Of all the brilliant minds that have lit up the firmament of ancient Maya studies, there is none that arouses as much admiration, inspiration, and outright devotion as Tatiana Proskouriakoff (1909–1985). Born in Russia, she came to the United States with her family in 1916 and stayed after the Russian revolution broke out. She obtained an architecture degree in 1931, but jobs were scarce. After volunteering at the Penn Museum preparing archaeological illustrations, she was invited to join the Museum’s excavations at the Maya site of Piedras Negras, Guatemala, in 1936. Her ability and her dedication to Maya studies eventually secured her positions at the Carnegie Institution in Washington, DC, and Harvard University, despite the fact that she never obtained a degree in the field.
Following her seminal studies on the architecture and sculpture of the Maya, Proskouriakoff made her greatest contribution by going against the current and discovering the true literary and historical nature of Maya hieroglyphic writing which, apart from numbers and the calendar, had been previously deemed impossible to decipher. She thus paved the way for the renaissance of Maya studies that continues to this day. Proskouriakoff’s breakthrough in decipherment came while studying inscriptions from Piedras Negras. She was buried at the site in 1998.