Dr. Coe, Penn Museum

Dr. William R. Coe II, curator emeritus of the American Section of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, and professor emeritus in the anthropology department, passed away on November 23, 2009, at the age of 82.

An anthropologist and archaeologist trained at Penn (BA 1950, MA 1953, and PhD 1958), Dr. Coe joined the faculty of the department of anthropology as an assistant professor in 1959 and the Penn Museum as assistant curator that same year. He retired from the University in 1987.

Dr. Coe was best known for his role in the Museum’s archaeological investigation of the Classic Maya site of Tikal, in northern Guatemala, Central America. He joined the project as a young scholar in its first year, 1956, initiating the first excavations, starting his photographic record of artifacts, and organizing the catalog system, which has become a model for many others in the field. In 1963 he took over the directorship of the project’s field operations and continued in that capacity until 1970 when the site and the entire collection were formally turned over to the Guatemalan Institute of Anthropology and History. In 1964 he oversaw selection and installation of the excavations’ art objects at the newly-built Sylvanus G. Morley Museum at Tikal. The Government of Guatemala extended him the highest honor for his work at Tikal, membership in the Order of the Quetzal. Dr. Coe’s 1967 guidebook entitled Tikal: A Handbook of the Ancient Maya Ruins ran through many printings and editions and is still available at the ruins today.

Prior to his long-term commitment with the Tikal Project, Dr. Coe conducted excavations in Belize, Bolivia, and El Salvador. In 1971, after the close of the Tikal Project, he directed one season of investigation at the neighboring site of Tayasal. In 1973 Dr. Coe planned a new long-term project at Quirigua, Guatemala, jointly sponsored by the Penn Museum and the Guatemalan Institute of Anthropology and History. This project began in 1974, and Dr. Coe directed the first season of field excavations at Quirigua in 1975. This was his last field investigation. Dr. Coe devoted the remainder of his career to publishing the final reports of the Tikal Project.

Dr. Coe’s standing in the archaeological community was established by the completion and publication in 1990 of Tikal Report 14: Excavations in the Great Plaza, North Terrace and North Acropolis of Tikal. This six-volume report contains over one thousand pages of small-type text and 238 pen-and-ink drawings of excavation details. The work received immediate recognition as one of the most significant archaeological reports ever, matching in scale the 17 years of excavations that it documents, as well as the monumental achievements of the Classic Maya themselves. William Fash of Harvard University said in his review (American Anthropologist 94: 400-5. 1992): “The quantity and quality of time, and the dedication, respect, and courage required to produce this voluminous and tremendously informative report should serve as an inspiration, no less so a humbling lesson, to all those attempting work of this nature in the future.” For his achievements in archaeology, Dr. Coe was awarded the Drexel Medal by the Penn Museum in 1991.

Born in New York City, Dr. Coe was a long-time resident of Radnor, Pennsylvania.

Dr. Coe is survived by his brother, Michael D. Coe; and his son, William R. F. Coe.

Penn Museum will hold a memorial in his honor this winter. Inquiries may be sent to the Director’s Office of the Penn Museum. Donations in his memory to the Penn Museum will support the American Section Publications fund.