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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Photo Friday: Division of Days

In pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, the calendar originated by the Mayans included 260 days. The “tzolkin” or “division of days” displayed in today’s photo are described as ceremonial or mythological. The calendar pages are part of a series of Mayan glyphs collected by Robert Hall Merrill (1881-1955). Merrill, an engineer and businessman, was a member of the Board of Trustees at Cranbrook Institute of Science from 1944-1953, as well as a consultant in the Anthropology department from 1948-1949.

Tzolkins 6 and 7 from the Robert Hall Merrill Papers, ca 1922.

Mary Miller, director of the Getty Research Institute, describes the Mesoamerican calendar as the oldest and most important calendar system (earliest evidence dating to 800-500 BCE). The original purpose of the 260-day calendar is unknown, but there are several theories. One theory is that the calendar is based on the mathematical operations for the numbers 20 and 13 (important numbers in the Mayan culture). The calendar combines a cycle of twenty named days with another cycle of thirteen numbers to produce 260 days. Each named day has a corresponding glyph as seen in the photo above.

The glyphs are part of a series sent to Merrill by Edith Gates McComas, sister of Maya scholar, William Gates. This extraordinary material was transferred to Cranbrook Archives in 2016.

Gina Tecos, Archivist

 

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