Proskouriakoff was an architect by trade, but faced with a scarce job market
during the Great Depression, the Russian-born American took work drawing
reconstructions of the ruins at Piedras Negras, a Classic Maya site on the
border between Mexico and Guatemala (above). Later, while examining photographs
of the Piedras Negras stelae, or commemorative stone slabs, Proskouriakoff
noticed patterns in their dedication dates. The Maya would set up a series of
stelae in front of a single temple, one every five years. The first stela in
each series always showed a seated figure. Thompson had thought these were gods,
but Proskouriakoff convincingly proved that they were kings and that the
different markings on the stelae depicted their lives from birth until death.
When a ruler died, the Maya at Piedras Negras would begin erecting stelae at
another temple, detailing the life story of another ruler. For the first time,
as Thompson and others came to agree, the glyphs were found to tell the stories
of the Maya.