University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

One Woman’s Efforts to Celebrate Women’s History

July 1, 2015

Robyn Young with Maya stela.
Robyn Young stands beside a Maya stela in the Museum’s Mexico and Central America Gallery.

Robyn Young, who visited Senior Archivist Alex Pezzati and me at the Museum in mid-June, is on a singular mission: to bring the stories and accomplishments of Pennsylvania’s women into the broader conversation of Pennsylvania history. A few years ago, when she did an informal review of the approximately 1,600 official historical markers throughout the state, she found only about 200 of them were about women. She was and is determined to change that, one carefully researched woman at a time, by nominating, and raising the funds for, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission historical markers detailing the strengths and accomplishments of Pennsylvania women. Sending proposals for markers to Harrisburg since 2001, she has to date had 14 submissions approved. Nine are up, and five—including a marker for renowned Mayanist Tatiana Proskouriakoff, who got her start at the Penn Museum—go up soon.

It’s a labor of love for Robyn, a paralegal by profession, who puts in at least 15 hours a week on her personal project. “I have not watched TV since 1994. I spend my free time reading about women’s history, traveling to women’s homes and local historical societies and libraries, always looking for more on a woman I am researching.”

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

Researching important yet often little-known women, Robyn came upon information about Tatiana Proskouriakoff—a Russian-born American scholar, a gifted artist, and student of architecture, who found her way to the Penn Museum shortly after graduating college in 1930. It was through the Museum that she made her first trip to Maya country—to the site of Piedras Negras in Guatemala—and began a long career in Maya studies that would ultimately have an indelible impact on the field in general, and the reading of Maya hieroglyphs in particular.

Tatiana Proskouriakoff was raised in Lansdowne, Pennsylvania, and Robyn came across her name and house listing on a Walking Tour of Lansdowne she discovered and printed out around 2008, though she didn’t begin to research her life until four years later, when she found a biography, Tatiana Proskouriakoff: Interpreting the Ancient Maya, by Char Solomon, 2002.  “After I read her biography, I just knew I had a marker quality lady!”

I learned of Robyn’s extraordinary volunteer efforts, and her discovery of Tatiana Proskouriakoff, thanks to an editorial that she wrote for Inspired by her all-volunteer efforts, I connected with her, and, learning that she had never been to the Penn Museum, invited her to come see a bit of the behind-the-scenes where Tania, as her friends called Tatiana, got her start.

Most staff at the Museum know the story of how Tatiana, using a famous Maya stela from Piedras Negras that takes center stage in our Mexico and Central America Gallery, was able to do what no other Mayanist had done before, or even thought was possible—“crack the code” and read, beyond the number system, the stories of the Maya written in hieroglyphs. Walking with Robyn towards the Museum Archives, I stopped in front of the stela with Robyn, who cupped her hand to her mouth and gasped. Here was tangible evidence of the stories she had long researched.

Robyn Young and Alex Pezzati look at Tatiana Proskouriakoff’s sketches in the Museum Archives.

In the Archives, Alex and Robyn had an animated discussion, as Alex showed her some of the exceptional, detailed original drawings Tatiana had rendered early in her career. Here was work that drew upon Tatiana’s strong architectural training, but also had something more—a creative touch that reanimated the world of the ancient Maya.

Alex had one surprise in store for Robyn; we took the windy staircase up to the third floor offices where the young Mayanist-in-training had long ago worked. Here, old American Section office spaces included a well-used wooden drafting table and a wooden stool carved with the words:

T.A.P.   Personal Property
Jan. 1937

Tatiana Proskouriakoff’s inscribed chair:
T.A.P. Personal Property
Jan. 1937

A New Marker and a Celebration to Mark It

On Saturday, August 1, 2015, at 12 noon, there is a public dedication ceremony of the new Pennsylvania historical marker to honor Tatiana Proskouriakoff (1909-1985).

The dedication ceremony and unveiling of the new marker, approved by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, takes place on the corner of Fairview Avenue and South Lansdowne Avenue south of Lansdowne train station. Penn Museum Senior Archivist Alessandro Pezzati, biographer Char Solomon, and Robyn Young will be among the speakers.

Pam Kosty is the Public Relations Director at the Penn Museum. She will be at the marker dedication, to be sure!

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