Merle Greene Robertson has spent a lifetime chronicling Mesoamerican Art.
This article first appeared in Archaeology, Volume 55 Number 3, May/June 2002.
In the summer of 1962, a small plane touched down on the jungle airstrip at Tikal, Guatemala. On board were dozens of cases of expensive scotch and two women, who had wedged themselves amidst the plane's cargo. Summer art students from the University of Guanajuato's San Miguel de Allende Art Institute, they had come to spend the weekend and see Tikal's ruins. Stepping off the plane, one spotted a snake, hopped right back on, and went home without seeing a single temple. The other woman was Merle Greene Robertson. “A little old snake wasn't going to send me away,” she says. Robertson had a special interest in Precolumbian art. When she reached the ruins, she found herself in wonderland.
University of Pennsylvania archaeologists working at Tikal were nearly halfway through their 15-year excavation of decorated vessels, mysterious carvings, and buried kings. And they needed an artist to record their findings. Robertson was invited to stay, and within a few days, was climbing a scaffold each morning to draw the friezes on the palace in the Central Acropolis.
This was one of the century's landmark digs, staffed by some of the field's most famous veterans and a new generation of passionate young scholars. By day they would make discoveries and record magnificent art-wondrous sculpture and beguiling glyphs, relics of a people thought to be peaceful worshipers of the stars, gods, and time. At night they would revel in what seemed a dreamscape, dancing atop pyramids in the light of the moon to orchestral music played over loudspeakers. Her weekend visit lasted the entire summer, and her love of Maya art became an obsession. “Once I became a Mayanist,” she says with an emphatic motion of her hand, “that was it-all the time.”
In the four decades since, Robertson has ventured deep into the jungle, spending weeks in dank tombs recording thousands of Maya masterpieces before their destruction by looters and time. She has authored five books and scores of scholarly articles, edited a dozen studies of Maya art and history, and helped bring about one of the twentieth century's great accomplishments: the decipherment of the Maya script.
It's not hard to find Merle Greene Robertson. Just go to the street named in her honor, Calle Merle Greene, in the modern town of Palenque, Mexico. Here stands her modest house she named Na Chan-Bahlum - Chol Maya for House of Serpent Jaguar - in honor of the brilliant king responsible for much of Palenque's most astonishing temples and art. Na Chan-Bahlum draws a constant stream of visitors. Built 30 years ago by Robertson and her late husband, it is at once home, dorm, and research lab, the site of breakthrough discoveries and years of collegial studies. At the research season's height, from January through May, as many as 18 sit down to share dinner every day.
At the center of this whirlwind is Robertson herself. Funny and feisty, with wide, round eyes and snow-white hair, she's been plagued by falls and broken bones, but her verve never flags. The day before my visit, despite recent surgery to repair a torn tendon in her leg, she had climbed Palenque's 50-foot high temple XX to inspect her team's preparations for opening a tomb. In the coming weeks she planned to rub carvings at Chichén Itzá, return to her second home in San Francisco to work on her next book, meet in New Orleans with her archivists, and confer with curators at Mexico City's Museum of Anthropology about an exhibition of her rubbings.
Maya relief sculptures are a maze of subtle details that resist reproduction. For photographs, the lighting must cast the stone carvings in sharp contrasts with shadows that accentuate yet don't obscure. Pencil drawings can fall prey to an artist's individual style or to lapses of the eye. Many carvings are in damp, cramped tombs inhospitable to both cameras and sketch pads.
In 1962 at Tikal, Robertson watched archaeologists uncover Altar 5, a pristine, ornate, seven-foot diameter stone monument with carving worthy of more than a mere pencil sketch. She had an idea-she stretched some bed sheets across the altar, secured them with stones and rope, and, gently touching them with a paint-soaked cloth, created a startling black-on-white rubbing of two figures and a death's head, encircled by 31 glyphs.
At a stroke, Robertson had brought a new tool to Maya studies. Life-sized rubbings reveal details that escape even the most experienced observers. “If you're looking at the clothing that the elite might have worn, you can see every little line, every little pattern in the fabric,” she says. The following year, when Alfred Kidder of the Carnegie Institution visited the site and saw her work, he was so impressed he asked her to make rubbings of all the carvings at Tikal.
Robertson returned the next summer with more sophisticated materials: six-foot sheets of handmade Japanese rice paper, and dense, black, sumi ink used in Japanese brush painting. She taped large sheets of paper to each sculpted stone, wet them with a brush, then pressed the paper tightly into every cut and crevice. Applying the ink with small cotton balls covered with fine silk or with a small silk square wrapped around her thumb, she gently dabbed inch by inch, coaxing the image into being. Sometimes it took thousands of applications before the result was sufficiently dark. Once the ink and paper dried, she'd peel the rubbing off the stone.
“The first ones I did I didn't like, so I tore them up and burned them,” says Robertson, but by the end of that second summer at Tikal she had completed dozens. Kidder encouraged her once again. “He said `Merle, go up into the jungles and up the rivers, and do everything at all these sites up and down the [Usumacinta] river.' And I did. And that was really, really, great.” She traveled by mule, foot, and dugout canoe, searching out ruins known only to jungle residents or to Mayanists familiar with the forest. Side by side with a small team of workers who cut trails and set up camp, she struggled with heat, snakes, dirty water, and voracious insects. With her enormous sheets of paper, stored in Bakelite cases, she could pack little more than a change of clothes, Halzone pills to treat muddy swamp water, and a few cans of freeze-dried food. She enjoyed eating from the jungle's menu: stewed monkey, roast boar, armadillo, fish, and frog.
Robertson loved the jungle and its endless spectacle of birds and flowers, and its hidden trove of art. Many of the carvings, overgrown or face down in the mud, had not been touched for centuries. With a thin green stick, its end feathered with a knife, she would gently scrape off moss and roots that shrouded a carving, then repeatedly rinse it with water from nearby waterholes or streams. “Finally you get it clean, and then you have to wait, sometimes days for it to dry before you can even start doing the rubbing,” she says.
Many rubbings became endurance tests. Robertson spent three weeks deep inside Palenque's Temple of the Inscriptions, recording the elaborate sarcophagus that shows the king Pacal (K'inich Janahb' Pacal) at the moment of his death, sliding down the world tree into Xibalba, the underworld. Each day she climbed the seven-story pyramid and descended the interior vaulted staircase into the dank crypt to work by lantern, often up to her ankles in water. “I would come out of the tomb completely soaked and covered from head to toe with wet, white, lime plaster,” she says. She made 220 square feet of rubbings there and lost ten pounds.
Born in Miles City, Montana, as a child she loved watching her neighbor and hero, the famous western artist Charles Russell, paint his evocative canvasses of cowboys, Native Americans, and the open plains. Robertson went on to become an artist herself; she has worked in 23 countries and has had major exhibitions of her paintings in six. After studying art at the University of Washington, San Francisco State College, and the University of California, she received her MFA from the University of Guanajuato in 1963 - her thesis top was Maya art - and in 1987, she received an honorary doctorate from Tulane University, where she currently serves as research associate at the Middle American Research Institute.
In 1965, Robertson began teaching art at Robert Louis Stevenson School for Boys in Monterey, California. Her husband Bob, the school's dean, often accompanied her each summer, when she took her students into the jungle to conduct fieldwork.
“She was like a den mother squiring us all around,” recalls archaeologist Arlen Chase, one of five students who went with the Robertsons to Ixtutz in Petén, Guatemala in 1971. Robertson had learned about the site from her crew of local workers; it was unknown to Guatemalan authorities and not on any map. The group slashed its way through deep jungle at the foot of the Maya Mountains, through vines so dense that they had to be cut away before the team could put down their packs. There they discovered stelae, plazas, and a terraced acropolis. “It was just a fabulous experience,” says Chase. “We got in there, we made a preliminary map, we found new inscriptions, and she did rubbings of the inscriptions as well as the stelae. It was quite exciting.”
Robertson inspired Chase to become an archaeologist himself. “She baited the hook,” he says, and for that he dedicated his doctoral dissertation to her. With his wife Diane, Chase now heads the excavation of Caracol, a powerful Maya city in western Belize that was once home to an estimated 140,000 people and covered more than 120 square miles.
Robertson's ambition was to record the art of the Maya world before it disappeared. From her first days at Tikal, she had witnessed newly excavated monuments, long shrouded in dirt or tree roots, begin to crumble when exposed to the sun and deteriorate in the region's acid rain. Algae growing on the monuments softens the stone, allowing small insects to bore into the carvings. Tikal's Altar 5, for example, was in perfect condition when she made her first rubbing. Now the carving has eroded away. “Have you seen it today?” Robertson asks. “It's terrible. You look at it now, and you can't even see it.”
Discoveries brought another threat. Wealthy collectors developed a taste for Maya art, prompting waves of theft that continue to this day. Robertson sometimes arrived at sites a step behind the thieves, finding stelae cut in pieces, their carvings sliced away. In 1970, she and her students were returning to their jeep from a muddy jungle trail in Guatemala. “I had just taken my boots off, ready to get in, when these guys came out of the jungle with sawed-off shotguns and pointed them right at our stomachs.” Robertson showed them her permit, and they waved the group on. When she reported the incident, the police deduced they were looters from her description of their soft, city hands. They captured the men, threw them in jail for two days, then advised Robertson to flee-if the thieves wanted revenge, Robertson would be easy to track since “there was no one up and down the river with blonde hair except for me.” At midnight, they packed their bags, hopped into a truck the police had provided, and fled to Naranjo, a site near the Belize border.
In time, Robertson's rubbings will be the only evidence that such masterpieces ever existed. Two thousand of them are archived at Tulane University's Latin American Library in New Orleans, where, protected in polyethylene and climate-controlled storage, they are available for study. These rubbings are “a corpus of data which is crucial and still will be 100 years from now,” says Chase. “They would be almost impossible for anybody else to duplicate.”
In her book The Sculpture of Palenque, Robertson writes, “If one city can be spoken of as the most exquisite, the `jewel of the Maya realm,' it is Palenque. Approaching the city early on a misty morning, with the sun just beginning to penetrate the mist hanging over the delicate Palenque roofcombs, one is forced to stop and take in this overpowering beauty for a moment lest it escape forever. The Maya are known for having picked many beautifully situated places for their cities, but at Palenque they seem to have found everything.”
Robertson first visited Palenque in 1960, when a single jeep was the town's taxi, and the road to the ruins was a mud rut. She returned so often that in 1970, the Robertsons built Na Chan-Bahlum at the edge of the modern village, five miles from the ruins. “Every place is really special for one thing,” says Robertson. “Yaxchilán is noted for its beautiful lintels. Tikal is known for its stelae. Copán is noted for the sculpture all over its buildings and its stelae. But Palenque is the place that has the finest portraiture of any place and the finest stucco sculpture.”
Between jungle trips, Robertson documented Palenque's fragile sculpture, carvings, and paintings. She took photographs from tall scaffolding, and studied and sketched for hours. The result is The Sculpture of Palenque, a multi-volume work that minutely examines Palenque's most important structures. The first volume was published in 1983, and Robertson is now preparing the series' fifth, which will include finds from recently discovered temples, sculptures in foreign museums and collections, and the multitude of figurines found at the site. Archaeological investigation at Palenque continues to thrive with support from the Precolumbian Art Research Institute (PARI), a nonprofit corporation operated under the direction of Robertson, who started it with her husband in 1971. Alfonso Morales, chief archaeologist of PARI's Palenque Project, grew up a few houses away from Robertson on Calle Merle Greene; his father was Palenque's head guide.
Na Chan-Bahlum quickly became what archaeologist Michael Coe calls “a Mecca for Palencophiles,” its doors open to both professionals and amateurs under the Maya spell. Robertson's husband, Bob, was a laid-back yin to her energetic yang. He would gently screen each visitor, guarding Robertson from unnecessary interruptions. One enthralled amateur was Linda Schele, who returned again and again, eventually becoming Robertson's assistant, best friend, and one of the leading Mayanists of her time.
Maya dates deciphered decades ago revealed that Palenque flourished between A.D. 440 and 790, but almost all other Maya inscriptions resisted translation. By the late 1960s, four Palenque rulers had been identified, yet were known only as A, B, C, and D. Progress had stalled. Epigraphy was “in the doldrums,” recalls Chase. Then along came Robertson, whose interest in art history, he says, “actually brought epigraphy back to life.”
One evening in August, 1973, says Robertson, “a bunch of us were sitting on the porch here having a beer. We thought, `wouldn't it be fun to have a group interested in Palenque come down and meet?'” Maya studies was still a small field: they could think of only about three dozen people to invite.
The response was quick. Back in California that September, “I hadn't gotten my jacket off and the phone was ringing,” Robertson recalls. La Primera Mesa Redonda de Palenque-the First Palenque Round Table-convened at Na Chan-Bahlum that Christmas vacation. It was an unprecedented gathering of art historians, epigraphers, and archaeologists, as much a reunion of friends as a scholarly conference. Word spread. Students from Mexican universities began to arrive, and local townspeople showed up.
One afternoon epigraphers Floyd Lounsbury, Peter Mathews, and Linda Schele sat down at Robertson's kitchen table, hoping to expand on the list of known Palenque rulers. In less than four hours, studying drawings of the inscriptions, the work of their predecessors, and their own research, they deciphered the names, accession dates, and deaths of the last 200 years of Palenque's royal family. That night, the trio presented their timeline to the Round Table, and Lady Sak K'uk' who ruled for nearly 30 years, her son Pakal, and his son Chan Bahlum were reintroduced to the world. The anonymous carved faces and the bodies in the tombs suddenly “had become real people, real kings who lived and ruled the city where we had come to study,”
Robertson wrote in her introduction to the proceedings of the Sixth Palenque Round Table Conference, held in 1986. A cascade of discoveries followed, unveiling five centuries of Palenque's history and a new picture of the Maya, a civilization immersed in war, human sacrifice, and mystical rituals.
Robertson has never pursued publicity; her contributions to the field speak for themselves. In 1994, the Mexican government awarded her its highest honor for a non-citizen, the Order of the Aztec Eagle, for her efforts to preserve and document fragile Mesoamerican art. “I was so overwhelmed by the fact that Mexico was honoring me this way that I was almost in tears,” she remembers. “But I was extremely happy and grateful to all of Mexico, a country I had come to love so much.”
Copyright © 2000 Tom Gidwitz