Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Books: A Mayanist's Mayanist Volume 56 Number 1, January/February 2003
by Traci Ardren

[image]Proskouriakoff, shown here at El Tajín, Veracruz, Mexico, continues to inspire Mayanists. (Courtesy Mike Beetem) [LARGER IMAGE]

No scholar is more beloved by Mayanists than Tatiana Proskouriakoff, the Russian-born archaeologist and artist whose reconstruction drawings of sites such as Piedras Negras and Copán are world famous. Proskouriakoff pioneered the role of artist-turned-scholar, later taken up by the likes of Merle Greene Robertson and Linda Schele, by publishing some of the first explanations of the historical meaning of Maya hieroglyphs. A new biography of this amazing scholar, Tatiana Proskouriakoff: Interpreting the Ancient Maya (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002; $34.95), is sure to fascinate readers; author Char Solomon worked for several months with Proskouriakoff at her Peabody Museum laboratory. Born in Siberia in 1909 to an aristocratic family known for its strong women, a precocious Proskouriakoff was reading newspapers at the age of three. Her family left Russia for the United States when she was seven. Proskouriakoff made only one trip back to her native country, when she met with the Russian Maya epigrapher Yuri Knorosov, an interview complete with a KGB observer, in 1970.

A single-minded desire to learn about the past led a young Proskouriakoff to volunteer at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, drafting artifacts and maps in exchange for library privileges. Her exceptional skill attracted the attention of archaeologist Linton Satterthwaite, who invited her to join his expedition to Piedras Negras, setting in motion the classic archaeological fairy tale of the volunteer turned brilliant scholar.

Her work is universally respected, but Proskouriakoff often doubted herself and struggled with depression. Though she never married, personal diaries reveal she maintained complex relationships with fellow archaeologists Gustav Stromsvik and Harry Pollock, though ultimately Proskouriakoff felt she had "escaped personal happiness." Filled with a large supporting cast of colorful characters and absorbing details of early archaeological expeditions to the Maya world, Interpreting the Ancient Maya wins over the reader with a compelling portrait of one of archaeology's most important early personalities.

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© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America