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Mayanist of the Month – May 2018 – Tatiana Proskouriakoff

The first in a monthly series that commemorates the female pioneers of Maya studies

In Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Lara Croft will be putting her knowledge of Maya mythology and archaeology to the test as she races against time to save the world from impending doom. To celebrate the game’s upcoming release, I will be paying tribute to some of the greatest female Mayanists in a new monthly series of articles, simply titled “Mayanist of the Month”.

The study of Mesoamerica’s Maya civilisation has attracted scholars from a variety of social and academic backgrounds. From Victorian-era artists to modern-day anthropologists and epigraphers, women have been responsible for some of the field’s most significant developments and discoveries, achievements I plan to showcase throughout the course of this monthly series.

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Our first Mayanist of the Month is the Russian-born archaeologist and epigrapher, Tatiana Proskouriakoff (1909-1985).

Tatiana Proskouriakoff was born in the Siberian city of Tomsk in January 1909 to physician Alla Nekrassova and her chemist husband, Avenir Proskouriakoff, and showed a talent for art and languages from an early age. In 1915, the Proskouriakoff family moved to the United States when Tatiana’s father was asked to oversee the production of munitions for Russia’s WWI war efforts; the family chose to stay in their adoptive country following the outbreak of the Russian Revolution two years later.

Tatiana Proskouriakoff

Tatiana Proskouriakoff (Image credit: Unknown)

A gifted scholar and artist, Tatiana went on to study for a degree in architecture at Pennsylvania State College (what is today’s Pennsylvania State University) and graduated in 1930, as the only woman in her class, no less. But her promising career in architecture was cut short; Tatiana graduated during the early years of the Great Depression and architecture jobs were in short supply. Instead, the aspiring architect worked for a short time as a clerk before landing a position that change her life – and the study of Maya civilisation – forever.

Drawing on her skills as an architect and artist, Tatiana volunteered her services by preparing sketches for the University of Pennsylvania’s Classics department in exchange for access to the university library. Her impressive art skills soon caught the eye of archaeologist Linton Satterthwaite (1897-1978), a Maya expert who was overseeing the excavations at the Piedras Negras site in northeastern Guatemala. He was so taken with the painstaking accuracy and detail of her sketches that he invited her to join the university’s 1936 expedition to Piedras Negras, thus launching Tatiana’s long and fruitful career as a Mayanist.

Although she lacked formal training as an archaeologist, Tatiana soon learned the ropes and got a feel for archaeological field work. And while she had abandoned hope of pursuing a career in architecture, her draftsman training allowed her to identify key aspects of Maya architecture and visualise what the crumbling structures at Piedras Negras may have looked like in their heyday.

Tatiana Proskouriakoff's reconstruction of Uaxactun, Guatemala

Tatiana Proskouriakoff’s reconstruction of Uaxactun, Guatemala (Image credit: Mesoweb)

Tatiana’s reconstruction drawing of the Piedras Negras Acropolis attracted the attention of Sylvanus Griswold Morley (1883-1948), an epigrapher and Maya archaeologist working for the Carnegie Institution of Washington. Morley recognised the budding Mayanist’s potential and helped raise funds to send Tatiana to Copán, Uxmal, Chichén Itzá, and other sites across Honduras and Mexico, where she produced a series of drawings that would later be published by the institution in the 1946 volume, An Album of Maya Architecture.

Shortly after completing her assignment, Tatiana was offered a research associate position at the Carnegie Institution of Washington and went on to publish a second book, A Study of Classic Maya Sculpture (1950), which was an in-depth study of the evolution of Maya art and iconography across several centuries. From then on, Tatiana’s focus shifted away from the study of Maya architecture to epigraphy, where she was to play a pivotal role in the decipherment of the Maya written language.

Building on the groundwork laid by fellow epigrapher Yuri Knorozov (1922-1999), who argued that Maya glyphs had phonetic components, Tatiana set out to prove that the inscriptions found on Maya monuments and stelae were, in fact, historical records of their rulers and conquests. Up until then, the prevailing view was that the Maya had no written history, that the inscriptions found at Maya sites were purely religious in nature and dealt with the passage of time and other astronomical matters. The leading expert at the time, J.E.S. Thompson, refused to accept Knorozov’s theory that Maya script was logosyllabic and was dismissive of Tatiana’s “historical hypothesis”.

Tatiana was undeterred. She had already begun examining inscriptions from the Piedras Negras and Yaxchilan sites and by 1960, she had successfully identified the glyphs for “birth” and “accession”. This breakthrough opened the academic floodgates, proving that the Maya did record the lives and feats of their rulers and paving the way for the decipherment of centuries-old glyphs and texts. Maya history was slowly reclaimed from the mists of time and huge advancements were made in the field of Maya studies, all thanks to Tatiana’s pioneering research and her willingness to challenge the academic status quo.

Tatiana Proskouriakoff's memorial at Piedras Negras

Tatiana Proskouriakoff’s memorial plaque at Piedras Negras, which features the emblem glyph for that site (Image credit: Unknown)

A scholar till the end, Tatiana passed away on August 30, 1985, following a lengthy illness and her ashes were later buried at her beloved Piedras Negras. She never married or bore any children but she left behind a legacy and enjoyed an academic career that most modern-day Mayanists can only dream of.

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If you would like to learn more about Tatiana Proskouriakoff’s life and academic achievements, check out the list below or treat yourself to a copy of Char Solomon’s biography, Tatiana Proskouriakoff: Interpreting the Ancient Maya (Amazon / Amazon UK).

Sources & Further Reading

Click here for a full archive of “Mayanist of the Month” articles!


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About Kelly M (424 Articles)
Kelly M is a translator, blogger, and gamer with a passion for archaeology, languages, and wildlife conservation. Tweets under the username @TombRaiderArch and is the admin and chief content creator for The Archaeology of Tomb Raider.
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