Unearthing the Maya: Highlights of the Stuart Collection


Unearthing the Maya is a direct result of the generosity of George E. and Melinda Y. Stuart, who, with the recent gift of their remarkable collection of works on archaeological research, have joined the ranks of the University Library’s major donors. While complementing some materials already housed in Wilson Library, the newly acquired Stuart Collection dramatically improves the range and depth of the Rare Book Collection’s holdings dealing with the early history of the Americas.

Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1787). Checklist no. 48.

The exhibition does not attempt to represent the entire scope of the Stuart Collection, which comprises nearly 13,000 volumes about archaeology and anthropology around the world. Instead, as its title indicates, Unearthing the Maya focuses primarily on highlights of the Stuarts’ Maya-related materials. Much of George Stuart’s career was spent working in this area of archaeological research, both in the field and as the National Geographic Society’s resident archaeologist. Another interest, which dates back to Stuart’s childhood, is archaeological research in the United States. A small sampling of the Stuarts’ collection of materials related to this subject is also on display, among them the first English-language edition of Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1787), James Adair’s History of the American Indians (1775), and the manuscript of an 1883 text by noted archaeologist Cyrus Thomas explaining how to excavate an Indian mound.

Image of Palenque by José Castañeda from
Lord Kingsborough's Antiquities of Mexico
(1829-1848), vol. 4.
Checklist no. 29.

The Maya materials included in the exhibition trace much of the history of research in this field, from Bishop Landa’s Relación de las cosas de Yucatán, written in 1566 but first published in 1864 after Charles-Étienne Brasseur de Bourbourg discovered it in Madrid’s Real Academia de la Historia, to recent epigraphic work by David Stuart, George Stuart’s son and Professor of Mesoamerican Art and Writing at the University of Texas at Austin. Most of the significant figures in the field are represented, often by volumes with interesting provenances. Alfred Maudslay’s signature appears on the cover of one of the scarce fascicles of his Archaeology, published as part of the Biologia Centrali-America between 1889 and 1902; the 1861 Brasseur de Bourbourg translation of the Popol Vuh, an important work which relates a Maya creation story, bears the bookplate of Edward Tylor, a highly influential English anthropologist.

Brasseur de Bourbourg’s translation of the Popol Vuh (1861).
Checklist no. 22.

Not all of the materials are printed. Among the manuscript materials are an early version of Jean-Frédéric Waldeck’s Voyage pittoresque, published in 1838; a compilation of documents belonging to Edward King, Lord Kingsborough, one volume of whose massive nine-volume Antiquities of Mexico is another of the highlights of the exhibition; and a small bound volume of manuscript letters of recommendation written by John Lloyd Stephens, William H. Prescott, Washington Irving, and others for American archaeologist E. G. Squier.

It was Stephens’s 1840s accounts of his Mexican travels—beautifully and accurately illustrated by Frederick Catherwood—that first sparked the public’s interest in the Maya. Both of his works on display in Unearthing the Maya are inscribed to former President Martin Van Buren, who had appointed Stephens minister to Central America in 1839, facilitating his first trip to the region. In addition to receiving a warm critical response, the books were commercially successful, and they helped to bring the study of the ancient Maya—previously a rather exclusive pastime—to the masses. It was not long, in fact, before the mania for Mesoamerica had been capitalized upon by the likes of P. T. Barnum, who put together a traveling exhibition of “Aztec children” and published a pamphlet with the name “John L. Stevens” displayed prominently on the cover and title page. A copy of this work is on display in Unearthing the Maya, for in the interest of completeness, the Stuarts have collected the ridiculous along with the sublime. The exhibition also features several of the many Maya-inspired novels that have been published over the years.

Manuscript by Jean-Frédéric Waldeck, published in 1838 as Voyage pittoresque.
Checklist no. 7.

Unearthing the Maya could not have come about without the gracious and generous help of the donors, George E. and Melinda Y. Stuart. Charles B. McNamara, Curator of Rare Books, and Professor Vincas P. Steponaitis of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Department of Anthropology are owed a debt of gratitude for the overview of George Stuart’s career and the Stuart Collection written for this Web site. Finally, sincere thanks are due to Tim West, Jackie Dean, and Noah Huffman, who provided invaluable research assistance as well as the loan of a number of items from the Stuart Collection holdings of the Manuscripts Department.

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