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Biology professor and chair of neuroscience Judith Thorn clarified a misinterpretation in Classical works of art. #

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Knox Biology Professor Uses Her Expertise to Explain Ancient Greek Art

July 06, 2016

Biology professor and chair of neuroscience Judith Thorn clarified a misinterpretation in Classical works of art.

by Elise Goitia '18

It may come as a surprise that a biology professor corrected the historical interpretation of the way dogs were depicted on ancient Greek vases, but that's exactly what Knox College faculty member Judith Thorn did.

Thorn, who has studied dog behavior as part of her professional academic research, presented her paper, titled "Going to the Dogs with the Amasis Painter," at a recent meeting of the Classical Association of the Middle West and South in Williamsburg, Virginia. Four Knox alumnae and one alumnus also presented their own classics research at the meeting.

Thorn's presentation was about the depictions of dogs on ancient pottery painted by the Amasis Painter—an ancient Greek vase painter—and how their posture is interpreted.

"The Amasis painter has many images of dogs that if you owned a dog, you'd recognize (their behavior) as normal," said Thorn, who also is chair of Knox's neuroscience program. "I looked at the works of the Amasis Painter and saw dogs that were playing. Then, I looked up the written description and it said, these dogs are fighting. I didn't think so."

Previous scholars, she commented, misinterpreted the postures of the dogs, believing that they appeared aggressive. Instead, she argues that the dogs are painted as friendly, as the Amasis Painter most likely modeled them after dogs he came into contact with.

"Because I had experience with dogs, I recognized scholars' interpretations as something that wouldn't be right," she added. "I knew that there was literature to support the idea that people could make that mischaracterization."

Thorn traveled to Lincoln, England, for the 2014 Canine Science Forum to consult with other scientists with expertise on dogs. They confirmed her beliefs that the posture of the dogs suggested they were friendly.

"It was important to me to at least make the note that, that's not what's going on," Thorn said. "If you were somebody trying to identify what's going on in the picture, the assumption that these dogs are aggressive is probably not a good assumption to be operating off of."

Thorn first became interested in the image of dogs in ancient Greek black figure vase-painting when she traveled to Greece on a Knox alumni trip in 2013. Since then, she has examined multiple works of the Amasis Painter, and with the help of Szold Distinguished Service Professor of Classics Stephen Fineberg, presented on her findings.

Thorn hopes to broaden the interpretations of classical works from a biological perspective by attending the Canine Science Forum this summer to discuss how dog behavior can be misunderstood in analysis of art.

"Dogs have not changed their behavior toward each other, certainly not within those generations of times," she added. "I suspect that the painter who painted it knew what he was painting, but we just misunderstood it."

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#"How we understand dog behavior now, and certainly as the ancient Greeks would’ve understood it, is something that’s been misidentified."

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Printed on Wednesday, October 18, 2017

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