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Ancient History Comes to Life on Campus

Celtics vs. Romans: 2012

Higgins Armory at UMass Lowell
History student Evan Giannakas helps Neal Bourbeau, educational programs manager at Higgins Armory Museum, demonstrate the efficiency of ancient Roman helmets at a recent demonstration at UMass Lowell.

By Julia Gavin

Swords clashing, spears flying through the air and disagreements over the origin of chain mail. Just your average history class at UMass Lowell.

To bring ancient history to the classroom, the History Department sponsored a visit by Higgins Armory Museum educators to Prof. Ethan Spanier’s Warfare in the Ancient World and Byzantine History classes. Students from other disciplines and even community members also joined the demonstration in front of Sheehy Hall, which featured a fully costumed re-enactment of battle between a Celtic warrior and a Roman soldier.

“I really believe experiential learning activities like this – seeing the weapons and hearing the history in context – bring a new sense of understanding for my students,” says Spanier.

The educators, Nancy Huntington and Neal Bourbeau of the Worcester-based museum, walked their audience through the history of conflict between Celtic warriors and Roman soldiers. In addition to explaining the groups’ societal and combat differences, they discussed the ancient fighters’ weapon ingenuity and how we have learned about their cultures through archeological finds and writings.

“One of the things I like most about the Celts is that their women had many rights and often fought in battle, which we know from Roman writings,” says Huntington. “They said that a single Gaul is fierce enough in battle, never mind if his wife joins in.”

Bourbeau says that while ancient Roman culture may have collapsed – Spanier was the only one in attendance who celebrated the ancient festival of Lupercalia this year, a smaller number than those who celebrated St. Patrick’s Day – its structure survives in the Roman Catholic Church.

“We have enough documentation to see their structures still used today,” says Bourbeau. “These costumes and weapons are re-created from what we’ve interpreted from relics, art and written descriptions of what their world looked like.”

Passions Turned Careers

Huntington’s and Bourbeau’s jobs of donning costumes and using weapons to educate people about their ancient interests were motivating for many of the students present: both hold history degrees from the UMass system.

Kate Shantler, a history transfer student, brought her father to campus for the class. They both enjoyed the demonstration and seeing the doors her degree will open.

“The demonstration was really interesting and it was cool to see the history we’ve been reading and discussing played out live,” Shantler says. 

“It can be hard to get students interested in an ancient era, but this type of demonstration can really bring history to life,” says her father, Tim. “I really learned a lot about the Celts and Romans.”

To further immerse herself in history, Shantler plans to travel to Athens, Greece in June with several classmates to take Spanier’s Greek and Roman Historians class where the historical action took place. The students will study at the American College of Greece and participate in several cultural excursions, which Spanier says will allow them to “taste and feel the ancient world.” The trip is one of many faculty-led international learning opportunities that will be offered this summer.

“I never had these hands-on experiences in classes before I came to UMass Lowell and started in Prof. Spanier’s classes,” says Shantler, who also participated in an earlier in-class debate with full costume. “He’s really helped me identify what I want to study in history and decide that I want to be an educator, too.”