Merle Greene Robertson
(1913 - 2011)
by Dr. Edward Kurjack
There are many extraordinary people in archaeology, but Merle Greene Robertson is one of the outstanding figures who have contributed to the field. Born on August 30, 1913, in Miles City, Montana, Merle passed away on Friday, April 22, 2011.
She accepted various roles during her fruitful life including that of artist, teacher, parent, grandparent, archaeologist and avid adventurer, but she used most of her time on earth in determined campaigns to record prehispanic Maya art. In this task she was diligent, deliberate and focused. Her friends marveled that she was tireless, but it would be more accurate to say that although exhausted after long days of work, Merle would keep going!
Merle is perhaps best known for her rice paper prints of Maya carvings. Combining an ancient oriental technique with contemporary computer technology, Merle prepared copies of relief sculpture and inscriptions from all parts of the Maya country. Scanned photocopies of her work are available to students everywhere thanks to Mesoweb (www.mesoweb.com/rub/rubbings database.html).
I met Merle in the 1960s when she worked at Dzibilchaltun copying the sculptured monuments found there. Twenty years later I worked with the Archaeological Atlas of YucatÃ¡n project. While most archaeologists viewed that project as a race to record as many new archaeological sites as possible, the goal was really the creation of a database to guide future research efforts.
For that reason, I tried to facilitate any work designed to collect data on a regional basis. At the time, anything of possible aesthetic value was disappearing from ancient settlements only to reappear on foreign art markets.
The archaeological world needed to mark the context of this art while it was still in place. Thus, after a lifetime of accomplishments, the new adventures of Merle in Yucatan began with reports of the remarkable sculpture from an isolated site called Xtelju. Some of the carvings were in the town hall at Yaxcaba while others were deep in the forest at the site. Merle came to Yucatan to copy them. She went on to make prints at isolated sites over the entire peninsula. Merle was concerned that despite the rich detail they exhibited, no comparative drawings were available for the six magnificent sculptured panels on the face of the benches of the Great Ballcourt at Chichen Itza. Indeed, despite the research and publications of the Carnegie Institution of Washington at that site, no comprehensive catalog of relief art was available. Merle proposed a project to remedy the situation.
After years of working at the site, in collaboration with INAH Archaeological Atlas of Yucatan and in later years with research at Chichen Itza headed by Dr. Peter Schmidt, Merle was able to produce a set of compact disks filled with images of art from the site.
Merle's data base of Chichen Itza art constitutes the most comprehensive description of sculpture from the site available. Her extensive work complements the well-known studies by Charnay, Maudslay, Holmes and Seler. Today as thousands of tourists flock to Chichen Itza, most of the art there is hidden from view. Much of the site is roped off and inaccessible. The best way to learn about what is there is to access Merle's data base.
Merle's work at Chichen Itza was physically demanding. Remember that she was about 75 years old when she toiled there under the hot Yucatecan sun Producing the copies of carved monuments may seem to be light work, but in practice it can be quite arduous. The procedure involves taping specially made, thick Japanese rice paper to the sculpture and then applying just the right amount of water with a fine brush. The wet, pliable paper is then pressed into the face of the monument and finally pounded into place to expel any air between paper and stone. Any of these steps could and often did produce gaping holes in the very expensive paper. Merle would then watch the monument dry until the paper retained just the right amount of moisture. At that point, using silk balls filled with cotton, she daubed Sumi ink on elevated areas of the carving. The work had to proceed quickly for if the paper dried before the inking process was complete, it would not accept additional pigment.
Merle had to do almost all of the inking at Chichen Itza because very few of the many talented people that helped us with the project became proficient enough to be trusted to apply pigment. Most commercially available rice paper is very thin. Even with the thick paper we used, considerable practice is needed to avoid ink bleeding through the paper and defacing the monuments. Ink stains from attempts by various would-be artists mark numerous carvings at Chichen Itza â€“ the reason that making rubbings at the site is now prohibited.
Merle tried to interpret the art of Chichen Itza through the eyes of the artists that once worked there. She interpreted repeated treatments of the same theme, some exhibiting excellent workmanship and others executed in an indifferent manner, as the product of an artistic school with masters and apprentices. As an artist herself, Merle emphasized details. For example, she insisted that one of the figures from the Lower Temple of the Jaguars that Tozzer considered a typical Toltec warrior had female anatomical features.
It is clear that great art, especially when associated with architecture, had to be supported. How was a project such as the Northwest Colonnade of the Temple of the Warriors funded? Merle suggested that kin groups were enticed to support the construction with the opportunity to depict an ancestor on one of the columns. While we were aware that together the columns of the Northwest Colonnade form a scene with warriors surrounding elite tied prisoners at the foot of the stairs leading to the Temple of the Warriors proper, Merle and I presented a paper interpreting that scene as a stratified institution captured in stone at a moment in time. We were all impressed with the significance of the captives depicted at Chichen Itza. I was particularly interested in the carved wooden lintels found in the dark inner room at the top of the Castillo. I insisted that we should copy these lintels and Merle happily agreed.
One carving shows a group of richly dressed individuals in typical “Toltec” costume seated and tied together at the wrist by a long rope. But traditional thinking from Charnay, to Seler and Tozzer emphasized "Toltec" conquest of the Maya. Even Tozzer thought these captive "Toltec" were difficult to explain. Today of course, Mayanists are rethinking the whole "Toltec" concept.
Merle was well-known for slips, falls and other sometimes debilitating accidents she suffered. She had no fear! (Her autobiography is even called Never in Fear!) Peter Schmidt once remarked that our main job was to keep her from breaking her neck at the site! Given the rickety, makeshift scaffolding we used during the early part of the project, an angel must have been watching over us. Later, when Peter's project was under way, he made sure we had proper platforms to use. There are many photographs of Merle up on a barely stable ladder, working away.
Our life at Chichen Itza was hardly dangerous or unpleasant! We stayed in cabins provided by the Mayaland Hotel or the Piramides Inn and had meals at their excellent food services. Camping out at one of the as easy living for archaeologists! Clean water was assured and we even had a swimming pool to ourselves. Sojourns to more remote places, however, were a bit adventuresome.
Merle insisted on sleeping in a tent on the ground at El Palmar and was rewarded with botfly larva under her skin. Even though the people in the village correctly identified the parasite, she had to take the problem to several medical people in the USA before anyone believed her. Finally the worm began to come out in the doctor's office. I think Merle was very proud of that “battle scar”.
Palenque was Merle's favorite site. Her friends enjoyed the hospitality of her novel cottage and library there. Her multi-volume Sculpture of Palenque (University of Princeton Press, 1983-91) is a very comprehensive and detailed account of what was known about the site until that time. She devoted particular attention to recording colors used in the mural paintings.
Two volumes feature Merle's copies of Maya monuments. The New York Museum of Primitive Art published Ancient Maya Relief Sculpture in 1967. Merle Greene, Robert L. Rands and John A. Graham made their Maya Sculpture from the Southern Lowlands, Highlands and Pacific Piedmont available in 1972. These volumes contain high quality reproductions of some of Merle's best work.
Surrounded by friends and family, Merle faced her mortality without fear. I understand that she instructed her friends to have a party in her memory. Some of my last conversations with her, too long ago, involved possible projects copying inscriptions in Istanbul and Cambodia. Yes, there is much work to be done in the conservation and study of the ancient world.
If she were with us, Merle would be leading the effort. Archaeology in general, and her many friends will sorely miss her.