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The Maya people of Central America, whose civilization thrived from about 1800 B.C. to A.D. 1200, charted the heavens, mastered mathematics, built elaborate temple-pyramids and developed the only true writing system native to the Americas.
All this while Europe yet labored in the Dark Ages.
Today, some 7 million Maya survive. But because their formal civilization faded so long ago, it took years of relatively modern hard work to discover all that is known about them now.
The stories of artists and archaeologists who made these discoveries is being through March 31 in Wilson Library.
Seventy of their drawings, photos, writings and more are being displayed in the free, public exhibit “Unearthing the Maya: Highlights of the Stuart Collection.” The items are among 13,000 such materials donated recently to the UNC Library by George ’75 (PhD) and Melinda Stuart of Barnardsville, near Asheville.
“Unearthing the Maya” is open in the Melba Remig Saltarelli Exhibit Room from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays.
George Stuart, who earned a doctorate in archaeology at UNC, spent a lifetime discovering information and collecting materials about the Maya while also working for almost 40 years for the National Geographic Society.
His seven books include Lost Kingdoms of the Maya and The Mysterious Maya, both written with his late, first wife, Gene, and published by the National Geographic Society.
The Stuart collection puts the UNC Library on par with the Library of Congress, the universities of Pennsylvania and Texas, and Harvard and Tulane universities as one of the nation’s leading repositories of materials on the Maya and their region, said Vin Steponaitis, a UNC anthropology professor. The collection also includes a wealth of information about the Southeastern United States, he said.
The exhibit shows visitors an evolution of understanding about the Maya, said Sarah Fass ’04 (MA) of the library’s Rare Book Collection, exhibit curator. There are accurate representations and some that later proved to be inaccurate.
“The show [is] very visual,” Fass said. “We have emphasized that aspect of the materials. Many of the books are illustrated.” Images include photos of the ruins of the Maya city Chichén Itzá in Mexico, a popular tourist destination.
Stuart, a Camden, S.C., native, received UNC’s Distinguished Alumnus Award in October. After he retired, he and Melinda Stuart moved to a mountain farm in Barnardsville, where they established their Boundary End Archeological Research Center. Scholars visited often to use Stuarts’ collection; other collections were added to his as widows and friends of other archaeologists donated their materials.
Eventually, the Stuarts began looking beyond their own lifetimes, wondering where the collection should reside. They wanted it to remain in North Carolina. The UNC Library was only too happy to welcome the treasure trove.
“This is a collection of international stature,”” said Charles McNamara ’95 (MSW), curator of the Rare Book Collection. “We want visitors to see it, and we want to demonstrate the University’s commitment to this type of scholarship.”