How Tatiana Proskouriakoff Revolutionized Mayanist Studies

Tatiana Proskouriakoff’s story took her from imperial Siberia all the way to the jungles of Mexico and Guatemala, and into the anthropological history books. Her insights would make great advances in our understanding of Mayan history and culture. This is her story in a (very small) nutshell.

A Twist of Fate

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Image credit: Penn Museum

Proskouriakoff was born in 1909 in czarist Siberia, daughter of a chemist and a physician. At the onset of World War I, the family was moved to the U.S. so that her father (the chemist) could oversee munitions production for the army- but when the Czar was overthrown in the Russian Revolution in 1917, the family was forced to stay and settled in Pennsylvania.

Turning Back Time

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Acropolis at Piedras Negras. Image credit: Penn Museum

Proskouriakoff grew up to study architecture at the University of Pennsylvania at the undergraduate, then graduate, level. This is where she began making her first contributions to the historical record. During her graduate studies, she was invited to join archaeologists on an investigation of the Piedras negras site in Mexico. On this, and eventually subsequent trips to this and other sites, she used her knowledge of architecture and her keen intuition to draw impressively accurate visual reproductions of the Mayan structures in their original state. These drawings reveal the ancient cities in all their precision and magnificence- and are still considered by many to be the best ever made.

But that’s only half the reason Proskouriakoff is included in this article. In the 1940s she would proceed to revolutionize the world’s understanding of Mayan writing as well. Mayan buildings, like Egyptian pyramids and other ancient sites, were not just buildings- they were living libraries covered in glyphs and images with rich and timeless stories to tell. These heiroglyphs must have been too intriguing for Tatiana’s curious mind to resist.

Competing Theories

At the time, there were two competing theories of Mayan writing: One school thought that the language was alphabetic (each glyph stands for a letter of a Mayan alphabet just like English). The other camp proposed a syllabic language (one in which each glyph represents a certain sound or pair of letters). As for the subject matter of the inscriptions, however, both sides seem to have agreed that most Mayan writings were about astrology or metaphysics- essentially religious or shamanic in nature.

A Legacy in Stone

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Stela from Takal’ik Ab’aj

Proskouriakoff was to set the record straight on both topics. While inspecting Mayan glyphs, she realized that the patterns and spacing of symbols could relate not to astrological cycles or mythological events, but to the lifetime of a human being. She did so by building on the syllabic theory of Mayan text (thereby validating it). Every so often there was a certain symbol that she came to understand meant “birth” or “was born”. Similarly, there were symbols for “acceded the throne” and “death”. There were also symbols that varied from one phrase to the next. Proskouriakoff figured these must be names… Breakthrough! These symbols showed a pattern that seemed to relate the lifetimes of seven Mayan rulers who held the throne, one after the other, for about two hundred years. The Mayans were not relating mythic stories or high-minded astrological theories, they  were recording their own history for us all to see, if we could just learn to read it! With the proper context, Mayanists around the world could go on to decipher many more texts containing these and other glyphs.

Proskouriakoff lived to age 76 and is , quite poetically, buried at the top of the Acropolis at Piedras Negras (where there is a plaque honoring her life and work).

So, for her contribution to Mayan studies and the great human history project, in both the realm of architecture and the realm of linguistics, on this International Women’s Day Recreational Thinker recognizes Tatiana Proskouriakoff.

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