Tuesday, August 23, 2011

A trio of Mayan Linguists

Yuri Knorosov’s Egyptology studies were interrupted by World War II service in the Red Army.   During the last days of the war he rescued a book from a burning German library.  Serendipitously, it was a book about the surviving ancient Maya codices and sparked a lifetime interest in Maya linguistics.   In the early 1950’s Knorosov published a translation of portions of the Dresden Codex, some of it based on information gleaned from Fray Diego de Landa's Alphabet (referred to in last week's Digs).   The preface of the publication said the reader might be surprised a Soviet linguist published this first translation, but explained it was because he lived in a socialist society -- more conducive to intellectual activity than capitalism.  

That preface eroded Western objectivity.  Scholars searched for errors in Knorosov's work -- in such an ambitious venture mistakes are easy enough to find.  One of his most severe critics was British linguist Eric Thompson, who harshly criticized anyone contesting his views on the Maya.  Knorosov's translation not only eclipsed Thompson's research but also criticized capitalism while Senator McCarthy was on his rampage in the USA.  During Thompson's reign few linguists dared incur his wrath.  A brave exception was Russian-American Tatiana Proskouriakoff who in the 1960's, venturing back to Knorosov's translation, found much of his work valid and built on his foundation, furthering the understanding of written Maya.  

Despite advances made by Knorosov and Proskouriakoff, Thompson's reputation remained undiminished and he was knighted in 1975.  Queen Elizabeth invited him to accompany her on a 1976 trip to Mexico.  Unfortunately for Thompson, he died on September 9, 1975.  Though a sad day for Sir Eric's family, friends, and admirers, for Maya linguistic scholars it opened the floodgates to discussion of many new ideas.  

The 1970's were years of other momentous events for Maya linguistics.  Foremost among them was a trip in December 1970 led by Linda Schele, an art history professor at the University of South Alabama.  She designed a Mexican study trip with the ultimate destination being Cancun.  Academic credit included!  Professor Schele and her students traveled the long way -- following the Gulf Coast.  The agent who sold them insurance at the border asked their destination and produced a spiral bound mile-by-mile trip description for their particular drive.  Palenque was not on their itinerary, but the Sanborn's Insurance guidebook said it was worth a few hours of their time.  Professors and students agreed to visit Palenque and make up for the diversion by driving later into the night.  Schele entered Palenque with an open mind.  She was an artist, not an archeologist, and had no preconceived notion of what she was seeing. Her experience as an artist, and art historian, gave her insights into Palenque's sculpture and writing that archeologists lacked.  Fascinated, she and her group of students spent twelve days at Palenque.  They never made it to Cancun.  Those twelve days transformed Maya linguistics. 

Schele, born and raised in Tennessee, was a folksy, friendly, unassuming southerner; yet a thorough academic researcher and writer.  Similar to the way she walked into Palenque with an open mind, she was oblivious to the politics of Western archeology.  Thompson exercised no sway over her except for whatever validity there was in his research.  Her unusual combination of academic rigor, friendly disposition, and enthusiasm was able to get outstanding researchers into the same room, sitting on cushions on the floor, sharing ideas and discoveries.  She praised their discoveries, diplomatically set aside what didn't seem right, and pulled together ideas which provided breakthroughs in reading written Maya.

Those sessions radically contrasted with the academic archeologists' traditional keeping of information close to their chests until a book could be published.  After face-to-face meetings she kept information flowing on floppy disks exchanged in the mail.  Schele saw dispersing information as much more important than taking credit for it -- something reflected in her many books and publications which, for the most part, she co-authored -- each with a different co-author.  Understanding of written Maya went from 15% to 50%; comprehension went up to 90% in context.During free time one afternoon at the first Palenque Round Table in December 1973 -- only three years after that trip along the Gulf coast -- Linda Schele, Peter Mathews, and Floyd Lounsbury deciphered the names of the rulers of Palenque for a 200-year period and presented them that evening at the Round Table!  Lounsbury later went on to expand the list to 500 years, including names, and even birth defects, suffered by the ruling family after so many generations of intermarriage. 
The University of Pennsylvania has hosted a Maya Weekend each April for a quarter century.  The meetings begin with a tribute to outstanding Mayanists who have died since the previous Maya Weekend.  1998-99 hit Maya studies particularly hard.  Linda Schele died on April 18, 1998; Floyd Lounsbury, twenty-six days later on May 14, and Yuri Knorosov on March 31, 1999.  Schele and Lounsbury were eulogized at the 1999 Maya Weekend.  When I saw that the tributes were over and the first speaker was about to be introduced, I bellowed from the back of the huge auditorium, "The Cold War is over!  We can honor Yuri Knorosov, March 31, 1999."  The master of ceremonies expressed a lame excuse for overlooking him, but tribute was paid to Knorosov in the University of Pennsylvania's Harrison Auditorium, ten days after his death.  Knorosov and Lounsbury were well advanced in years.  Linda Schele seems to have departed before her time.  I like to think the three of them needed to be together for some important reason.

No comments:

Post a Comment