Re-connecting the Pieces: A Journey through the Life of Tatiana Proskouriakoff
By Char Solomon


As a teacher for more than twenty years and the mother of two young adults, I am aware that there is a great need today for strong role models, particularly of women who pursue careers with passion and integrity, contributing to our understanding of the world. Tatiana Proskouriakoff, one of the leading interpreters of Maya art, architecture, and hieroglyphs, was such a woman. Dynamic and challenging, she sought new approaches to old questions about the ancient Maya. During a period when Mesoamerican archaeology was almost exclusively a profession for men of means, she dedicated herself to finding truth, even when what she found went against the beliefs of venerated authorities in the field.

I first met Tania in 1972, when I walked into Harvard’s Peabody Museum hoping to find work. With a faint smile, a woman in the front office told me they were not hiring just then. However, she continued, there was someone looking for a volunteer for an ongoing project. She said it was Tania Proskouriakoff, whose catalogue of carved jades from the Sacred Cenote at Chichén Itzá was demanding a great deal of her time. I was familiar with Tania’s name from several college courses I had taken, and my breathing quickened when the woman said she could take me to meet her right away. Leading me past displays of Native American artifacts, down a side stairwell, and through a dark labyrinth of cabinets, she finally opened the door to a brightly lit office. Introducing me, the woman quickly left us. Tania, an older woman, dark-haired and petite, took off her large glasses, looked at me directly in the eyes and asked a few carefully worded questions about my background and intentions. She listened intently to my responses and seemed pleased with what she heard. Although I had no direct experience with the precise measurements and descriptions that were part of the job, she told me she would teach me what I needed to know. Could I possibly start right away? I began the next day.

Over the next several months, sitting across from me at her desk, Tania gradually shared stories of her early childhood in Czarist Russia. She told me about her family’s dramatic attempt during World War I to leave Russia on a ship, only to be refused passage when the captain learned that Tania and her sister had scarlet fever. She described soldiers bundling the two girls in blankets and carrying them back across the ice with their mother, while their father, with his orders from the Czar to go to the United States and oversee the production of munitions, proceeded alone to America.

Tania also shared many stories about her later adventures at archaeological sites in the rain forests of Central America. In 1939, for example, she said she crossed mountains in Honduras in a car driven by a “madman” who sped along the treacherous roads at breakneck speed, blind curves, hairpin turns, and all. She completed her journey on a mule led by a young boy, who brought her finally to the Carnegie Institution of Washington headquarters in the village of Copán. Among the archaeologists already partaking of the evening refreshments was the gregarious Gustav Stromsvik, the Norwegian sailor-turned-archaeologist who directed the CIW project. Tania’s stories were particularly animated when relating tales of this man who became a lifelong friend, and she often ended by saying quietly, “Ay, Gustavo.” These stories fueled in me an already strong desire to experience the Maya region, which I was able to do during four field seasons as a volunteer assistant on Ian Graham’s Maya hieroglyphic inscriptions project. Although in 1976, my life took an entirely different direction, Tania’s stories remained with me vividly.

Twenty years later, in North Carolina, where I have lived ever since, raising a family, writing, and teaching music, I began preparing for my first return trip to Yucatán. Along with my family, I planned to take several students to visit nature reserves and archaeological sites, before (as my conservationist friend, Joann Andrews, warned) the area had changed beyond my recognition. In going through books on the Maya, I frequently came across Tania’s name, and so I began to look for more information about her. Little was published, but I soon learned that she had passed away eleven years earlier. This fact, in combination with what we had seen on our recent trip and gentle urging from my husband, fostered the idea of writing about Tania’s extraordinary life.

Finding that Harvard University had archived Tania’s personal diaries and that permission to read them had to be obtained from her legal executor, Ian Graham, I realized it was time to reconnect with people from an earlier time in my life. When I reached Ian by phone at his Peabody office, the intervening years seemed only days. He encouraged me to come to Cambridge and gave his consent for me to read through the diaries. Another old friend, Clemency Coggins, one of the people closest to Tania in her later years, also urged me to attempt a biography.

Later that year, I sat down at the table reserved for me at Harvard’s Pusey Library and picked up the first of more than seventeen handwritten diaries. These books spanned nearly fifty years of Tania’s life. Nervous and excited, I read her first entry. Dated February 13, 1939, it described her feelings as she departed alone from her beloved Philadelphia on a United Fruit Company boat, bound for the coast of Central America. Although she had been to the region on two earlier expeditions, this was the first time she ventured alone. It was the first of many such trips she would eventually take, and as I read through this first diary, I sensed I was in for an amazing adventure. I was right.

Tania’s diaries provide an intimate view of a complex mind. In them, she vents her frustrations, voices her fears, and explores her ideas about philosophy, politics, religion, love, and war. She also writes about the colorful personalities of her friends and colleagues over the years. Many, such as Sylvanus Morley and J. Eric Thompson, are familiar to Maya scholars and amateur enthusiasts alike. Others, such as Anna Shepard, Harry Pollock, and Ledyard Smith, may be less well known outside of Mayanist circles, but they were equally vibrant and important in Tania’s life.

I was also able to interview some of Tania's contemporaries, including Gordon Willey and Ed Shook, who have now passed away. Through them, I experienced firsthand the extraordinary humor, intellect, and integrity that marked so many people close to Tania. I have communicated with students she influenced in her later years, many now with distinguished careers in Maya studies. They shared stories of meeting with Tania in her Cambridge apartment, in her office, or in the “Smoking Room” in the basement of the Peabody. They related that she was demanding, challenging, and generous with her time, yet could be aloof and even cold, as she was in her relationship with a young woman, whose style and approach to Maya studies were radically different from her own. Though few in number, Tania’s relatives, too, have been a great source of information, graciously providing me with documents, correspondence, and photographs, some dating from nineteenth-century Russia. Their stories helped fill gaps in Tania’s earlier life, before she began keeping her diaries.

I feel I have been given a gift in writing this biography. So many of the people I came into contact with have shown a generosity of spirit, sincere warmth and good humor. Through their eyes, and through careful study of Tania’s diaries, correspondence, books, and articles, I have come to understand the remarkable life she led. In 1972 I was aware that Tatiana Proskouriakoff was one of the first women involved in Mesoamerican archaeology, and though she never suggested to me that this hindered her career, it left me in awe. Over these past years of research, I discovered that, like many women, she frequently wrestled with self-doubt and at times depression, but overcame the debilitating effects of these conditions by finding mentors who challenged her to use her keen mind and to rely on thorough scholarship and investigation. It was not a direct or easy road, but she found a focus: the search for truth about the ancient Maya. It was the complexity of her journey and her quest for truth—instead of a complacent acceptance of established views—that I found so compelling.