In Memoriam: Merle Greene Robertson, 1913–2011

It is with great sadness that the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco mourn the passing of Merle Greene Robertson. A legend in the world of Mesoamerican studies and Maya epigraphy, Robertson has been a friend and consultant to the Museums for decades. She generously donated many of her unique rubbings made from the monuments of Chichen Itza, a large Maya center that flourished on the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico after AD 800. These rubbings provide clear renderings of detailed Maya stone carvings and are an important aspect of the Museums' Mesoamerican holdings.

© 2008 Ron Henggeler

Born in 1913 in Montana, Robertson grew up in a family that valued education for women and prized the great outdoors and adventures into the unknown. Her family later moved to Seattle and during the Great Depression, she attended the University of Washington in Seattle where she studied both graphic and architectural design.

In 1959 after moving to California with her two children, Robertson was accepted to the MFA program at the University of Guanajuato in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. It was during this time that she first encountered the ancient Maya and her passion for their art and iconography began. As an artist on the Tikal Project in Guatemala, Robertson was enlisted to document the art and architecture of the precincts. In so doing, she developed her technique of recording these monuments by means of rubbings.

In 1973, Robertson organized and hosted the Primera Mesa Redonda de Palenque (First Palenque Round Table) conference on Maya iconography and epigraphy. After years of conducting independent research, this conference brought together Maya scholars from around the world. The meetings were attended by representatives from fourteen universities throughout the United States, Mexico and Canada, but it began as an informal gathering. Black curtains covered the windows to allow for slide presentations and the audience sat on folding chairs, the floor or even the Robertson’s bed! However humble these beginnings, the Primera Mesa Redonda conference (and subsequent meetings) proved a turning point in Maya studies. The meeting of minds that took place during these conferences ultimately resulted in the decipherment of the Maya code, an invaluable contribution to the study of Mesoamerican art and culture.

Photo source: Merle Greene Robertson, Never in Fear (San Francisco: Pre-Columbian Art Research Institute, 2006)

Robertson was appointed Adjunct Curator of Pre-Columbian Art at the Fine Arts Museums in 1990 by then-director Harry S. Parker III. She also served as director of the Pre-Columbian Art Research Institute in San Francisco and in Palenque, Chiapas, Mexico. In addition to these responsibilities, she added her considerable knowledge as a research associate to the Middle American Research Institute of Tulane University, the Academy of Sciences and the Archaeological Research faculty of UC Berkeley.

Rubbing from the Ballcourt at Chichen Itza (detail), mid 20th century
Mexico, Yucatan, site of Chichen Itza, Early Postclassic Maya  
Ink on rice paper
Gift of Merle Greene Robertson, 1992.152.1–3

Throughout her long life, Robertson was an adventurer who traveled around the world, often alone, always fearlessly. In 2006, she published her memoirs, Never in Fear, detailing her travels and the many lessons she learned about culture, art and life. Merle Greene Robertson’s magnificent Rubbing from the Ballcourt at Chichen Itza is currently on view in the Paul A. Violich Family Gallery for Mesoamerican Art at the de Young.