Archaeologist of the Month

Archaeologist of the Month: Tatiana Prokouriakoff (contributed by Megan Greenfelder)

Tatiana Proskouriakoff was born in Russia in 1909. In 1916, at the age of seven, Tatiana came to the US with her mother and sister. Until news of the Bolshevik Revolution reached them in 1917, her parents had planned to return to Russia after the war. Because of their ties to the old regime, they were effectively exiled.

In 1924, all four of the Proskouriakoffs became naturalized US citizens. Tatiana graduated from Lansdowne High School in 1926 and went on to attend Penn State studying architecture. She attained her B.A. in that major in June of 1930. Unable to find a job in her major, Tatiana worked as a salesgirl and a painter for a needlepoint designer before beginning to work on restoration drawings for the University of Pennsylvania Museum and the Carnegie Institute of Washington.

In 1936, Linton Swatterthwaite invited Tatiana to come out to Piedras Negras and draw a plan of the architecture at the site. Tatiana Proskouriakoff seems to be most remembered for her key contribution to the decipherment of Mayan. It is as a side note that her work in reconstructive drawings is mentioned in comprehensive histories of Maya archaeology, though they are the subject of her first major publication, the 1946 Album of Maya Architecture, and served as her introduction to the stelae which she would later study. Her second major contribution to the field of Maya archaeology was a stylistic dating system for the stelae, which allowed dating to within 30 years, published as A Study of Classic Maya Sculpture in 1950.

It was not until 1961 that her Historical Implication of a Pattern of Dates at Piedras Negras, Guatemala was published in American Antiquity. According to Solomon, the revolutionary idea that the stelae dates referred to events in the life of a ruler was so logical and so well supported by Tatiana's research that there was no backlash or debate within the archaeological community. She followed this with studies of the depiction of women in Maya art and glyphs, reconstructed and catalogued the jades recovered from the Cenote of Sacrifice at Chichen Itza, and at the time of her death, she was working on a history of the Maya.

Late in her life she was awarded many honors, including an honorary Doctorate of Laws from Tulane, a level of formal education which she never attained, though this did not prevent her lecturing at Harvard for many years.

Her work altered the course of Maya archaeology, from her reconstructive paintings to revelations about the very nature of Maya hieroglyphs and art. Her life and work have influenced many, and stand today as examples of excellence in creativity and originality.

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Page last modified May 31, 2017