“Palenque: Eternal City of the Maya” roots in Barnardsville
by Rob Neufeld
See about Oct. 24, 2013 event at UNC Asheville
One of the gateways to the glory of Mayan civilization is Barnardsville. There, in a building circled by mountains, resides the library of George Stuart, who, with his son, David Stuart, has produced the book, Palenque: Eternal City of the Maya, the public’s introduction to the city that time forgot.
For thirty years, the elder Stuart had been the staff archaeologist for National Geographic; and for seventeen, its Vice-President of Research and Exploration. He is the author of such non-fiction best-sellers as The Mysterious Maya and Discovering Man’s Past in the Americas. David Stuart, Schele Professor of Ancient Mesoamerican Art and Writing at the University of Texas, Austin, is the world’s leading interpreter of Maya glyphs.
Together, they have pieced together and gift-wrapped a rapidly growing body of research on the Maya’s best-preserved capital city—Palenque, obscured for a millennium by jungle and interpretive jumble. David, at an early age, had been one of the scholars instrumental in unpuzzling the record.
How discovery works
To tell the story of “Palenque,” the book, it is necessary to do a little digging into the layers of the Stuarts’ lives.
At age twelve, George Stuart took an interest in arrowheads and pottery on display in Norman Fohl’s antique store in Camden, South Carolina. “Are these for sale?” George asked. “No,” Fohl said, “but I’ll take you out to a field and you can find some of your own.” The local scholar took George under his wing.
George was out poking around the hills of Camden when University of Georgia archaeologists arrived and, impressed by the 17-year-old, hired him to draw skeletons. It eventually got George the job of surveyor of the Etowah Mounds in Georgia, and, later, monuments in Dzibilchaltun, Yucatan. Returning in 1960, he became a National Geographic cartographer.
In 1973, George and his late first wife, Gene Stuart, took their four children, ages eight to eighteen, to Cobá in the Yucatan, where they made their home for two years. “We lived in a thatched house that we had built,” George recounts. “They (the children) learned more there than they ever learned in their lives, before and after.” David, the youngest, was so bored, “he decided to take his crayons and pencils and go out and draw hieroglyphic monuments,” while his father surveyed the ruins.
Xoc and awe
At age twelve, David Stuart accompanied leading Maya scholar, Linda Schele, to Palenque to help draw hieroglyphs. When he returned, he delivered a paper to an international Maya archaeology roundtable, showing how the hieroglyph “xoc” (pronounced “shock”) was not simply a symbol for the word, “count,” but a phonetic letter of an alphabet, representing the vowel, “oo.”
It had not been easy to figure this out, for the Maya were playfully artistic calligraphers. The “oo” letter took several forms, including an abstract bracket and a jaguar’s head. At any rate, the discovery, along with a few others, busted open the field, for soon archaeologists could not only translate the many tablets and writings the Maya had left; they could speak them aloud.
At eighteen, David won a MacArthur grant based on his insights into blood imagery in Maya glyphs. He was the youngest recipient that year.
People magazine called. Dan Rather called. David told Rather, George recalls, that “he was only going to give two interviews, and one was to the Washington Post because it was a local paper (the Stuarts were living in Silver Spring, Maryland); and the other was to Teen magazine.” Fame was considered counter-productive.
The study of Mayan civilization—at its height in Palenque in the seventh century A.D. during the reign of King Pakal—is not just a magic lantern of sensationalism, though P.T. Barnum made use of it, touring two Salvadoran midgets, billed as “Aztec Lilliputians,” in the 1850s. The Maya and their city, Palenque, require a changed understanding of pre-modern people.
The Stuarts’ book illuminates the greatness of central American Indians—their architecture, art, educational system, world view, economic system, and technology. With unadorned, lucid wording, matched by explanatory graphics, the authors tell the story of Mayan history and worldwide discovery at Palenque, the urban core of which included over 1,500 structures on a square mile shelf of land at the confluence of rivers.
The tablets, a mixture of history and mythology, trace kings back to a progenitor, “Snake Spine,” who assumed the throne on March 28, 967 B.C. (The Mayan calendar and its correlations with ours are a complex affair; and the hoopla about 2012 and the “end of times” is one of dozens or readings of what is just the end of a cycle.)
The Stuarts take us through the centuries by explaining how glyphs are read and compared to flush out human details and historical shifts. The story of King Pakal is particularly rich, the equal of “I, Claudius,’ as Pakal’s mother had to rule while the boy underwent a thorough private education.
Local and timely connections
Palenque has special relevance for us. Southeastern mound builders are of the same root culture.
Mayan lifeways inspire us. For example, the Mayan notion of co-essences, by which every individual has a companion spirit—usually in the form of an animal—was adopted in 1995 by Philip Pullman for his best-selling children’s novel, “The Golden Compass.” That was only six years after David Stuart, at the ripe age of twenty-four, had teamed with Stephen Houston at Vanderbilt University to explain the “way” glyph.
George Stuart’s Barnardsville connection began fifteen years ago on a visit to his daughter, Ann, a veterinarian in the area. He spotted his dream property and had Ann keep in touch with the owner, who called a few years later with an offer.
“I retired early from National Geographic just so we (he and his wife, Melinda) could get here quicker,” Stuart says. He is in the process of donating parts of his collection to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The little road between his house and library is marked with a sign, “Yucatan Street.”
Palenque: Eternal City of the Maya by George Stuart (Thames & Hudson hardcover, Nov. 2008, 240 pages, $34.95)