The Hand of Fate in Tatiana Proskouriakoff’s Career

From the Archives

By: Alex Pezzati

Originally Published in 2001

View PDF

"The acropolis at Piedras Negras. Restored view." Watercolor by Tatiana Proskouriakoff, 1939. UPM neg. T4-206"
“The acropolis at Piedras Negras. Restored view.” Watercolor by Tatiana Proskouriakoff, 1939. UPM neg. T4-206″

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). After 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.

Throne room structure J-11, Piedras Negras, Guatemala. Tatiana Proskouriakoff and Sixto Laines taking measurements. 1936 UPM neg. S5-17235
Throne room structure J-11, Piedras Negras, Guatemala. Tatiana Proskouriakoff and Sixto Laines taking measurements. 1936 UPM neg. S5-17235

Fate played a crucial role in Proskouriakoff career choice. Born in Tomsk, Siberia, she came to the United States with her family in 19I6, when her father, an engineer, was sent here on a government mission. The Russian revolution made their stay a permanent one. In 1930, Ta­tiana obtained a B.S. degree in Architecture from Pennsylvania State University. The Great Depression made finding a job hard, so she en­rolled in graduate studies in anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, and volunteered at the University Museum where she prepared archaeological illustrations. The common lore is that after working with Linton Satterthwaite, Assistant Curator of the American Section, Proskouriakoff 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.

However, a recently discovered news clipping from the Philadelphia Ledger dated December 9, 1930, reveals that Proskouriakoff’s archaeologi­cal career could have taken a very different path. When she learned that the Museum was out­fitting an archaeological expedition to Persia (modern Iran), she applied for the position of architect on the project. Thirty other students applied for the job. but she was the only woman. The article states that “Men only will accompany the expedition, a fact which barred the partic­ipation of the one woman contestant, Tatiana Proskouriakoff,…who, though well qualified for the work, could not be accepted.” In addition, the story noted that “the successful contestant must be one-third architect, one-third sur­veyor, and one-third red-blooded American.” Her Russian heritage became another factor that kept her from the job.

"Preliminary Sketch for Ball-Court; Piedras Negras Structures K-6 and K-5." Pencil drawing by Taitiana Proskouriakoff, ca. 1939. UPM Archives, Piedras Negras Expedition Records"
“Preliminary Sketch for Ball-Court; Piedras Negras Structures K-6 and K-5.” Pencil drawing by Taitiana Proskouriakoff, ca. 1939. UPM Archives, Piedras Negras Expedition Records”

If Proskouriakoff had obtained the position on the Museum’s Persian Expedition (the first archaeological excavation by Americans in Iran), she might have continued in that field and con­tributed as much to it as she did to the study of the ancient Maya. In any event, Mayanists are lucky that the prejudices of one group of archaeologists became a blessing for them.

Alex Pezzati
Interim Senior Archivist

Cite This Article

Pezzati, Alex. "The Hand of Fate in Tatiana Proskouriakoff’s Career." Expedition Magazine 43, no. 3 (November, 2001): -. Accessed April 13, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/the-hand-of-fate-in-tatiana-proskouriakoffs-career/


This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

Report problems and issues to digitalmedia@pennmuseum.org.