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THE ACCIDENTAL MAYANIST - The Epic Life of Tatiana Proskouriakoff

Updated: Nov 24, 2023

Russian-American Tatiana Proskouriakoff

Born in 1909 in the Siberian city of Tomsk, Tatiana Proskouriakoff departed Russia in 1915 when her father, who was a chemist, was contracted by Czar Nicholas II to oversee the manufacturing of munitions in the United States.  The family was living in Ohio when the Czar was forced to abdicate the throne (1917), and thus decided that a permanent relocation was more attractive than returning to the turmoil of the Russian Revolution and ongoing World War I.   Proskouriakoff  became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1924. 


With an early start with literacy at the age of 3, and a love for the arts that prompted her parents to pay for watercolor and drawing classes when she was a child, Proskouriakoff studied at the Pennsylvania Museum School of Industrial Art and in 1926, she enrolled in the Pennsylvania State College School of Architecture, graduating as the only female in her class in 1930. 

The Acropolis of Piedras Negras, Guatemala by Tatiana Proskouriakoff

As a high-functioning professional in a man`s world, Proskouriakoff`s first employment involved drafting cross-stitch patterns.  To counter her sheer boredom, Proskouriakoff volunteered at the university museum, drafting archaeological sketches under the mentorship of the Assistant Curator archaeologist and epigrapher Linton Satterthwaite (1897-1978).  In 1936, Satterthwaite invited Proskouriakoff to accompany him to the remote Lacandona jungle region of Central America, where she first rested her eyes on the magnificent ruins of Piedras Negras.  Positioned on the banks of the Usumacinta River, Piedras Negras is one of the finest examples of Classic Maya style, though still being reclaimed by the lush jungle.


Upon her return to the United States, Proskouriakoff drafted a large-scale architectural interpretation of the Acropolis from Piedras Negras, based on the sketches and notes she had made.  This caught the eye of archaeologist Sylvanus Morely (1883-1948), who did extensive field work and research for the Carnegie Institute of Washington.  Morely was so impressed by the meticulous precision of Proskouriakoff `s skill, and her vision to discern such interpretations from a crumbling ruin, he implored the Carnegie Institute to hire her.  When the Institute refused employment, on the grounds that Proskouriakoff didn´t have a degree in Maya studies or archaeology, the insistent Sylvanus Morely raised funds for her independently and in 1939, invited her to accompany him to the ancient sites of Copan in Honduras, and select sites in the Yucatan Peninsula. 


By the early 1940`s, Proskouriakoff`s skill was undeniable, and she was granted a post as Research Associate of the Carnegie Institute. 

Proskouriakoff`s passion for the Maya continued to expand.  She became engrossed in the study of Maya hieroglyphs, making exceptional contributions to this study throughout her lifetime.  One example was the deciphering of hieroglyphics at Takalik Abaj in Guatemala.  Located in the Highlands on the Pacific side of Guatemala, this ancient city was first settled by the Olmec.  For many years, there was postulation of the Maya culture being present at this site.  It wasn`t until 1942, when Proskouriakoff`s analysis of the hieroglyphs from this site confirmed it part Maya.


Over the course of their careers, there was considerable dialogue between Tatiana Proskouriakoff the Eric S. Thompson, over their observations and analysis of Maya hieroglyphs.  As a woman in a man`s profession, Proskouriakoff never lacked the courage to stand her ground, and challenge societal norms – including the established theories of a well-regarded archaeologist who was insistent that his research was correct.  As documented in two aggressive letters, Thompson was convinced the hieroglyphs only represented the passage of time, that aspects that were astronomical and that hieroglyphs could not be read phonetically.   Proskouriakoff posited Maya hieroglyphs were indeed phonetic, and that the stelaes documented important events, such as the births, deaths and accession dates for royalty.  In 1960, a stubborn, analytical and determined Proskouriakoff published Historical Implications of a Pattern of Dates at Piedras Negras, and the field of Maya studies was forever changed.

From a drafter of cross-stitch designs to architect, archaeologist, Mayanist and honorary curator of Maya Art at the Peabody Museum of Harvard, all without every having obtained an official degree or doctorate outside of Architecture,  Proskouriakoff was fondly nicknamed “The Accidental Mayanist” by Alessandro Pezzati of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at Penn State University.  He wrote: “Of all the brilliant minds that have illuminated the firmament of ancient Mayan studies, there is none who arouses as much admiration, inspiration and absolute devotion as Tatiana Proskouriakoff.”


Proskouriakoff died in Cambridge, Massachusetts on August 30, 1985 at the age of 76.  It was April 12, 1998 and Easter Sunday when Proskouriakoffs friend and colleague, archaeologist David Stuart, brought her ashes to Piedras Negras, where they were interred on the Acropolis – the very structure at the heart of her first interpretation that launched her fascinating career.

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