Unearthing the Maya: Highlights of the Stuart Collection

The Stuart Collection

“Relief Mexicain” (plate 11) in Alexander von Humboldt’s Vues des Cordillères (1810).
Checklist no. 14.

The Stuart Collection in the library at Barnardsville has its origins in the intellectual curiosity and collecting passion of a young boy. When George Stuart was ten years old, his father gave him his first antiquarian book, a seventeenth-century Italian volume. This gift stimulated Stuart’s interest in both history and old books. He continued reading and collecting through his teen years, focusing increasingly on the history of the indigenous populations and cultures of North America, especially the southeastern part of the present-day United States. Following college, and in response to the impact of subsequent graduate training and professional experiences, he began to shift his collecting emphasis to the archaeology and ethnology of the ancient civilizations of Mesoamerica, especially the Maya.

After 1984, the ever-growing Stuart Collection became associated with the new Center for Maya Research and in the mid-1990s was moved to its present location in a building adjacent to the Stuart home in Barnardsville, North Carolina. From very modest beginnings decades ago, the collection today numbers nearly 13,000 items. The vast majority are printed, but there are also significant if smaller holdings of manuscripts, photographs, prints, and original drawings. The books and manuscripts date from the early eighteenth century to the present; the photographic materials are from the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The materials deal principally with the archaeology and ethnology of ancient, or at least older, cultures and civilizations. The coverage is worldwide, but quite naturally, the greatest depth reflects Dr. Stuart’s special interests in Mesoamerica (particularly the Maya) and the southeastern United States. Many of the highlights of the remarkable collection are described in the introduction to this Web site and in the exhibition checklist.

Nearly half of the library today (about 6,000 items) consists of the personal library of Dr. Stuart, the result of his lifelong collecting. In addition to his own materials, however, the collection has been the happy beneficiary of a number of important gifts, mostly from other archaeologists or, in some cases, their estates. These gifts have more than doubled the size of the collection and very substantially enhanced its research depth.

Among the earliest of these donations was the bequest, received in 1979 from Jerome O. Kilmartin of the United States Geological Survey, of Kilmartin’s remarkable collection of books, manuscripts, and photographs relating to the archaeological sites of the Maya region, notably Chichén Itzá. These materials include Kilmartin’s Yucatán diaries of 1923 and 1924 as well as original correspondence from noted archaeologist Sylvanus G. Morley relating to the beginning of the Carnegie Institution of Washington’s half-century of intensive investigation of the Maya.

Reconstruction of Dzibilchaltun by George Stuart (1961).
[ enlarge ]

The largest and one of the most important of the donations has been the collection of Matthew W. Stirling, who was Director of the Bureau of American Ethnology at the Smithsonian from 1929 to 1957. The Stirling materials, numbering approximately 5,000 items, were donated to the center in Barnardsville by the noted anthropologist’s widow, Marion Stirling Pugh, in 2000. The collection, nearly doubling the size of the existing library, included rich holdings in scholarly pamphlets and reprints from the mid-nineteenth century onwards. The Stirling gift was equally impressive for its holdings of nearly all of the major institutional journals, periodicals, and series relating to archaeology and anthropology in many areas of the Americas. Among these very important publications are the American Anthropologist; the Bulletin (nos. 1–200) and Annual Report (nos. 1–48) of the Bureau of American Ethnology; full sets of Indian Notes, Notes and Monographs, Contributions, and Leaflets of the Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation; the Papers and the Memoirs of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University; and the Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History.

Augustus Le Plongeon at Chichén Itzá, 1883.

In 2001, Ian Graham, director of the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions project at Harvard, donated to the library important manuscripts concerning the expedition of Guillermo Dupaix to Mexico in 1805 and other materials relating to Mexican antiquities. Some time later he donated an important early manuscript version of Jean-Frédéric Waldeck’s Voyage pittoresque (1838) and a substantial letter written by Edward FitzGerald to Lord Kingsborough in 1836 describing in detail the famous ruins at Palenque.

Drawing of Tikal’s Temple II from Tatiana Proskouriakoff’s An Album of Maya Architecture (1946).
Checklist no. 35.

Also in 2001, Lawrence G. Desmond of Palo Alto, California, donated his large collection of approximately 4,000 photographs to the library. They consist of archival negatives, transparencies, and prints reproduced from original images created by Augustus Le Plongeon at Chichén Itzá and other archaeological sites in the Maya area. In 2004, archaeologist Lewis H. Larson, Jr., of Carrollton, Georgia, began the transfer of his extraordinary library on anthropology and ethnohistory, particularly of the southeastern United States, to the library in Barnardsville.

Map of Yucatán and Guatemala (1671). [ enlarge ]

Although the present building housing the library in Barnardsville was renovated for that very purpose, Dr. Stuart and his wife Melinda had been considering a more permanent home for the collection and had been talking with officials at UNC even before Hurricane Ivan caused extensive damage in western North Carolina in 2004. Although the buildings at the center were spared flooding, the storm introduced an element of urgency into the discussions with UNC. An agreement was reached some fifteen months later, in early 2006. By its terms, the Stuarts have agreed to donate the printed, manuscript, photographic, and other relevant materials presently in BEARC’s library to the University Library in Chapel Hill. Plans call for the bulk of the collection, largely the printed portions, to be maintained in the Rare Book Collection in Wilson Library. Most of the manuscript materials will be kept in the Manuscripts Department, also in Wilson. The transfer of materials will be in stages, with the first installment, completed at the end of November 2006, consisting of many of the original manuscripts and photographs and approximately 1,000 volumes of printed materials. The latter will be housed in specially designated cases in the reading room of the Rare Book Collection.

Annie G. Hunter’s illustrations of pottery from Rio Hondo, British Honduras (now Belize), from Examples of Maya Pottery in the Museum and Other Collections, Part II (1928).
Checklist no. 17.

The Stuart Collection will complement existing holdings in Wilson Library, most notably the Bernard J. Flatow Collection of cronistas, or chroniclers, of the earliest Spanish exploration of the Americas, the first Europeans to encounter the Maya and other indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica. At the same time, this splendid new gift will serve to place the UNC library in Chapel Hill among a small number of the very largest and deepest collections on the archaeology of the Americas—especially of Mesoamerica and the Maya region—an elite group including the libraries at Harvard, Yale, Vanderbilt, the University of Pen nsylvania, Tulane, and the University of Texas at Austin. In recognition of the great importance of this gift and awareness of the need for Dr. Stuart’s advice and involvement in its continuing growth and development, the University Library has been pleased to name him Honorary Curator of the Stuart Collection.

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