History time!: Tatiana Proskouriakoff is better than you
Soooooooo. Tatiana Proskouriakoff. Mayan ruins. Mayan writing. That drawing up there?
Yeah, you heard me. She drew that shit. As it actually stands, it looks like this,
and that’s after archaeologists cleared off the huge layer of trees and dirt and shit that was on it when she was there in the ’40s. And this isn’t fancypants made-up bullshit, either. Her drafts turned out to be incredibly close to what was actually going on way the fuck back in the day.
Anyway, Proskouriakoff originally gave zero shits about Mayan archaeology. She was educated as an architect and draftswoman, which is how she found herself slogging around Mayan ruins with Linton Satterthwaite (still on record as the most ridiculous name ever had by a Mayanist) in the ’30s. See, the state of archaeology in general was…not great in the 1930s. I mean, just think about how much shit Indiana Jones fucked up fighting with the Nazis, and then remember that he spent maybe a day on any given site. Forget losing Tut’s penis, there were guys pulling shit in the ’30s that would make a grown man cry like a small child seeing a mime for the first time. Proskouriakoff was a genuinely talented architect, so she was included in the expedition because somebody had to know fuck-all about building structure and drafting while cataloging and excavating old fucking buildings.
Once she got out there, the Maya bug kind of bit her, laid eggs in her skin, and I’m not finishing this metaphor because bot flies are fucking gross. When another Mayanist was impressed with her work to the point of passing the hat around to bankroll her on one of his expeditions when the institute he worked for wouldn’t hire her, she packed up her shit and went to work for him. Once she got back, the institute was so impressed with her work that it changed its mind and hired her.
I should take a second here to say that a lot of jerkoffs can draw very nice facades, even when the original they’re looking at is eroded and covered in half a forest. One of the things that made Proskouriakoff really stand out at the time was the accuracy of her estimates about what the interiors, which were often inaccessible and rubble-filled when she was working on a dig, would look like once they got everything properly dug out. There was not a whole fucking lot known about Maya temples and palaces and administrative buildings and shit at the time. She was extremely good at combining her training with her site-specific observations to get a workable draft.
But what she really, really did for the field is, uh, prove that Mayan hieroglyphs were actual writing. I know, I know. You’re probably looking at that and scrunching up your face and going “That…needed to be proven? In the mid-1900s?”
Above: Some coincidentally consistent squiggles that somebody did just for funsies. With a chisel. On a limestone slab twenty feet high. That they put in front of a palace.
But see, here’s the thing: white people.
And I don’t mean it in the sense of “lol white people ruin everything,” I mean it in the sense of “lol white people were seriously putting forth the actual argument that the natives could not possibly have developed their own writing system because, literally, natives.” I mean it in the sense of “Skip to the part where Proskouriakoff makes her discovery if you’re reading a book about this and don’t want to be all ‘what the fuck, Eric Thompson, what the actual fuck?’ for like five chapters.”
And also I guess the sense of “lol white people maaaaaay have also made a concerted effort to stamp out the writing system as it existed when they found it, leaving no one left who could read the stone monuments or the few unburned paper books,” but that last one happened way before Proskouriakoff made the scene.
What she kicked in the teeth was the idea that the stuff on the stones was just pretty pictures that meant nothing, no really, I swear to god, Serious Archaeologists were seriously making this argument.
Above: Meaningless doodles.
Above: Nonsense signs that really tie the whole carving together.
Thanks to the books that did survive the huge slash-and-burn the colonial Spanish went on being overwhelmingly concerned with astronomy, and the Mayan numeral system being relatively easy to figure out, the date glyphs could be read fairly early on. The rest of the glyphs persistently defying decipherment clearly meant that there was nothing to decipher, nothing to see here, everybody move along, or Eric Thompson will personally bite you.
Above: No, seriously, dude was the biggest dick in mesoamerican archaeology for decades. He’d fucking throw down about shit.
Proskouriakoff read some ground-breaking work by a dude working off looted Nazi archives in Stalinist Russia (no, really), put it together with her work on the monuments in the field and unchallenged date readings on the monuments, explained to everybody that they were looking at history, bitches, dropped the mic, and walked off the stage. She was right so hard Dr. Dickpunch up there did a 180 literally overnight.
(That they were friends and colleagues and she hand-delivered her findings and knew where he lived may or may not have influenced this. He certainly never alleged that she threatened to cut him if he didn’t stop being stupid, but she did spend the next couple of years trolling the hell out of him with new “hypotheses” about Mayan culture. “Hey, Eric, guess what? I propose that the ancient Maya were atheists. No gods whatsoever.” “That’s…nice…Tania….I’ll be…happy…to look at that…paper…whenever…you’re…done with it.” *sound of molar cracking from gritting his teeth so hard* It’s possible he might have spontaneously combusted if she’d ever gone through with any of it.)
Once she had identified the patterns they were looking at (person in the pictures is born, person in the pictures gets crowned, person in the pictures dies), shit like “their name” and “oh hey, this is ‘born’” started falling into place. And once she’d demolished the last bits of “Noooooooo, it’s ideographs! Even though that makes no sense whatsoever and literally nobody under the sun has ever written shit that way!”, even more progress was made. Which is, you know, not fucking bad for a lady who never actually got formal training in Mayan studies. Unless, I guess, you count not being a fucking douche about Native Americans and writing as “formal training”? Which you might, since this was in the ’60s?
Next on History time!: White people re-figure out how to read Mayan hieroglyphs, forget to mention it to actual Mayans for like five years.
The #education motherfuckers tag is my favorite tag.