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.

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