and Coe is still alive), I'm sure there's quite a bit that's happened that's not covered here (perhaps there will be a second edition at some point).

As I admitted to up top, there is quite a bit here that had me simmering with envy … as Coe's life has many elements that I wished for mine … which also means that I was approaching the material here with a lot more focused interest than others might be bringing to it. Did I like it? Yes! Will you like it? Well, that's something for you to gauge, I guess. Oddly (for a book that came out a decade ago), this is going for full-price via the on-line big boys, which leads me to think that it might still be available in the brick-and-mortar bookstores. Also, the new/used guys, while having copies, don't have them for particularly cheap, which makes me wonder if this has slipped into the “textbook” channel, although I have a hard time figuring what sort of a class would use this for a main book. Anyway, I liked it, if you have an interest in archaeology (or the Gilded Age) you might too, and it's out there to be had if this sounds like something you might want to read.

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Tags: book review
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