AUSTIN, Texas — University of Texas at Austin scholar Linda Schele, a major figure in the decipherment of Maya hieroglyphic writing and the study of ancient American civilization, died on April 18th in Austin at the age of 55 from pancreatic cancer. In a 25-year period, Schele produced a large number of important works on ancient Maya art, culture and writing.
A graduate of the University of Cincinnati with degrees in education and art, Schele, a native of Nashville, Tenn., came to the study of the Maya by chance after a career in teaching studio art at the University of South Alabama. In 1970, she and her husband David, traveled to Mexico to photograph the Maya ruins in Yucatan for the University’s collection. Almost by accident, the Scheles visited the ruins of the ancient Maya city of Palenque. For Schele, the ruins were a revelation, and they led her to focus the rest of her life on the study of the Maya and their culture. Schele often said that the ancient Maya use of art as a metaphorical agent to depict their cosmological vision was central to her understanding of them.
While touring Palenque, Schele met the famed artist and photographer of Maya ruins, Merle Green Robertson, who became Schele’s most important mentor during the early stages of her new vocation. The association with Robertson quickly drew Schele into the world of the ancient Maya, their art and their system of hieroglyphic writing. In 1973, Robertson organized the first Mesa Redonda de Palenque, a small conference whose goal was deciphering Maya writing, a hieroglyphic system, at that time not fully understood. Participating in that conference, and working with Peter Matthews, Schele used her knowledge, vision and a compilation of recent epigraphic breakthroughs to decipher a major section of the Palenque king list. This achievement became the stimulus that led to many later discoveries by Schele and other scholars.
In 1975-76, Schele was a fellow in pre-Columbian studies at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C. During this time frame, Schele, working in conjunction with other scholars, further accelerated the process of Maya hieroglyphic decipherment through major studies of the word order in Maya inscriptions. In 1980, Schele was awarded a Ph.D. in Latin American Studies, and her dissertation, Maya Glyphs: the Verbs, published in 1982, won “The Most Creative and Innovative Project in Professional and Scholarly Publication,” an award given by the Professional and Scholarly Publishing Division of the Association of American Publishers.
In 1981, Schele continued her teaching career in the Dept. of Art/Art History at the University. In 1988 Schele was named the John D. Murchison Regents Professor of Art at the University of Texas. Schele’s research methodology and influence has permeated ancient American studies through many of her students who now hold academic positions throughout the U.S.
In 1977, Schele founded the Maya Hieroglyphic Workshop at Texas. These meetings, held at UT Austin, have become a major source for many of the significant epigraphic and iconographic discoveries made about ancient American civilization over the last two decades.
In 1986, Schele organized a ground breaking exhibition of Maya art, The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art. The catalog for that exhibition, co-authored by Mary Miller, continues to be a major text for the field and was awarded The Alfred Barr Award of the College Art Association for the Best Exhibition Catalog of 1986.
In the mid-1980s, Schele’s academic interest expanded to included the culture of the contemporary Maya. Between 1988 and 1997, Schele, along with Nikolai Grube and Frederico Fahsen, organized and presented 13 workshops on hieroglyphic writing to Maya-speaking peoples of Guatemala and Mexico. The goal of these workshops was the re-introduction of hieroglyphic writing and the stimulation of interest in ancient Maya history among the modern Maya. The Maya trained in these workshops are now actively engaged in the translation of the writing system of their ancestors. Schele considered this work with her friends in the Maya communities among the most important of her career. On March 21, 1998, Schele was awarded two Diplomas of Recognition by the government of Guatemala, the Museo Popul Vuh and the Universidad Francisco Marroquin in recognition of her work in that country.
Schele was dedicated to making the fruits of scholarly research accessible to the general public. This effort included the annual Maya Meetings at Texas, numerous speaking engagements around the world, tours of Mesoamerican sites organized by Far Horizons, Inc. and books for the trade press. In recent years, Schele published four major books on the Maya and their Civilization: 1990, A Forest of Kings, co-authored with David Freidel; 1993, Maya Cosmos: Three Thousand Years on the Shamans Path, co-authored with David Freidel and Joy Parker; 1997, Hidden Faces of the Maya; and 1998 The Code of Kings: The Sacred Landscape of Seven Maya Temples and Tombs, co-authored with Peter Matthews.
Schele is survived by her husband David and her brother Tom Richmond, her sister-in-law Sandra Jane Quance, her father-in-law DeWayne Schele, hundreds of devoted students, countless friends and two cats.
A memorial service will be held at Amey Funeral Home, 7811 Rockwood Drive, in Austin Texas at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 22 and a celebration of her life will be held at a later date. Instead of flowers, donations may be made to The Linda Schele Precolumbian Endowment at the University of Texas at Austin c/o Karen Payne, Development Office, College of Fine Arts, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX 78712.