Obituary: Linda Schele

AMONG all the achievements of Pre-Columbian America, the hieroglyphic writing of the Maya holds a special place. It has long provoked fascination and bewilderment in equal measure and its unravelling - though still incomplete - ranks among the great scholarly adventures of the century.

Unlike Egyptian hieroglyphs - cracked by Champollion in barely three years - no single key serves to unlock the entire system and recent advances are the result of dogged efforts by numerous scholars. The decipherment has already profoundly affected how we view Maya society. The early (mis)conception of a theocratic Utopia - whose inscriptions contained nothing more than astrological computation and prediction - was destroyed in a 1960 paper by Tatiana Proskouriakoff. She demonstrated that the texts were overwhelmingly historical in content and dealt with the lives of kings, and their pursuit of warfare. Despite this breakthrough, the essential nature of the system remained enigmatic.

Until the 1970s it was widely held to be "ideographic", symbolic representations of ideas with little or no connection to the spoken word. But, starting from 1952, Yuri Knorosov outlined the phonetic basis of the system, that it encoded language (in this case Classical Mayan), as all true writing must.

By a route she always referred to as simple "serendipity", Linda Schele entered the field at this crucial juncture. An artist and teacher, she first visited Mexico in 1970 as a tourist; co-driving a VW van with her architect husband David, carrying a clutch of students. This first encounter with Maya art and writing was to shape her future life and career. Initially, it was the complex designs of the hieroglyphs that attracted her, but she was quickly drawn to the intellectual challenge of the decipherment.

Within three years she had transformed herself into a Maya epigrapher at the forefront of the field. Her first studies of note, in collaboration with Peter Mathews and Floyd Lounsbury, revealed the 350-year dynastic history of the great city of Palenque, Mexico. Today a much-visited ruin, it is best known for the magnificent tomb of Pakal or "Shield" (AD 615- 683); one of the kings her work lifted from obscurity.

In 1977 she co-founded a hieroglyphic workshop with Nancy Troike at the University of Texas at Austin. An ongoing legacy, these forums consistently attract an international audience of several hundred.

In 1981, she took up an associate professorship in art (from 1987 a full position) at the same university. Her doctoral research was published as the volume Maya Glyphs: the verbs in 1982. An award-winner, it combined a pioneering effort in desktop publishing with a far-sighted emphasis on grammatical structure.

Over time, her interest moved towards broader issues of art and society; with particular emphasis on the religious underpinning of kingship, on cosmology and shamanism. In 1986 she and Mary Miller created the exhibition "Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art", at the Kimbell Museum, Fort Worth. Its richly illustrated catalogue, packed with detailed analysis and argument, immediately became a landmark. A succession of articles and books followed, the best known being: Forest of Kings (with David Friedel, 1990), Maya Cosmos (with Friedel and Joy Parker, 1993) and, published shortly before her death, Code of Kings (with Peter Mathews, 1998).

For Schele, the study of the ancient Maya was inextricably bound to the lives of their modern descendants, who number at least four million and live in the same lands today as they did in antiquity. Together with Nikolai Grube, she initiated a series of hieroglyphic workshops, in both Mexico and Guatemala, specifically for Mayan speakers. For a people who have suffered a long history of social injustice, at times active repression, the sophistication of the glyphic writing serves as a powerful symbol and source of growing ethnic pride. She saw this work as the most important of her life.

Linda Schele inspired a generation of younger scholars to take up Maya studies and her success in guiding her own students meant that she was one of the most productive educators in the field. Currently there are efforts to create a permanent chair in her memory at the University of Texas.

Linda Richmond, Mayanist and artist: born Nashville, Tennessee 30 October 1942; married 1968 David Schele; died Austin, Texas 18 April 1998.

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