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Depicting and describing animals in ancient Greece, Rome and beyond

Cornell U., September 8-10, 2017

We propose to consider depictions and descriptions of animals as methods of inquiry in and of themselves, rather than illustrations of knowledge ex post facto.

Greek and Roman culture is replete with verbal and visual descriptions and depictions of animals, from Herodotus’ gold-digging ants or Pliny’s bestiary to Greek vase painting or the decoration of Roman houses and gardens. Research on ancient zoological knowledge has traditionally centered on identifying animal species in texts and images, determining the various sources of such knowledge, and relating these inquiries to their broader socio-historical and philosophical contexts. While these approaches can be fruitful, they often operate on the assumption that verbal and pictorial testimonies always record and illustrate specific information, echoing concrete ancient zoological knowledge.

This conference takes a decisively different approach. We propose to consider depictions and descriptions of animals as methods of inquiry in and of themselves, rather than illustrations of knowledge ex post facto. Thus, for instance, Aristotle’s account of gregarious animals at the start of Historia Animalium may serve as a mode of understanding humans’ position within the animal world, rather than an account of ancient discoveries. In addition, ancient zoographers’ views might have been shaped by encounters with animals in contexts and media other than ‘scientific’ study or simple observation in nature. In this sense, do we seek to consider visual and textual sources as creative and active modes of representation and thereby forms of knowledge production, rather than reflections of it.

Contributions may focus on a single ancient description or depiction of an animal, or on a group of cases. We particularly welcome contributions that engage with cognitive or media studies in their approach to texts or images. We also encourage contributors to consider ways in which ancient and medieval European zoological knowledge was produced differently from that of other cultures.

Submitted papers address the following questions :

How do ancient descriptions and depictions of animals work as forms of inquiry to produce knowledge ?
How do visual and verbal studies of animals interact with each other ?
How do descriptions and depictions of animals reflect human observation and experience ?
How do rhetorical images or metaphors work function as methods of inquiry ?
How do common knowledge vs. specialized inquiry influence depiction and description ?
(How) do sources distinguish between mythical and real animals ?
If depiction and description of animals create knowledge, do they shape literary or artistic styles ? How do they relate to concepts of aesthetics and rhetoric ?
How do shifts in historical and cultural context affect animal description and depiction ?
What is the reception of famous depictions or descriptions (e.g. Herodotus’ crocodile, Aristotle’s elephant, Myron’s cow ?)


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