The roadside sign that directed Ian Graham toward his future was straightforward enough: “Last Gas Before Mexico.”
“Mexico. Well, that’s an idea I hadn’t thought of,” he mused while filling up his car’s gas tank in Texas, little knowing that the sign might as well have read: This way to a memorable career.
It was 1957 and Mr. Graham was driving a 1927 Rolls Royce from New York to California, where he hoped to “sell it to a movie mogul for a vast sum,” he recalled in “The Road to Ruins,” his 2010 memoir about his life as an archeologist. On a whim, Mr. Graham turned south that day 60 years ago. What he imagined as a short side trip led to his decades-long effort to preserve monuments and study hieroglyphics throughout the Maya region in Mexico and Central America.
In pages sparkling with the charm that marked his encounters with professors in the halls of Harvard University, patrons who financed much of his work, and those he met exploring jungles, he emphasized the key role good luck played in his life. “Serendipity is too weak a word to account for my entry into this field,” he wrote in his memoir. “A whole chain of pleasant events were responsible.”
Mr. Graham, who was the director emeritus and a founder of Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions at Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, died Aug. 1 at Chantry Farm, his family’s home in the county of Suffolk, England. He was 93 and his health had been declining.
In 1981, he was in the inaugural class of MacArthur Fellows and received one of the so-called genius grants. He was on a research trip in the jungles of Guatemala when the news was announced. In 2004, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society for American Archaeology.
“The general consensus is that the decipherment of the Mayan hieroglyphics we have today wouldn’t have been possible without Ian’s work,” said Barbara Fash, who directs the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, which Mr. Graham helped establish in 1968. “All he really wanted to do was make sure the information was there for the future. He worked very tirelessly.”
Mr. Graham, who had lived in Cambridge for many years while not on expeditions, lacked formal training in archeology, but his passion for the subject turned him into one of the most significant figures in his specialty. In a tribute posted on a Peabody website, Fash wrote that “the body of drawings and photographs, site maps, and references he produced are positively staggering.”
His work through the decades took place at a critical time. Monuments in the Maya region were targets of looters, some of whom tried to slice stones into pieces to make them easier to transport. Those attempts often made irreplaceable artifacts crumble. And the monuments that escaped the ravages of theft instead faced the ravages of time. Hieroglyphics gradually fade in the humid tropical climate and the rain from violent storms. The loss of a dot or a line in a drawing makes it more difficult, if not impossible, for archeologists to discern its meaning.
“Ian Graham has done more than any other person to save the fragile written record of the ancient Maya from destruction by looters, harsh weather, and acid rain,” Archaeology magazine said in 1997.
In a 2007 interview with the Harvard Gazette, Mr. Graham spoke about why he chose to study Maya civilization artifacts, even though it meant long hours in unusual and at times dangerous places. “It seemed one of the great gaps in world history,” he said. “It was a young person’s challenge that sounded very exciting – travel, strange animals – it all sort of fitted together. I’d always hated the idea of a 9-to-5 job, so I got an 8-to-10 one.”
Writing in The Times Literary Supplement in London, Ferdinand Mount called Mr. Graham’s memoir “unexpectedly beguiling, just because of its impulsive, picaresque character. At the faintest whisper of an undiscovered Maya site . . . Graham is off, hitching a lift from a passing truck or chopper, commandeering a canoe, wielding a machete.” Readers, Mount added, are “swept along in his all-consuming Maya mania.”
Ian James Alastair Graham was born in Campsea Ashe, a village in Suffolk, England. His mother, the former Meriel Bathurst, “was a woman of notable beauty, intelligence, and sensibility,” he wrote in his memoir. His maternal grandfather was the seventh Earl of Bathurst, and his father, Lord Alistair Graham, was the youngest son of the Duke of Montrose. During Mr. Graham’s vacations at one of the duke’s estates, among his boyhood friends was Prince Rainier of Monaco.
Mr. Graham was educated at home by his mother until he was nearly 9, when he was sent to a boarding school. He was 11 when his mother died, which “deprived our family of her love and guiding hand,” he wrote.
While growing up on his family’s farm, he became fascinated by electricity and by mechanical objects of all sorts. The writer Rudyard Kipling, a family friend, gave him a Swiss Army knife with its many tool attachments – something that afforded “tremendous status” in his boarding school dorm, Mr. Graham wrote. He studied physics at Trinity College in Cambridge, England, and left during World War II to serve in the Royal Navy. Afterward, he finished his undergraduate degree in 1951 at Trinity College in Dublin. Mr. Graham also studied electronics in college, and he conducted radar research while in the military.
In the 1950s, he traveled to New York and worked as an assistant to the renowned photographer Irving Penn before embarking on his cross-country trip and detour into Mexico. While studying exhibits in a Mexico City museum, Mr. Graham came across a stone tablet with squiggles whose meaning was unknown; the desire to figure out what it meant captured his imagination. He completed his original journey, sold the Rolls Royce in Los Angeles, and began visiting Mexico and other Maya sites in the region.
“For Graham, there is no worldly achievement to compare with the satisfaction of jacking up one of these mighty fallen slabs and finding on the underside the reliefs of jaguars and bird-kings and bloodlettings as pristine as when they were carved,” Mount wrote in the Times Literary Supplement.
A service was held in England for Mr. Graham, who leaves a sister, Margaret Preston, and a brother, Robin, both of England.
Late into his 70s until he retired in 2004, Mr. Graham could be found in his Harvard office working on his sketches of hieroglyphics and Maya sites, using a magnifying glass for precision.
“He would always have classical music on and be pretty quietly working at his desk, over his drafting table. He would stop for tea if anyone came in to visit him,” Fash said.
That silence would be broken if, in the course of research, Mr. Graham came across writing that didn’t meet his standards. He didn’t hesitate to pick up the phone and point out mistakes.
“He used to be very nitpicky about grammar,” Fash added with a laugh. “Occasionally I would overhear a lot of agitated conversations with editors at The New York Times and various places when he had found grammatical errors.”Bryan Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.