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George Stuart once mortgaged his house to buy a set of books. They were, admittedly, Viscount Kingsborough's twelve elephant folio volumes of The Antiquities of Mexico, published in 1829–33 in a lavish format with numerous full-page colour illustrations of Aztec and Maya codices and other rare survivals, but even so it was a striking extension of Stuart's bibliophilia.
He sold that set, acquired a second one later, and kept it in his office at the National Geographic Society (NGS) in Washington, DC, to the slight bemusement of his colleagues there and the incredulity of visiting Pre-Columbian scholars. His superb private library of some 15 000 volumes he eventually gave to the University of North Carolina, where he had taken his doctoral degree in 1975.
That he only became a PhD at the age of forty was the result of a slightly odd career path: born in New Jersey but brought up in South Carolina, George Edwin Stuart III became interested in local archaeology as a child and did fieldwork in Georgia before taking a degree in geology. When he was nineteen he married Gene Strickland, and in the almost forty years of their marriage she worked alongside him, for much of the time at National Geographic, writing books and articles to enlighten the public about the archaeology of the Americas. Of their four children, George Stuart IV is a Roman Catholic priest, Roberto lives in Yucatan, Ann is a vet specialising in horses in North Carolina, and David Stuart is a noted Maya epigrapher who became the youngest MacArthur Prize Fellow at the age of eighteen and now teaches at the University of Texas.
Between 1958 and 1960 the Stuarts lived in Yucatan, with George mapping the sprawling Maya city of Dzibilchaltun for a National Geographic-Tulane University project; this led to a cartographic job at NGS in Washington, and after a while to George Stuart creating the post of Staff Archaeologist, which he remained until his retirement in 1998. His "Archaeological Map of Middle America: Land of the Feathered Serpent" was a classic, cramming an enormous amount of data into a well-designed sheet, folded and inserted into the April 1968 issue of the National Geographic Magazine.
He and Gene (who died in 1993) wrote a number of books combining up-to-the-minute scholarship with accessible text and NGS's typically superb photographs: Discovering Man's Past in the Americas (1969) and The Mysterious Maya (1977) were outstanding examples, and George also wrote many magazine articles on aspects of Pre-Columbian civilisation and the archaeology of North America (his PhD dissertation was on South Carolina prehistory).
George Stuart was also a member of the NGS Committee for Research and Exploration, distributing hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to promising fieldworkers, among them many archaeologists. Always an influential voice, he became Chair of the committee in 1994, and backed some of the most important excavations, especially of Maya sites, of the late twentieth century. Some of the grants were small and made on his own initiative from the chair's discretionary fund, sometimes to pre-doctoral scholars: many of the projects were subsequently funded on a large scale by the Society. His impact, as a veritable Maecenas for Maya studies, was immense, and European archaeologists were among the beneficiaries: numerous British students and volunteers received their first experience of Pre-Columbian archaeology on an excavation for which George Stuart had ensured funding.
Stuart was also a notable historian of the development of Mesoamerican, and especially Maya studies, responsible for dragging the eccentric nineteenth-century polymath Constantine Rafinesque's contributions out of obscurity (Stuart 1992). His book (with David Stuart; Stuart & Stuart 2008) on the ancient Maya city of Palenque in 2008 was a timely summary of discovery and decipherment there, and from 1985 he developed a series of short Research Reports on Ancient Maya Writing, published initially in Washington and later from his retirement home at Boundary End in Barnardsville, North Carolina, where he established a research centre utilising his superb library, in concert with his second wife, Melinda, whom he had married in 1994. He was elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London in 1992, and Harvard gave him the Tatiana Proskouriakoff Award in 1997; he was also honoured in diverse ways in Yucatan, Guatemala, and by the Society for American Archaeology. He is survived by his wife Melinda and by his four children from his first marriage.