A Brief Look at Proskouriakoff's Life

Tatiana Proskouriakoff was a pioneering woman in the field of Maya archaeology. She devoted her career to interpreting the art, architecture, and hieroglyphic writing system of the ancient Maya. I had the privilege of knowing and working for her as a volunteer assistant from 1972-'73 in her basement office at Harvard's Peabody Musuem of Archaeology and Anthropology. She shared many stories of her life with me as I sat across from her typing up notes for her 1974 publication Jades from the Cenote of Sacrifice, Chichen Itza. These stories helped inform and inspire me as I began work on her biography in 1996.

Born in Siberia during a turbulent period in Russian history, Tatiana Proskouriakoff came to America with her family when her father was commissioned during World War I by Czar Nicholas II to oversee the production of munitions in the United States. With the Czar's abdication and the onset of the revolution, the Proskouriakoffs were unable to return to their homeland. They settled in the Philadelphia area which attracted a large number of the displaced Russian intelligentsia. Inspired by her aunt, she excelled in art and completed a degree in architecture from the engineering department at Pennsylvania State College. She entered the field of Maya archaeology in the mid-1930s as a drafts person, surveyor and artist for a University of Pennsylvania archaeological project at Piedras Negras in the Peten rainforest of Guatemala, and was later employed by the Carnegie Institution of Washington. Her work at Harvard's Peabody Museum included teaching and mentoring a number of outstanding young women who have gone on to make major contributions in the field of Maya archaeology. During her fifty-year career, Proskouriakoff became known for maintaining extremely rigorous standards in all her research and scholarship. In her landmark work, An Album of Maya Architecture, Proskouriakoff combined her artistic talents and architectural background to produce a vision of ancient Maya sites, such as Copan and Chichen Itza, at the height of their grandeur. By the end of her life, she had become one of the premier scholars of Mayan civilization, receiving some of the field's highest awards. In my biography of Proskouriakoff, which was published in 2002, I have chronicled the life of this remarkable woman.

Several films have explored Proskouriakoff's impact on this field: one by National Geographic for which I was interviewed titled "Code of the Maya Kings," and more recently, "Breaking the Maya Code," by David LeBrun and Nightfire Films which aired on PBS' Nova series. In May 2009, California State University hosted a Mesoamerican conference as an homage to Proskouriakoff. It honored the centennial of her birth in Tomsk, Siberia January 23, 1909. Another documentary by Paulo Chavarria of Flimmer Films documents the life and work of Mayanist Gustav Stromsvik, lifelong friend and colleague of Proskouriakoff. My interview was included in the final film which aired on Norwegian public television. A Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission marker in honor of Proskouriakoff's life and work was placed one block from the home in Lansdowne, PA where she moved with her parents in 1921.
There is a new book written by Robyn S. Young titled Women in Penn's Woods: A History of Women in Pennsylvania. It includes short bios of women over the centuries who have made significant contributions during their lives in many fields. Because of the years that the Proskouriakoff family made their home in Lansdowne, PA, and for her outstanding career in Maya archaeology,Tania is included. For more information, go to www.womeninpennswoods.com.

This historical marker in honor of Tatiana Proskouriakoff was unveiled on August 1, 2015 in the town of Lansdowne, PA. It is one block from her family home.

I have kept journals most of my life, so it was particularly exciting for me to have access to Tania's diaries as I began my research into her life and work. That first day reading through her handwritten entries while I sat at a desk in Harvard's Pusey Library was both exhilarating and frightening. I barely breathed as I opened the first one and read, "Mon. Feb. 13, 1939...Sailed on the United Fruit S.S.San Gil at 5:30 PM for Puerto Barrios. It is quite exciting to be off alone..." She was on her way to join the Carnegie project at Copan, Honduras. Although this was not her first expedition to the Maya region, it was her first time to make the journey alone. She faced many difficulties during that field season, and yet in her later years, she recalled and spoke of her adventures there with great affection. I wrote down some of those stories in my journal of 1972-'73 when I worked as her volunteer assistant at the Peabody Museum and referred to them 25 years later as I was writing her biography.


"A new biography of this amazing scholar is sure to fascinate readers...[it] wins over the reader with a compelling portrait of one of archaeology's most important early personalities." Traci Arden, Jan-Feb 2003 Archaeology Magazine,

"A straightforward biography of a towering figure in Americanist research, examined through her personal diaries and through the recollections of people who knew and worked with her. In a way, it is a study of how one woman managed to change an entire field of research that was for most of its history a man's territory...Anyone interested in Maya research and in the study of the ancient New World should find this fascinating." Yale scholar, Michael Coe.

"In tracing out the course of Proskouriakoff's life and career, this biography does not present us with [her] finished masterpieces...Instead we see those works in progress. We see the highs and lows of Proskouriakoff's academic and personal life. Her insecurities, and self-doubt, her desire...not to hurt the feelings of her friends and colleagues. Her love of family and friends, and the difficult personal and professional choices she made throughout her life, make Proskouriakoff a human figure with whom anyone can relate." (Charles Golden, Ethnohistory 51:2)

"If you're in a women's book club that needs a good selection for March - Women's History Month - consider "Tatiana Proskouriakoff." The title is a mouthful. But the book is a concise, moving account of a Russian-born American who made a huge mark in the male-dominated field of Maya studies." (Sam Hodges, Book Editor, The Charlotte Observer, March 7, 2004.)

"This intimate biography of a revered scholar in Mayan studies describes the problems and pleasures of archaeological fieldwork, the organization of research, and the personalities of well-known archaeologists...The book will attract general readers and anyone interested in the ancient Maya." (September 2003 issue of "Choice," publication of the Association of College and Research Libraries.)