Collection Highlight: Robert Hall Merrill Papers

With the new year approaching and the impending conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter, it seemed timely to take a look at the collection of Robert Hall Merrill Papers, which were opened to researchers in 2017.

Merrill was an engineer who developed an interest in archaeology, becoming an authority on the Maya calendar, particularly focusing on time measurement. Merrill was associated with the Institute of Science in the 1940s and 1950s, but the Merrill Papers in Cranbrook Archives document over fifty years of his research, graphs, findings, and conclusions.

Merrill’s graph of Venus phases. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

The Maya were an agricultural civilization and used observations of the sun, moon, and Venus to determine ideal dates for planting and harvest. The calendar, which is comparable in its exactitude to the Western system of time measurement, is based on the movement of the sun. Archaeologists access and interpret this knowledge through writing, represented by characters or pictures, and astronomical markers which have been uncovered by geologists.

Astrolabe Rubbing. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Merrill graphed the phases of the sun, moon, and the planets to decipher the calendar. By applying engineering methods to archaeological studies, Merrill developed a device for photo-surveying in 1941. The device enabled vertical photographs of large areas of artifacts, which facilitated documentation of the excavation process which had previously been recorded by sketching.

Maya Sun Calendar Cycles Chart. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

The correspondence and publications in the collection document his work with numerous scholars around the world, including the Maya archaeologist J. Eric S. Thompson, who was a visiting scholar to Cranbrook Institute of Science between January and April 1967.

Preliminary Decipherments of Maya Glyphs 4. CIS Directors’ Records. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1881, Merrill received a Bachelor of Engineering degree from the University of Michigan in 1902. After working in various engineering positions, including working on plans for locks in Tianjin, China between 1918 and 1921, Merrill established the firm Spooner and Merrill with Charles Spooner in Grand Rapids. During this time, he developed a passion for archaeology, making several expeditions. This led to research in Uxmal, Yucatan, where he worked on detailed plans for reproducing the Maya Temple at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair Exposition. Merrill also mapped projects in Alaska, California, New Mexico, Texas, and Italy, as well as for the University of Pennsylvania Museum’s expedition to Coclé, Panama.

Nunnery Quadrangle Uxmal Ruins, Yucatan, for the Chicago World’s Fair of 1933 by Tulane University. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Merrill was a member of the Cranbrook Institute of Science Board of Trustees between 1944 and 1953, also acting as a consultant in the Anthropology Department (1948-1949) and on the Research Committee (1949-1952). His publication, “The calendar stick of Tshi-zun-hau-kau” was published by the Institute of Science in 1945. Merrill died June 5, 1955, in Grand Rapids.

Robert Hall Merrill. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

The collection consists primarily of correspondence, graphs, and charts documenting Merrill’s personal research and conclusions. Merrill recorded his work in notebooks, which were indexed by his second wife, Audie Sinclair Weston, and referred to as “codices,” to reflect the ancient classical manuscripts of the same name. These include Maya Moon Tables and Correlations, and Maya Arithmetic. The collection is arranged in original order to ensure the reliability and integrity of the records as documenting Merrill’s work and thought processes. This supports their usability and helps the researcher understand and interpret the development of his conclusions over time. To learn more about astronomy and follow stars and planets scientifically, check out the Cranbrook Institute of Science’s astronomy resources.

—Laura MacNewman, Associate Archivist, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

One thought on “Collection Highlight: Robert Hall Merrill Papers

  1. Enjoyed this entry! I was in Uxmal myself in 1977. Maybe because I was a Spanish teacher at CK, someone once told me a little about Merrill and his Mayan interest but I didn’t know anyof this. Fascinating man!

    Liked by 1 person

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