David Stuart

Oral History Interview with David Stuart, undertaken by Alyce de Carteret at the Dumbarton Oaks Guest House (Fellows Building) on January 12, 2011. At Dumbarton Oaks, David Stuart was a Junior Fellow in Pre-Columbian Studies in 1983–1984.

AdC: I am Alyce de Carteret and I have the pleasure of interviewing David Stuart here at the Guest House at Dumbarton Oaks. Dr. Stuart is currently the Linda and David Schele Professor of Mesoamerican Art and Writing at UT, Austin and was formerly a Junior Fellow here at Dumbarton Oaks. Thanks for joining us. So, just to begin how did you come to know about Dumbarton Oaks and what were your initial impressions of the institution?

DS: Well, I got to know Dumbarton Oaks actually before I was a Fellow. I was living in the D.C. area for quite a while and it was really through my mother and father, who were archaeologists. My father worked in the National Geographic. So, he was for a long time really engaged with activities that were going on here. He was always kind of aware of the conferences and attending them – when Elizabeth Benson was director, for example, in the seventies. I wasn’t really attending then but I was very aware of Dumbarton Oaks and its place in Mesoamerica Studies, Pre-Columbian Studies. And when I was in my high school years, then I was getting involved in a serious way in Maya research. And so inevitably I was really interested in activities going on here, getting to know Fellows who were here such as Mary Miller and John Justeson and other people who would kind of come through to give talks. So, I kind of – a lot of my early, early exposure to Mesoamerican studies was here at Dumbarton Oaks. I remember too, this was before I was a Fellow, so 1980, ’81, ’82. Elizabeth Boone organized these occasional tertulias, she called them. They were these kind of workshops on Maya glyphs, that sometimes I would actually run in the basement over in Pre-Columbian Studies. And Carlos Arostegui was there and a number of people around the D.C. area would come in and we would talk about glyphs and so forth. That’s what kind of brought me right into Dumbarton Oaks was that kind of activity.

AdC: And how did you come to apply for a fellowship? Was it just you were here all the time and thought this would be a great place to actually study more?

DS: Yeah. In a way it seemed kind of a natural outgrowth of my involvement. I was, I remember, in my high school years. I think I was a senior in high school, I was actually volunteering in Pre-Columbian Studies. I was cataloguing slides for Elizabeth Boone and Carlos Arostegui. So, I would actually come down on the bus from the suburbs after school some days to come work for a few hours. It was great. So, when I decided that I wasn’t going to go immediately to college, I had this gap year, that’s when it seemed like it would be a really neat thing to do. I was working on a book project at the time with Linda Schele, and so I was in need of a certain amount of time to do my contribution to that. So, that was the project we proposed and it just seemed like the right thing to do, the natural thing to do. In retrospect, yeah, it does seem kind of strange to be right out of high school and be going into Dumbarton Oaks. But I don’t know, in my unusual childhood it just seemed kind of like a natural thing.

AdC: Was that an interesting experience, being here as an eighteen year old? Did you have much interaction with the other Fellows, the other Junior Fellows?

DS: Yeah, I did have a good deal of interaction. There were three of us from Pre-Columbian Studies. I was the junior, junior, Junior Fellow and Chris Couch was here that year with me, and it was kind of a tight-knit small group. It was kind of a smaller cohort than nowadays, and got to know also people in Landscape Studies. Yeah, it was a really neat time. I really got to know scholars who were writing their dissertations, kind of youngish scholars but maybe new doctorates and kind of seeing where they were in their stages of their careers. It kind of helped figure out something about what I wanted to do and maybe how I wanted to study. Yeah, so it was really useful and fun.

AdC: I just noticed that your microphone is actually behind –  

DS: Is that better?

AdC: I just wanted to make sure the audio is better. Yeah, right there. So, what was an average day like as a Fellow? Were you working most of the day? What were the social activities like? What was an average day like?

DS: Well, let’s see if I can remember what an average day was like. I did not live down here by Dumbarton Oaks. I was living in the suburbs of Washington, in Silver Spring. So, I basically was commuting everyday. So, sometimes I would take the metro or the bus, I can’t remember exactly how I got here everyday, but I had my own computer, which in those days was kind of a new thing. I just remember doing a lot of writing. The three of us were all in one room together –

AdC: Integrated in the basement, right?

DS: Yeah, integrated in the basement, kind of integrated with the library and Elizabeth’s office was right off of ours. It was kind of tight quarters; we each had our little desk, right. It was very easy to be distracted by all the books. It was in a way kind of hard to sit down and do your project. I’m sure it’s a problem that many Fellows have. And then we would come over to this very building for lunch and I remember the food being amazing and wanting to take a nap every afternoon too because we ate so well. But yeah, my own research at that point was really productive. It was so productive, in fact, that it kind of changed my project. As I mentioned, I was working with Linda Schele and my father on a book on Maya hieroglyphs. And it was in those years that it really dawned on me, well in that year in particular, that the project was not really going to happen. I knew this kind of subconsciously because my understanding of Maya hieroglyphs was rapidly changing and it wasn’t necessarily agreeing with what Linda Schele thought at the time. And so –

AdC: In what way was it changing?

DS: Well, we had different approaches to it, and my approach was kind of evolving, as was hers, but there was so much progress being made in the decipherment in the mid-’80s, early mid-’80s, in those years that really the floodgates were just about to open. So, it turns out that that book was never finished.

AdC: Oh, really?

DS: Because we basically were confronted with a brand new understanding of how Maya hieroglyphs worked. This was about 1984, ’85, after I was a Fellow, that we realized, hey, we have to step back from this. And then I got involved in the Copan Project again working with Linda so we kind of put the book aside and it just never happened. I mean, we got into all sorts of other things, other book projects. But it was instrumental for me in doing background research and reading and getting to know Mayan languages. I remember looking at the dictionaries in the library, they were always right by me and it was just extraordinary to have that stuff. So, it was really important.

AdC: It was that same year that you were awarded the MacArthur Fellowship that you were here at Dumbarton Oaks –

DS: Yeah.

AdC: Which you were also the youngest recipient of that to date.

DS: Yeah.

AdC: So, how did those two fellowships impact your academic career and what were you able to accomplish having both those really incredible fellowships that –

DS: I know, it’s kind of – it’s very odd to look back on that now from the perspective I’m in. At the time I didn’t think about it much. I probably should have a lot more. But, you know, the MacArthur thing was – the thing that sticks in my memory the most about the impact was – when it happened, it was of course extraordinary and just a transformative thing, but it got a lot of press. It was in Time Magazine, it was on the front page of the Washington Post, it was kind of nuts, on TV. There were TV cameras in the Main House. There was a deluge of press because it was, you know, teenager gets a MacArthur award kind of thing, and I was sort of being put out there as this kind of strange nerd who got this award. And that kind of pressure was wild. I didn’t expect it. I didn’t expect the amount of press it got. And I remember that was kind of hard to deal with, just personally. And D.O. was kind of a nice refuge from a lot of that too in the weeks and months that followed. But professionally, how it affected me, I got to know so many scholars and the resources of the place, the fact of being the youngest – I don’t know, I never really embraced that, I’ve never really considered that a very important thing. I know that my early involvement in the stuff is highly unusual, but to me it never was a professional kind of track. I never thought of what I do as like a job because it was a hobby of childhood that grew into something I get paid for. I never went through this traditional academic track. I didn’t have a doctorate in mind, or I’m going to be a professor. I just kind of took it as it came and let it happen. And D.O. was a big part of that.

AdC: What were the actual logistics of the MacArthur Fellowship? Do they just give you funding or are there other events where you’d get to interact with other scholars?

DS: Yeah. It’s changed since I got one. I mean I received it in ’84. It’s a five-year fellowship and there are essentially no – there’s no structure to it in the sense that it’s a no-strings-attached funding. And when I received mine it was based on your age so the older you were, the more money you got. And they’ve since changed that, I think about ten years ago they changed it so it’s a set amount of money for everybody. So, I’m the youngest MacArthur award winner but I’m also the least – the younger you are the less you get, the older you are the more you get. So, I’m the one who received the least amount of money of any MacArthur Fellow, not that I’m complaining, it was fantastic. I always thought it should be the reverse though. If you’re like ninety years old like, you know –

AdC: How much longer are you going to live?

DS: Exactly. I rationalize it that way. So, anyway, that’s how it works. It allowed me to save up money for later in life for various things and funding and education and traveling down to Copan, just saving for eventually life ahead, houses and stuff like that. It’s so long ago now that it’s not something I even have anymore. It was a long, long time ago.

AdC: While you were a Fellow here at Dumbarton Oaks, you mentioned this briefly earlier about interacting with some of the Byzantine, Landscape Studies Fellows as well?

DS: Yeah.

AdC: So, there was a good deal of interaction between those three branches?

DS: Yeah. I would say maybe not a whole lot because we were working in our own spaces, but we had lunch together all the time, and going to different talks, I remember, and the sherry events that were every week or so. Giles Constable was the Director at that time and I remember the first time I ever sipped sherry was here at Dumbarton Oaks. It was an acquired taste but –

AdC: And those were held for all three?

DS: Yeah, all of us got together. So, there were these occasions where we could interact. I remember just having some nice times socializing a little bit. I couldn’t do it quite as much as other scholars because I wasn’t living in the apartments or the housing. So, apart form the daily routine I wasn’t really engaged in the social scene of the Fellows that much.

AdC: And that was a requirement of your accepting the fellowship in the first place, was that you don’t live with the rest of the – ?

DS: Yeah, well, since I was here in town already and a lot of my work materials were there at the house with my dad’s own library, which was pretty extensive too. I think it was a way of kind of cost saving and it just seemed like a mutually positive arrangement. So, it was basically a place where I would come in, commute to work during the day.

AdC: Were there any relationships with particular Fellows that you got – or developed while you were here?

DS: Well, there was kind of a generational gap. It was a little hard for me to develop really close, tight connections with people. I remember though it wasn’t so much the year I was here as a Fellow but a couple of years beforehand when I was volunteering and kind of coming down to D.O. anyway quite a bit, when Mary Miller was here as a Junior Fellow, or I don’t know if she was a Junior Fellow or not. But she was working on her dissertation on Bonampak, and I had known her from the roundtable meetings in Palenque, and she was a very exciting young scholar, upcoming, and Bonampak was such a neat topic. She was really open to my ideas and discussing things with me so that was really cool. Because when I was in my teens, I’m sure looking back on it, it must have been kind of weird for me to be approaching these established scholars or people getting their Ph.Ds. and wanting to talk about Maya art or Maya writing. There were some people who were very kind of standoffish and some people who were very accepting. And I remember Mary was really accepting and really interesting and listened to what I had to say and talked about glyphs and stuff.

AdC: That must have been really interesting to have that mix of archaeologists and art historians here at the same time.

DS: Yeah, it was. Right.

AdC: And you mentioned earlier having the opportunity of not working but interacting with Betty Benson and Elizabeth Boone. If you could, could you characterize what their different directorships were like and who they were – ?

DS: Yeah, well, I’ve known Betty Benson for a very long time and that goes way back through contacts with my parents and Linda Schele. Linda Schele was a very good friend of Betty’s, and Linda was a big part of the scene at Dumbarton Oaks in the late ’70s. I think Linda was a Fellow here in ’77 or around that time. That’s around the time I got to really know Linda, in fact, here in Washington. And so I knew Betty from conferences in Palenque, again, and so forth. I didn’t know her really as a director here that well. I remember those years vaguely, but I wasn’t really part of Dumbarton Oaks at that point. It was when Elizabeth Boone was here that I was a Fellow. And I can’t really contrast their roles as Director of Pre-Columbian Studies but I think both had very important strengths that they brought into the place. And Elizabeth Boone, being an Aztec specialist, I remember having some fascinating discussion with her and she’s become this really incredible scholar. And she was at the time in Aztec art and Aztec culture, so I’ve long respected Elizabeth’s scholarship and still do and really treasure that time of getting to know her when she wasn’t teaching in an academic position. As Director of Dumbarton Oaks she was doing all sorts of different things but she was really expanding my horizons, getting a little bit out of the Maya mode and looking at broader things about Mesoamerica. That was really valuable.

AdC: One of the big parts of Dumbarton Oaks is putting on symposia here, and I was wondering if you would talk a little bit about what that experience is like of attending a Dumbarton Oaks symposium. And if you could think of maybe one symposium or a couple that are more successful or more stimulating than you expected. 

DS: Yeah, I’ve been to several, of course, of the meetings and I can’t remember the first one I attended but the venue, the setting of the symposia in the Music Room is a little bit intimidating. Not meant to be, I suppose, but just the delicately painted ceilings, and the art around, and the tapestries. It’s very serious stuff, right? And it’s not your normal symposia space. So, that always lent an amazing air to the proceedings in my experience and I think the first time I spoke at a D.O. meeting was in 1993. And it was a conference on the Late Classic Maya, and it was in a time when the decipherment was very new and there was a bit of an intellectual debate about the role of written Maya history and epigraphy and the interpretation of archaeology. Does one believe the inscriptions? Are they just propaganda? Can we verify the historical record somehow archaeologically? I remember giving my talk, and a lot of it was about how we interchange, how we bring together these different sets of information and there was a question from the audience that prompted Linda Schele to rise up out of her chair – this was – I had just given my talk – and Linda just got into this heated debate with Richard Leventhal, I think it was, about the veracity of Maya inscriptions, whether it’s all lies or you know. I don’t want to oversimplify it too much but Linda got very upset and she was like, blah-blah, you know. So, I don’t know if the Music Room at Dumbarton Oaks has ever seen quite this kind of discussion, and I think we all laughed about it a lot afterwards. But I remember kind of stepping back a little bit because it wasn’t even my debate. They were going at it themselves in the audience. It was kind of a sign of that time, where there was really an identity issue in Maya archaeology, whether it’s a historical kind of discipline or a purely archaeological one. Of course, now we’ve kind of resolved a lot of that but at the time it was iffy.

AdC: Very stimulating atmosphere.

DS: Very much so, yeah.

AdC: Were you able to attend any of the symposia that were off-site in Mexico City or Antigua, Guatemala?

DS: Yes, I was at the Antigua meeting on Preclassic sculpture and just a few years ago and presented at that conference and it was I think a really innovative and special thing to move occasional meetings off-site. In fact, it’s something that I kind of decided to do with the meetings I organize in Austin, the Maya meetings, kind of following the lead of Dumbarton Oaks in that sense because we have a space in Antigua now. So, the Maya meetings are held in Austin and Antigua on alternate years and it was after going to the D.O. in Antigua that I thought, wow, this will really work, this is a neat model. So, that was a very nice conference.

AdC: What was it about it that made it so worthwhile to have it off-site?

DS: The value that I’ve seen at that meeting and also the ones that I’ve organized is that in Pre-Columbian Studies whether it’s in Andean studies or Mesoamerica, I think especially in the last ten years or so, there’s been a sort of a gravitational shift in scholarship, in the numbers of archaeologists working in the field, students to countries in Latin America. There’s so much activity now in Mexico, in Guatemala, in Peru: scholars, field projects. In other words, the intellectual synergy I find is really not based in North America anymore or in Europe, it’s kind of shifting where it ought to be, which is in Latin America. So, the thing that I want to do with the Maya meetings and D.O. did with that conference was to kind of tap into that energy that’s down there. You know, there were Guatemalan scholars who were attending, which is really going to be more and more necessary in the future, I think. Very often it’s hard to come up to the states if you’re a grad student in Guatemala, let’s say, or Lima. These kinds of exchanges are just going to be increasingly necessary.

AdC: Another workshop that’s bringing together people from Latin American countries and North American scholars as well is the Copan workshop, which you are here for. I was wondering if you could explain a little bit about the purpose of the Copan workshop and Dumbarton Oaks’ role in bringing all these scholars together?

DS: Yeah, the workshop now on Copan is the latest in kind of a series of gatherings we’ve had over many years. There’s not one Copan project, there are at least three, maybe four or five Copan projects, and so we’re at the stage now where we really have to design and organize our material in a cohesive way to see them through to publication. I’ve been involved in the Copan work for twenty-five years. I first went down in 1986 and have since worked very closely with Bill Fash and Barb Fash, Ricardo Agurcia, and Bob Sharer, Will Andrews, and all of their students. There’s just this large number of people who’ve worked at Copan, and just dealing with the extraordinary amount of data is amazing. It is the most ambitious archaeological project in the Maya area or series of projects, and that’s what we’re confronting right now, the fact that we have all of this material, standardizing our terminology, standardizing the stratigraphies across the site, getting all of that coordinated, or at least trying to do so is really the task at hand. And my role in this is to kind of put it in historical context in terms of the epigraphy and how hieroglyphs help date phases of architecture or which ruler built which temple or how they were modified over time and functions of space. I’m kind of involved in all of the projects, not just one of them, which is sort of daunting but it’s a thread that kind of helps weave together all of this material.

AdC: And why is Dumbarton Oaks the location for all of this that is happening?

DS: Dumbarton Oaks is an ideal place, I think, for these working groups and long has been, going back to Betty Benson’s days. The resources here are extraordinary but just – I think it’s a place that has such good energy for scholars to come from all over the place and its reputation is unparalleled. It’s this venerable institution where things have happened, whether it’s a workshop on glyph decipherment in the mid-’70s or symposia on various things. A lot of breakthroughs have happened at Dumbarton Oaks so it’s just natural that we would kind of come back here to put it all together.

AdC: I guess that kind of leads up to my next question, which is how would you describe Dumbarton Oaks’ role in developing pre-Columbian studies over the years and what you would like it’s goal be in the future?

DS: Well, the thing that I think Dumbarton Oaks was always good at and will continue to be is not focusing on academic disciplines. In other words, individual institutions, whether it’s Harvard or UT Austin or University of Pennsylvania, we’re either in the department of anthropology or the department of art history or linguistics or history or what have you and the thing about Mesoamerican studies or Pre-Columbian in general is that those disciplines just fall by the wayside very quickly. My Ph.D. is in anthropology. I’m teaching in an art history department, and I’m not doing anything different than I did before when I was in an anthropology department at Harvard. Well, D.O. is a place that represents that reality and always has. They have an art collection, so there’s kind of that identity around art and artifacts and aesthetics, but from the very beginning there’s been a very intensive archaeological kind of identity and anthropological identity here too. And so everyone’s comfortable coming into this setting to break down those barriers and bridge those disciplines very easily. So, I think there’s no question that that’s where we’re all headed anyway. I don’t in a sense believe that there’s just an archaeology versus an art history, these are all artificial distinctions to some extent and it really does ring true here.

AdC: And so you hope for it to continue with that kind of thing?

DS: Absolutely, I think the more we can bring folks together form these different areas the better. And not just scholars from different areas but also representing these different kinds of areas of focus and it’s been a model that will be followed in other ways by their institutions.

AdC: Well, I think that’s all the questions I have written down. Is there anything else you’d like to add? Any other stories you’d like to share or anything about your time here?

DS: No, not really, no. I just appreciate being here. It’s been a long time since I’ve been back here, so I’m looking forward to being kind of back in the fold of D.O. in a lot of ways.

AdC: See what’s new?

DS: Yeah, exactly.

AdC: Well thank you so much joining me and taking the time. I know you have a busy schedule this evening.

DS: You’re welcome.

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