New Research Training Group "Early Concepts of Man and Nature: Universal, Local, Borrowed" at Mainz University

Postgraduate research group looks at early concepts of Man and Nature from 3200 BC to the Middle Ages / Funding by the German Research Foundation


The German Research Foundation (DFG) has started in October 2013 to fund a Research Training Group on "Early Concepts of Man and Nature: Universal, Local, Borrowed" for twenty-four postgraduate students based at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU). General theme of this PhD program is the concepts and ideas about man and nature. Its time span extends from the dawn of history (ca. 3200 BC) to the Middle Ages; possible relationships between concepts in cultures in contact in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia and in ancient and medieval Europe will be studied. The DFG-funded Research Training Group is interested in establishing where and when similar beliefs and concepts relating to the creation of the world, nature and natural phenomena, man in health and disease originated, whether this happened independently, or if they were transmitted, even exchanged between early cultures. And how, and why, did they then change over time?

Under the direction of Professor Dr. Tanja Pommerening of the Egyptology division in the JGU Department of Ancient Studies, a number of scholars at Mainz University and from outside and abroad will be involved as supervisors and experts, covering the full range of humanities as well as science in the areas under study. Approaches are be multifaceted, starting with written evidence and extending to material culture and iconography. Within each of the participating disciplines, the common research aim is to address questions concerning the universality versus the cultural specificity of concepts, their nature, their medial construction, and their development, i.e. mechanisms of transmission, formation, instrumentalization, etc. The impact of local, temporal, genre-related, iconographical, societal, or individual factors and of continuities and discontinuities will be assessed. The results are then to be compared with the evidence in other cultures that are part of the program.

"An extensive program like ours – involving a number of different cultures – can only be envisaged with adequate support from a number of specialists available, as is the case in Mainz," Pommerening stresses. "Among our supervisors we count of course experts for ancient languages, experts for artifacts and iconography, and, if need be, scientists, who are part of our group, will be ready to advise us. Many different fields will thus intersect in our postgraduate program, providing excellent conditions for studying the way knowledge was acquired and passed on within various ancient cultures and between them. We envisage that there will be continuous interdisciplinary exchange involving supervisors and postgraduate students alike, creating opportunities for in-depth research and, in the case of our PhD candidates, for acquiring a range of qualifications at a high level that will be difficult to match." To facilitate comparison of different cultures and periods of history, topics chosen for theses will address identical or at least similar problems and be based on comparable approaches as varied as needed.

With its large number of disciplines concerning the study of the ancient world in particular, Mainz University will guarantee an excellent space for such a postgraduate program. There are four full professors in Egyptology and Ancient Near Eastern Studies, complemented by seven more in Classics and Ancient History, and another two in Byzantine Studies and Oriental Christianity, in addition to experts in Middle High German and Medical History. The considerable number of disciplines and scholars with overlapping interests at Mainz University furthers cross-pollination, and has led to internationally recognized research for some decades now. In this context, two international conferences organized in Mainz every year, i.e., the workshops for Ancient Medicine and for Ancient Science and its Reception, are widely known and will provide further opportunities for the program's postgraduates – in the role of conference participants, speakers, and organizers. The program is also linked to the Roman-Germanic Central Museum (RGZM) in Mainz with its important laboratories and infrastructure, to the Mainz ScienceCampus: Byzantium between Orient and Occident, the JGU Research Unit Historical Cultural Sciences, the JGU Research Center of Social and Cultural Studies Mainz (SOCUM), and the JGU Konrad Weidemann Center.

The number and variety of fields that will, in some cases, collaborate in a major way for the first time comprises philologists, archaeologists, historians, cultural anthropologists, historians of science, and scientists – a spectrum of expertise and skills not found in many places. In addition, a number of scholars abroad, for instance in the United States of America, Great Britain, France, and Belgium will be available for cooperation and as hosts to PhD students from Mainz.