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The story of one of archaeology’s greatest trailblazers, Tatiana Proskouriakoff

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Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway. Sign up for the Yucatán Roundup, a free newsletter, which delivers the week's top headlines every Monday.
Tatiana Proskouriakoff is remembered for laying the foundation for understanding Mayan historical texts and reconstructing the political history of Mayan city-states. Photo: Courtesy

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. 

Tatiana Proskouriakoff in the ruins of the Mayan city of Piedras Negras. Photo: Courtesy

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.

Despite a boom in interest in the Maya civilization in the early 19th century, by the middle of the 20th century, Maya hieroglyphics were still considered to be largely impossible to decipher. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

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 1974, Tatiana Proskouriakoff prepared a catalog of 1,000 jade products from the sacred cenote Chichen Itza, kept in the Peabody Museum. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

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

During Proskouriakoff’s career, archaeology was still dominated by men, many of whom held extremely sexist beliefs. But in the end, her accomplishments spoke for themselves and she went on to be one of the most recognized archaeologists and epigraphers of her time. Photo: Courtesy

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.

Ilustration of Chichén Itza, Yucatán by Tatiana Proskouriakoff. Photo: Courtesy

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.

Mayan stelae provide epigraphers and archaeologists with a wealth of information about life in the ancient great city. Pictured, stelae 35 of Yaxchilán. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

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.

Tatiana Proskouriakoff’s final resting place in Piedras Negras Guatemala. Photo: Courtesy
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