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In the Mind of a Polymath: Exploring D’Arcy Thompson’s Glossary of Greek Birds

Marie-Claire Beaulieu

Tufts University

An early hero of interdisciplinary scholarship, D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson (1860-1948) was a biologist, mathematician, and classics scholar who believed “the fertile field of discovery lies for the most part on those borderlands where one science meets another”(Jarron and Cauldwell, 2010: 36). Thompson’s masterful Glossary of Greek Birds(1895 and 1936, see also Arnott 2007) bears the mark of his research in ornithology as well as his immense learning in Greek, Latin, and mythology. The Glossary seeks to elucidate Greek bird names, matching them with modern species identifications through an analysis of ancient textual references. These texts cover the spectrum of ancient literature, from scientific and medical texts to poetry, folklore, and mythology. The Glossary therefore lets us explore connections between classics and ornithology and offers an entry point into our discipline for non-specialists and the general public.

We face two challenges in bringing this work to a broad audience. First, how can we organize the complex data Thompson presents in the Glossary? We aim to produce a digital edition that can serve both as a reference work and dataset supporting research into Thompson’s cross-disciplinary work. Each Glossary entry provides a Greek bird name, and one or more possible bird identifications. The ancient texts listed in the entry serve as evidence supporting Thompson’s conclusions. By encoding Thompson’s thought process with XML markup, we can enhance the Glossary with information such as which authorities he strongly weighted in his decision-making process, and his use of mythology vs ancient scientists such as Aristotle. However, deliberate choices must be made in this markup process if we are to answer these research questions while fostering public engagement (see McGann 2004; Siemens et al. 2012). We will show alternatives and describe the pros and cons of each approach and its impact on the final product.

Our second challenge is to bring this content to a general audience in a medium and format that is appealing and informative. Consequently, we are producing short films featuring birds from the Glossary and depicting the ancient stories about them in connection with modern ornithology. The films will offer an overview of what is to be found in the online resource as well as starting points to guide the public through the site. We will describe our methods and decisions we made in making our first short film, as well as the results obtained.

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Reconnecting the Classics

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