Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Tatiana Proskouriakoff

What does the name Tatiana suggest to you? A third century saint, or one of the last Grand Duchesses of Russia perhaps? How about Tatiana Proskouriakoff, a Russian-American Mayanist who made a breakthrough concerning Mayan writing and history.

Tatiana Proskouriakoff was born on January 23, 1909 in the river city of Tomsk, located along the Tom River in west central Siberian Russia. Her parents were Alla (nee Nekrassova) and Avenir Proskouriakoff.

Tatiana and her family moved to Philadelphia in 1915, and became permanent residents of the United States two years later, when the Russian Revolution began. In 1930, Tatiana graduated from Pennsylvania State University with a Bachelor's in architecture. However, she graduated during the Great Depression, and architects were not in great demand.

She then became an anthropology graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania. While there, she worked as a volunteer at the University Museum. In 1936, Tatiana was invited to go on an expedition to the Pedras Negras conducted by the museum. While there, her job included taking sketches reconstructing various ruins at such places as Tikal, Chiche'n-Itza and Yaxchilan. As she was making these sketches, she saw patterns in the Mayan glyphs.

After working in the field, Tatiana went to work at the Peabody Museum at Harvard University. A very methodical person, through carefully taken steps Tatiana figured out that the gylphs on stelae -- tall carved stone monuments -- were writing historical records. These records included things like war victories and coronations. One of her most important tools was an inventory she made of the different kinds of glyphs she saw on the stelae.

A leading Mayanist at the time, J. Eric Thompson, said that he didn't think Tatiana was right. In his eyes, stelae were dedicated to commemorating the passing of time. In fact, he felt it was a horrible idea to think that stelae could talk about things like kingship dates. He went so far as to say it was the same as if a tourist carved graffiti on the famous statue of David. He later changed his opinion however.

In 1971, Tatiana met with David Friedel, now another well-known Mayanist, when he was a first year graduate student. The next year, in the spring of 1972, David took a course from Tatiana -- a course described in the book "A Forest of Kings" as a "looking course". Tatiana taught David about Mayan gylphs in her basement office of the Peabody museum.

At the age of 76, Tatiana died August 30, 1985 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. During her life she wrote several books including:

Jade from the Cenote of Sacrifice
An Album of Maya Architecture (1946)
An Inscription on a Jade Probably Carved at Piedras Negras (1944)

Tatiana had also started on a book on Classic Maya history, but died before she could finish it. The work done on the book was edited by Rosemary Joyce, and published as "Maya History".

The New York Times: Tatiana Proskouriakoff Dies; Key Figure in Mayan Studies

Tatiana Proskouriakoff; Char Solomon; 2002

Harvard University Library OASIS: Proskouriakoff, Tatiana, 1909 - 1985.

"A Forest of Kings"; Linda Schele, David Friedel; 1990

University of Texas Press: Maya History

Penn Museum: The Hand of Fate in Tatiana Proskouriakoff's Career

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