Marvelous Monday Archaeologist of the Week – Tatiana Proskouriakoff

June 1, 2009

Tatiana Proskouriakoff (1909-1985), the expedition architect for Piedras Negras in 1936. Penn Museum image #37401
Tatiana Proskouriakoff (23 Jan. 1909-30 Aug. 1985), the expedition architect for Piedras Negras in 1936. Penn Museum image #37401

I don’t know much about Maya hieroglyphs, but I do know that Tatiana Proskouriakoff was, by every measure, a badass. Proskouriakoff was born in Tomsk, Siberia, the daughter of aristocrats. The family traveled to the United States in late 1915, when her father was sent to supervise the manufacture and sale of weapons to Russia. When the Russian Revolution broke out, the family elected to remain in their adoptive country. Tatiana Proskouriakoff attended Pennsylvania State University and graduated in 1930 with a bachelor of science degree in architecture. Though she never pursued architecture as a profession, her training and artistic talents served her well.

Proskouriakoff struggled to find a job in architecture during the Great Depression. Attaining access to the Penn Museum, she volunteered to draw for one of the curators there. This work impressed the archaeologist Linton Satterthwaite, who invited Proskouriakoff to join his 1936 expedition to Piedras Negras in northwestern Guatemala. Piedras Negras was a classical site of Mayan ruins that Satterthwaite had been excavating for some time. Over the next few years Proskouriakoff produced a series of reconstructive drawings depicting ancient Mayan cities. Further expeditions and in-the-field drawings allowed her to study the diversity of the architectural styles in Honduras, Mexico, and Guatemala. Her famous sketches were first published as An Album of Maya Architecture (1946).

Proskouriakoff’s second book, A Study of Classic Maya Sculpture (1950), offered a formal analysis of the motifs of Mayan art. She developed the method of style dating stelae (freestanding carved stone monuments) that permitted the placement in time of all monuments with or without decipherable dates. She charted changes in art styles during a 600-year span.

Prior to her work with Mayan writings, the only texts that had been deciphered consisted of astronomical and calendrical information. Mayan epigraphy (the study of inscriptions) was stagnant; dates had been deciphered for sixty years, but their significance remained unknown. Proskouriakoff’s Historical Implication of a Pattern of Dates at Piedras Negras, Guatemala (1960) is regarded as her most important work. She showed that the inscriptions of Stela 14 from Piedras Negras described historical and biographical items from the lives of the Mayan people and their rulers. She identified the glyph that represented birth–an “upended” frog. This led to the recognition of birth and death glyphs, the name glyphs of the rulers, parentage information, the capture of enemies, and other aspects of Mayan lives. Modern scholars credit Proskouriakoff’s tireless, pioneering research in Mayan culture with deciphering age-old Mayan hieroglyphic writing. The Penn Museum archives houses the records of the expedition to Piedras Negras, including Proskouriakoff’s drawings.

Proskouriakoff later went on to become the honorary curator of Mayan art at the Peabody Museum of Harvard University. In 1962 she was awarded the fifth Alfred V. Kidder Medal for her discovery that the Classic Maya recorded their own dynastic histories. The Alfred V. Kidder Medal, which Proskouriakoff designed in 1950, is awarded for eminence in the field. She died in 1985 from a long illness in Cambridge, Massachusetts.