(Friday, April 22, 2011) The renowned Mayanist Merle Greene Robertson passed away in San Francisco today. Artist, art historian, photographer, and Mayanist, Merle was widely known for her extensive contributions to the investigation and preservation of the art, iconography, and writing of Maya civilization.
Merle was born in Miles City, Montana, on August 30, 1913, a small town she once memorably described as "a little cattle crossing in the road" (Barnhart 2003:1). She moved to Great Falls when she was eight, a place which held her "fondest memories of childhood ... the Missouri River, Giant Springs, the sand hills, high mountains, mountain goats, and those great blue Montana skies, those wide-open spaces" (Robertson 2006:25). Merle's descriptions of her childhood environment in interviews and her autobiography Never in Fear (2006) are invariably painterly, mingling broad strokes of color with intimate descriptions of the natural surroundings, and she regularly associated these with her own development as an artist. As Peter Mathews (2006:13) wrote in his foreword to Merle's autobiography:
In her second year of high school, Merle's family relocated to Seattle, where she later began university studies. Given the twin loves of her childhood, it is perhaps hardly to be wondered at that Merle took a degree in art. "Later," as Peter Mathews (2006:13) recounts, "she went to the Instituto Allende in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Here for three summers she studied watercolors, oils, photography, and mural painting from Mexico's top mural instructor, earning her MFA from the University of Guanajuato."
Merle's artistic background and practical experiences living and working in Mexico were critical preparation for her life's work as a Mayanist, which began in the summer of 1961 when she joined the University of Pennsylvania Museum project at Tikal, Guatemala.
Merle would eventually make "about four thousand" rubbings (Barnhart 2003:4) during the course of a distinguished career spanning some five decades (Doyle 2000). These are now all critically important documents, many of them preserving details of the carved surfaces of monuments which have since deteriorated through erosion or been destroyed by the increasingly damaging depredations of looters. Today, more than 2,000 of Merle's rubbings are housed in the Merle Greene Robertson Collection of the Rare Book and Manuscript Department of Tulane University's Latin American Library in New Orleans (Hernández and Dressing 2011). Since 1993, Merle's entire collection of rubbings has been available to scholars and amateurs on CD, and they can also be viewed online at Mesoweb (www.mesoweb.com/rubbings). Merle's work in preserving Guatemala's Maya cultural heritage through these rubbings was acknowledged by the Museo Popol Vuh in 2004, when Merle was awarded the Orden del Pop (Museo Popol Vuh 2004).
As Peter Mathews (2006:15) has noted
Merle's rubbings, photographs, paintings, and drawings of Palenque's architecture and sculpture represent a lasting resource. In 1993, the Mexican government acknowledged Merle's remarkable contributions to the study of Palenque with the decoration of the Order of the Aztec Eagle (Mathews 2006:17).
Of equally lasting importance to the study of Palenque specifically, but also to Maya studies in general, have been Merle's series of Palenque Round Table conferences. Begun in December, 1973, and convening for eight meetings, the last held in June, 1993, the Mesas Redondas de Palenque produced ten volumes of conference proceedings edited by Merle and others, each documenting numerous breakthroughs in Maya studies. These critical meetings have since been continued by the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Mexico, with Merle in the capacity of Honorary President (Mathews 2006:16).
In 1982, Merle founded the Pre-Columbian Art Research Institute, a non-profit organization which has conducted important research in Mesoamerican art, iconography, and epigraphy. PARI has published numerous scholarly monographs and the quarterly PARI Journal and has sponsored the archaeological investigations of the Cross Group Project at Palenque.
Merle's contributions to the study of the Maya will never be forgotten, so important is her legacy of documentation of primary materials in the form of drawings, paintings, photographs, and rubbings. But she will be sorely missed by her family, friends, colleagues, students, and legions of admirers. K'a'ayi usik sakik'aal.
2003 Periodic Interview Series: Merle Greene Robertson. Transcript of an interview with Merle Greene Robertson, December 2003. Maya Exploration Center: www.mayaexploration.org/pdf/interview_q2_merle.pdf.
2000 Digging Deep: Archaeologist Merle Greene Robertson Has Spent Four Decades Uncovering Treasures of Mayan Civilization. San Francisco Chronicle, September 4, 2000, A-5. Available online: http://articles.sfgate.com/2000-09-04/news/17659641_1_mayan-ruins-mayan-civilization-archaeological.
2002 Doyenne of Mayanists: Merle Greene Robertson Has Spent a Lifetime Chronicling Mesoamerican Art. Archaeology 55(3):42-49. Available online: www.archaeology.org/0205/abstracts/merlegreene.html.
Hernández, Christine, and David Dressing
2011 Merle Greene Robertson Collection, 1920s-2010. Latin American Library Manuscripts Collection 133: lal.tulane.edu/collections/manuscripts/robertson_merle.
2006 Foreword to Never in Fear, by Merle Greene Robertson, pp. 13-18. San Francisco: Pre-Columbian Art Research Institute.
Museo Popol Vuh
2004 Dra. Merle Greene Robertson: Orden del Pop 2004. Museo Popol Vuh: www.popolvuh.ufm.edu/eng/popMerle2004.htm.
Robertson, Merle Greene
1974-1996 Palenque Round Table (Mesa Redonda de Palenque). 8 volumes. Various presses.
1983-1991 The Sculpture of Palenque. 4 volumes. Princeton University Press.
2006 Never in Fear. San Francisco: Pre-Columbian Art Research Institute.