On Oct. 20, 2016 and again on Sat Oct 22, 2016 at the Houston Museum of Natural Sciences, the Houston Society of the Archaeological Institute of America will welcome Dr. Adrienne Mayor, a research scholar in Classics, History and Philosophy of Science at Stanford University.
I caught up with Dr. Mayor recently to discuss her life’s work, her career start and a few interesting questions for you all.
Q: Can you remember one of the first historical figures that captured your imagination?
A: As a girl in South Dakota I was enchanted by a book with a zebra stripe cover called “I Married Adventure” by Osa Johnson, published in 1940. Originally from Kansas, Osa and her husband Martin were adventurers, naturalists, and documentary film pioneers who explored exotic, faraway Africa, the South Pacific, and Borneo in 1917-37. They flew amphibious biplanes; lived in tents; befriended head hunters, cannibals, and pygmies; and encountered dangerous wild animals–with their primitive Eastman-Kodak movie cameras whirring all the while. They produced the first aerial films and talkies ever made in Africa. I read Osa’s memoirs countless times, day dreaming and poring over the sepia photos.
The first historical figure from classical antiquity to capture my attention was also a historian. My favorite ancient writer is still Herodotus, the insatiably curious Greek from Persian Halicarnassus (Bodrum, Turkey) who traveled to exotic lands, interviewing “barbarians” about their history and customs, and captivated the Athenians of the fifth century BC with his stories.
Q: When did you decide to become a historian? When did you begin to feel a fascination with history and archaeological artifacts?
A: It was my obsession with the fabulous gold-guarding Griffin of Greek lore that turned me into a historian. As I tracked this unknown creature, untangling threads and recovering and analyzing evidence long buried in ancient Greek and Roman art and literature and Scythian artifacts and traditions and integrating all this with modern paleontological discoveries of dinosaur skeletons in Central Asia, I really became a historian of human curiosity.
Q: Can you describe the process of finding and researching your first book topic The Fossil Hunters?
A: I began gathering material for my first book, “The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times” (2000, reprinted 2011) on my first trip to Greece in 1978 and began the organized research in 1990s, while I was working as a freelance copyeditor. This was long before email and the Internet, Google Scholar searches, and JSTOR had not yet been invented. And I lived in Montana then, far from university libraries. So I haunted museums and library stacks in every city I visited, made myriad interlibrary loan requests, and mailed typewritten letters to paleontologists and other scholars, waiting months for their replies to my queries.
Q: What are some things you enjoy outside the field of history and archaeology?
A: Traveling to great cities and museums, road trips across the United States, and being outdoors.
My husband and I spend summers in Montana where we love to hike and camp with friends.
Q: What about your research has led you to greater understanding of humanity and the past? Can you draw correspondences to today? Do ‘monsters’ continue to permeate our culture? What mythical monsters are we still addressing today in our culture and our lives?
A: People have always been captivated by thrilling stories and tales of mythical beasts are among the most ancient examples around the world.
Humans seem to be hard-wired with a need to exercise our creative imaginations and we still constantly test our reactions to danger with scary stories.
We like to solve mysteries by pondering and trying to explain extraordinary things observed in nature. Legends about imaginary creatures and monsters–and their continued appearances in popular culture today–fulfill the desire for excitement and they encourage a sense of awe. My research into the natural knowledge embedded in legends of fantastic animals suggests that people of the past drew on both vivid imaginations and powers of reason to understand perplexing natural phenomena. These stories reveal the first inklings of the scientific impulse.
Q: What is your greatest extravagance?
A: I spoil my beloved Bengal cat Enkidu with expensive toys.
Q: When and where were you happiest?
A: I’m so lucky to be living a life filled with what I consider happy adventures. I have great memories of the years doing archaeology in Greece and Turkey. But I’m happiest in the here and now–and ecstatic to be living in the West again.
Q: What is your idea of a perfect day?
A: I can think of so many ways to spend a perfect day. One would be in autumn in Paris, after leisurely croissant and coffee in an outdoor cafe, a visit to an obscure little museum and then wandering Cuvier’s old Natural History Hall untouched since 1800, one of my favorite places.
Another would be a summer day on a high mountain lake in Montana with best friends, ending up around the campfire with Montana Mules, marveling at the Milky Way and shooting stars.
Q: Which talent would you most like to have?
A: Musical ability. As a child, I was advised to quit my piano lessons and to only move my lips in choir.
Q: If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
A decade ago I took up Tai Chi, advertised as a way to achieve patience. I’m still pestering my teacher, demanding to know when I will become more patient.
Q:Who is your hero of fiction?
A: Right now my favorite fictional heroines are the Amazon queens of Greek mythology.
Q: Who are your favorite writers?
A: Some of my favorite writers are ancient Greeks and Romans, such as Herodotus the world’s first anthropologist and a wonderful storyteller and the Roman natural historians Pliny the Elder and Aelian with their encyclopedic collections of lore and knowledge.
Q: Which historical figure do you most identify with?
A: I don’t identify myself with him, but I’m in awe of the exploits of Alexander the Great, both in history and in the legends that arose after his untimely death.
Q: What is your greatest regret?
A: With Edith Piaf I have to say “Je ne regrette rien!” I’m sorry that I’ll never get to see all the splendid archaeological sites that have been destroyed in the Middle East.
Q: What is one book you would recommend (outside of yours) to the general public?
A: Last year I was fortunate to be one of the nonfiction judges for the National Book awards and I recommend one of the finalists, Sy Montgomery’s enchanting “Soul of an Octopus.”
Portions of the interview are excerpted from an online interview of Adrienne Mayor conducted on the website Wonders and Marvels
Dr. Mayor is an published author of several books that can be purchased on Amazon here.