Time Line of Decipherment

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Uncovering Maya history

Tatiana 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.

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