Two weeks ago the telephone interrupted 18-year-old David Stuart, who was in his office deciphering pre-Columbian Mayan hieroglyphics. The caller, a representative of the MacArthur Foundation, told the Silver Spring, Md, native that he had won a five year, "no strings attached," $128,000 grant.
"I was dumbfounded," Stuart recalls, "The call came from out of the blue."
An expert in Mayan Archaeology, Stuart has been a Junior Fellow in Pre-Columbian Studies at Dumbarton Oaks, Harvard's research library and collection in Washington, D.C., since he graduated from Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School last spring.
Stuart, the youngest person ever to receive a prestigious MacArthur grant, began studying the ancient scripts on frequent trips to Mexico and Guatemala with his family since he was three years old.
"After I became interested in Pre-Columbian artifacts at a distance, I started to read technical journals on the subject," Stuart says. "I didn't understand them at all at first, but I taught myself to."
After learning to decipher, Stuart published his first paper, entitled "Some Thoughts on Certain Occurrences of the T565 Glyph Element at Palenque" when he was 14. Since then, he has published two other papers and presented several more at conferences of Pre-Columbian scholars and is expecting to finish his first book, on Mayan hieroglyphics, by the end of the year.
Stuart describes his ascent to the MacArthur as "a gradual process," because his interest in archaeology "always seemed like just sort of a hobby." Although he has not yet earmarked any of the grant money he will be receiving, he will use some to return to Mexico and Guatemala. Also, he will definitely attend college within the next few years, and says that the fine quality of Harvard's Anthropology Department may draw him to Cambridge.
Stuart is also the youngest fellow ever to be affiliated with Dumbarton Oaks. He is one of 42 fellows at the library this year.
Harvard maintains two joint faculty appointments with Dumbarton Oaks. Currently, Professor Angeliki E. Laiou of the History Department, and Professor Ihor Sevcenko of the Classics Department, hold these posts.
Acquired by Harvard in 1940, Dumbarton Oaks is a research center devoted to the study of Byzantine and Medieval Humanities, Pre-Columbian Art, and Landscape Architecture. Formerly a private estate, the building housed the first meeting of the United Nations in 1944.
"Stuart is an outstanding young scholar in his field," says Giles Constable '50, Dumbarton Oaks director. "I was not terribly surprised to hear about his award. I felt that the selection committee at the MacArthur Foundation had the same sense as we did here at Dumbarton Oaks."
Stuart is one of 22 scholars selected this year by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The foundation has bestowed over $22 million to scholars exhibiting "creativity," to free them from financial worries.
This year, there are four other Harvard-affiliated recipients of MacArthur grants. They are: Sara L. Lightfoot, professor of Education at the Graduate School of Education; Matthew Meselson, Cabot Professor of the Natural Sciences; David R. Nelson, professor of Physics; and Judith N. Shklar, Cowles Professor of Government.