A myth is defined in the modern desk edition of Webster's New World Dictionary as "any fictitious story, person or thing." Mythic creatures such as mermaids, unicorns, bigfoot, minotaurs and a host of other zoomorphic monstrosities, often combine human and animal attributes. Creatures such as these, which generally appear in works of art, can be understood as fantastic archetypes which fulfill a basic human need to express the unconscious through symbols and metaphor. From this perspective, the ancient Greek myth of the centaur, a half-human, half-horse creature which inhabited the forests of Thessaly represents a potent combination of human intelligence and animal desires. The centaur becomes even more loaded when it is presented as a scientific fact.
These issues make "The Centaur Excavations at Volos," a permanent display installed three years ago in the John C. Hodges Library at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville engaging. Like other works of archaeological fiction
, this display uses the conventions of scholarship to present a work of fiction as authentic. The only clue that the viewer should be skeptical is the showcase title plaque, which includes the question "Do you believe in centaurs?"
"Of course not," you (and every other college educated viewer) responds. But here, in an elegantly constructed showcase, complete with a faux marble base and simulated wood panels are the skeletal remains of a centaur burial along with various inscribed clay tablets. On the back side of the showcase is a screen printed text panel in which this specimen is described as "one of three centaur burials discovered in 1980 by the Archaeological Society of Argos Orestiko eight kilometers northeast of Volos, Greece." The text panel includes a map of Greece, a 16th century woodcut and a drawing depicting centaurs, a photograph of a relief sculpture of a centaur from the Parthenon and a print showing the anatomy of an adult male centaur. The text and the visual data are presented in the dry, scholarly manner common to archaeological exhibits
"Do you believe in centaurs?" I asked one student who approached and seemed perplexed with the display. "I'm not sure" he responded, "but it sure looks authentic." Looks are, of course, deceiving
. As a culture, we are constantly bombarded with fictions represented as fact by the tabloid press, simulations of reality in docu-dramas and countless examples of what Umberto Eco calls "hyper-realities;" from shopping malls to theme parks. If the experience this display engenders is authentic, maybe it is real?
After further discussion with this student I finally revealed that the display is a work of art, and hence fiction
. The centaur (made from the tea stained bones of a pony and a deteriorating human skeleton
) was originally constructed by Bill Willers, a Professor of Biology at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh who is also an artist. Willers exhibited the project at the Madison Art Center as well as several college galleries in the mid 1980's before putting the work in storage in a friend's barn. In 1992, Neil Greenberg, from the UTK Department of Zoology and I undertook a campaign to raise funds to purchase the display for the university. We were able to secure a prominent location on campus for the exhibit with a commitment from the library and generated support from a variety of campus organizations. I designed the showcase and exhibition text and Bob Cothran from the UTK Department of Theater painted the fake marble and wood panels.