Tatiana Proskouriakoff was born in 1909 in Russia during the final decade of its grand imperial period. As a child, she moved to the United States with her family in 1916. In 1924 her family was granted American citizenship, and Tatiana would go on to study architecture in Pennsylvania.
But Proskouriakof is best remembered not as an architect, but as one of the most influential early Mayanist and epigraphers of the 20 century. While still a student, Proskouriakoff prepared archeological illustrations as a volunteer at the University Museum. Her skills and attention to detail landed her a spot in 1936 to take part in an expedition to Guatemala. During this expedition, she would study and illustrate the remains of the ancient Mayan City of Piedras Negras — a trip that would shape the rest of her life and career.
In 1942 she conducted a scholarly analysis of the hieroglyphics at the Takalik Abaj ruins in Guatemala and established that the site was in part Maya, settling what had been an ongoing debate at the time.
Intrigued by the almost entirely indecipherable Mayan hieroglyphs she saw in Guatemala, she decided to again travel to Mesoamerica, this time to Chichén Itzá. In Yucatán, she continued her research and began to diligently work towards the goal of coming to understand the beautiful yet mysterious writing system of the Maya.
In 1940, Proskouriakoff was working for the Carnegie Institute when she developed a method to accurately date Mayan monuments based on the peculiarities of their architectural features. At around the same time she returned to Yucatán once again, this time to take part in excavations at Mayapán.
In the 1960s, Proskouriakoff would shock the international scientific community by publishing a paper detailing her method to decipher the writing system of the classical Maya. Her breakthrough came while researching the chronology of changing styles of Maya sculpture. She discovered that the dates shown on monumental stelae were actually historical and recorded important dates such as births, coronation, and death of important nobles.
Analyzing the pattern of dates and hieroglyphs, she was able to demonstrate a sequence of seven rulers over a span of 200 years. Knowing the context of the inscriptions, Maya epigraphers were then able to decipher the hieroglyphs.
Her discovery landed her a position as honorary curator of Mayan art at the Peabody Museum. She continued to publish her discoveries until her retirement in 1977. Proskouriakoff died in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on Aug. 30, 1985, at the age of 76. For her discoveries, in 1984 she was posthumously awarded the Order of the Quetzal, the most prestigious award granted by the Guatemalan Government.
In 1998 her close friend and colleague David Stuart carried Tatiana’s ashes to Piedras Negras. There near the banks of the mighty Usumacinta river, her ashes were interred at the summit of the Acropolis, the group of structures in Tania’s first and perhaps most famous reconstruction drawing, the same one that launched her career.