Schele, Linda Dean Richmond (1942–1998)

By: Cynthia Marshall Devlin

Type: Biography

Published: October 20, 2021

Updated: October 21, 2021


Linda Dean Richmond Schele, University of Texas art professor who became best-known for her efforts in deciphering ancient Maya hieroglyphs, was born on October 30, 1942, in Nashville, Tennessee, to Lloyd Dean Richmond and Ruby Mae (Brown) Richmond. She attended Litton High School in Nashville and graduated about 1960. She studied at the University of Cincinnati and received a bachelor’s in education degree in 1964 and a master’s degree in fine arts in 1968. That same year she married fellow university student and architect David Martin Schele and after graduation taught art at the University of South Alabama in Mobile.

Linda Schele came about her life’s work quite by accident. In 1970 she and her husband spent Christmas vacation in the Yucatan for the purpose of photographing Maya ruins for the University of South Alabama. Fascinated by the ruins, the couple toured the ancient city of Palenque where she met important artist Merle Green Robertson, and he led her into the ancient world of the Maya. “I became so fascinated by the art of the Maya,” Schele later commented about her obsession, “that I was compelled to try and understand who did it, when they did it and why they did it.” The first Mesa Redonda de Palenque organized by Robertson occurred in 1973, and during the small conference Schele and archeologist Peter Matthews deciphered a large portion of the Palenque king list. This opened the academic door to great breakthroughs and discoveries for Schele. 

In 1975–76, while a fellow at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., Schele focused on pre-Columbian studies with various scholars that furthered the interpretation of Maya hieroglyphics. By 1977 she organized with Nancy Troike (a research associate of the Institute of Latin American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin) the renowned Maya Meetings at the University of Texas where all interested were welcome to attend. Schele earned a Ph.D. in Latin American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin in 1980. Her dissertation was published as Maya Glyphs: The Verbs in 1982 and was awarded “The Most Creative and Innovative Project in Professional and Scholarly Publication” by the Association of American Publishers. In 1981 Schele became a professor of art and art history at the University of Texas. On May 17, 1986, the exhibit The Blood of Kings: A New Interpretation of Maya Art opened at Fort Worth’s Kimbell Art Museum; the collection later traveled to the Cleveland Museum of Art. The Blood of Kings: Dynasty and Ritual in Maya Art, the 335-page catalogue corresponding to the art collection, was a collaboration between Schele and Mary Ellen Miller of Yale University. This showing received attention in numerous varied publications, and the catalogue was honored with the Alfred Barr Award of the College Art Association for Best Exhibition Catalog of 1986.    

In 1988 Schele was named the John D. Murchison Professor of Art at the University of Texas. She expanded her body of work after 1988 to include contemporary Maya culture. Along with Frederico Fahsen and Nikolai Grube, she held thirteen workshops on her study of hieroglyphic writing to citizens of both Guatemala and Mexico. Her work inspired modern Maya scholars to translate the writing system of their antecedents. Numerous descriptions and accolades defined Schele, especially those referencing her gregarious personality and her worldview that academic studies should promote integrative learning between academicians and the public thereby encouraging greater discourse and understanding. She made Austin the hub of Mesoamerican conferences and gatherings as scholars and non-scholars came to hear her ideas and theories. Schele believed in open access to her discoveries and encouraged non academics to offer opinions and ideas that she sometimes included in her talks and writings. Her efforts proved as important as the Rosetta Stone had been to the interpretation of Egyptian hieroglyphics and offered new insights into the Maya that reflected a warlike culture that exhausted its natural resources. 

Schele published four major books on the Maya and their civilization: A Forest of Kings (co-authored with David Freidel, 1990), Maya Cosmos: Three Thousand Years on the Shamans Path (co-authored with David Freidel and Joy Parker, 1993), Hidden Faces of the Maya (1997), and The Code of Kings: The Sacred Landscape of Seven Maya Temples and Tombs (co-authored with Peter Matthews, 1998). The government of Guatemala, the Universidad Francisco Marroquin, and the Museo Popul Vuh honored Schele with two Diplomas of Recognition in 1998. Known as the “heart and soul of Maya studies,” Schele and her prolific body of work spawned many new inquisitive artists, art historians, archaeologists, and Maya specialists.   

Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, she founded the Linda Schele Endowment in Maya and Pre-Columbian Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Strongly determined to live life to the fullest regardless of her cancer diagnosis, Schele had team-taught two seminars the week she died. Linda Dean Richmond Schele died in Austin on April 18, 1998. Her final resting place is among the ancient Maya near Lago Atitlán, Guatemala. Schele’s legacy continued with the Maya Meeting at Austin that brought approximately 600 participants from around the world for the conference that lasted from March 11 to 20 in 1999. “Linda believed that everyone, from all walks of life, had something meaningful to contribute,” University of Texas art professor Julia Guernsey stated about Schele. “She wanted to talk to everyone—to engineers who were thinking about hydraulic systems, to doctors who might know how tough it was to extract a human heart from someone’s chest.”

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Austin Chronicle, May 2, 2008. Breaking the Maya Code, Interview Archives (https://nightfirefilms.org/breaking-the-maya-code/interview-archives/), accessed October 19, 2021. Rose Cahalan, “Secrets of the Maya,” Alcalde, July/August 2012. “Guatemalan government honors renowned UT Austin scholar for her work in deciphering hieroglyphics,” UT News, University Communications, March 18, 1998 (https://news.utexas.edu/1998/03/18/guatemalan-government-honors-renowned-ut-austin-scholar-for-her-work-in-deciphering-hieroglyphics/), accessed April 1, 2021. Cecelia F. Klein, "Mayamania: ‘The Blood of Kings’ in Retrospect," Art Journal 47 (1988). The Linda Schele Drawing Collection, Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc. (http://www.famsi.org/research/schele/index.html), accessed April 1, 2021. “Maya historian Linda Schele dies,” UT News, University Communications, April 20, 1998 (https://news.utexas.edu/1998/04/20/maya-historian-linda-schele-dies/), accessed March 16, 2021. Linda Schele Papers, Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection, University of Texas Libraries, University of Texas at Austin. “Tradition of Dr. Linda Schele lives on with Maya Meetings,” UT News, University Communications, March 2, 1999 (https://news.utexas.edu/1999/03/02/tradition-of-dr-linda-schele-lives-on-with-maya-meetings/), accessed March 16, 2021.  

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Time Periods:

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Cynthia Marshall Devlin, “Schele, Linda Dean Richmond,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed January 24, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/schele-linda-dean-richmond.

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October 20, 2021
October 21, 2021

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