The sleepy village of Barnardsville in northeastern Buncombe County is a haven of rural rusticity. It is home to tobacco fields (turned to vegetables since the buyout), Douglas Falls (an oft-visited scenic locale), hundred-year-old cabins, a 13,000-volume library dedicated to the study of Mayan culture, a volunteer fire department and a recently reconstructed fire tower that once sat atop Snowball Mountain.
Hold it — Mayan culture? In Barnardsville?
That’s right. The Boundary End Archaeological Research Center is housed in a former barn — now climate-controlled — with rows of neatly shelved books arranged between the posts and beams where horses once scratched their backs. The library comprises the collection of George Stuart, now retired from a four-decade career with National Geographic (though his work on Mesoamerican cultures continues, with a book due out next year). Archaeological researchers from around the world are in constant touch with Boundary End via e-mail and fax, and a research carrel and upstairs bedroom are available to visiting scholars.
Across a gravel drive, a former sawmill houses a conference center and multimedia workspace where experts gather to analyze and illustrate the most recent discoveries from the jungles of Guatemala.
A dream come true
For Stuart, archaeological excavation began as a youthful passion; he worked on digs in the Palmetto State and Georgia while attending the University of South Carolina. “After graduation, in 1957, I was offered a job in Yucatan, and they put me to work as a surveyor,” he recalls. “My work in Yucatan mainly involved mapping the large Maya site of Dzibilchaltun (tzee-beel-chahl-TOON), just north of the city of Merida. It’s a large ruin with a long settlement history, say 1500 B.C. to A.D. 1600 or later.”
Together with his first wife and 5-year-old son, George IV, he left for Washington, D.C., in mid-1960 to take a job with National Geographic. “They had me making maps because of my survey experience. Then, in 1965, they needed copy for the back of a map I had done of the Nile Valley, and I did my first writing for the magazine.”
Between his duties at National Geographic, Stuart found time to earn a master’s degree at George Washington University and, later, a doctorate in archaeology at UNC-Chapel Hill. “National Geographic let me come here for a year; I kept my job and continued to work for them. I was able to finish my doctorate in a year because Chapel Hill gave me credit for the years of fieldwork I had done. My dissertation was on the archaeology of South Carolina.”
Back in Washington, Stuart continued to expand his areas of expertise and eventually became senior assistant editor for archaeology, overseeing work by a wide array of experts from around the globe. Concurrently, he was vice president for research and exploration and chairman of the Committee for Research and Exploration.
Today, George and his wife, Melinda Stuart, a former Smithsonian Institution museum curator and historian of American culture, edit and publish two professional journals: Ancient America and Research Reports on Ancient Maya Writing. “They are peer-reviewed journals,” Melinda explains. “Very specialized; they aren’t intended for the average reader, and I have trouble understanding some of it myself.”
Leafing through the journals, I had no problem understanding my articulate host’s difficulty; it might as well have been hieroglyphics. Of course, for the most part it was hieroglyphics.
But George’s son David has no such problem. One of the world’s foremost experts in the Mayan language, he is the Schele professor of Mesoamerican art and writing at the University of Texas-Austin and the former co-director of the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions Project at Harvard University’s Peabody Museum.
“He started deciphering Mayan hieroglyphic inscriptions at the age of 8,” George recalls, “and he had 30 published papers by the time he was 18, when he was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship.” The MacArthur awards, often called “genius grants,” have been given to the best and brightest in many fields since 1981. David’s award was bestowed in 1984, and he remains the youngest recipient of the prestigious fellowship. Besides doing fieldwork in Mexico and Guatemala, David is part of an ongoing project to record and preserve the monumental Hieroglyphic Stairway at Copan in Honduras.
Today, George and David are collaborating on a forthcoming book, tentatively titled “Palenque: Eternal City of the Maya” or “Palenque: City on the Edge of Forever,” according to George. “We hope it will serve as a solid basis for future study and also wide appreciation of one of the greatest cities of antiquity.”
A small circle
Even in a field as specialized as theirs, the research center’s end-of-the-road setting in a North Carolina backwater somehow seems to push the envelope.