Master’s student Carolyn Willekes uses her “bareback laboratory” to research ancient cavalry, while Taylor Hayward is perfecting a tiny device that will help soldiers detect chemical weapons. These student researchers are part of a new generation of U of C students who are learning through research. They’re building their own knowledge and generating ideas that may one day change the world.
THE SIGNS that the ancient Greeks and Romans are close to Carolyn Willekes’ heart are abundant. First there is the convincing way she pivots in her chair when demonstrating how archers mounted on horseback fired their arrows. Then there’s the fact that she gets a little breathless—as though her words were galloping ahead of her—when talking about Alexander the Great’s use of his cavalry. If you still need convincing, all you have to do is look a little closer to her heart because Willekes wears a necklace adorned with a copy of an Alexander coin and a small talisman used by modern Greeks to ward off the evil eye. This combination of the ancient and contemporary is also found in her approach to research. Willekes defended her master’s thesis last August and started on her PhD a month later. Although a master’s thesis called The Greek Warhorse: Its Breeding, Training and Military Role wouldn’t seem to offer a lot of scope for primary research, Willekes devised a simple way of testing her theories: She just gets on a horse with her bow and arrow (or sword or spear) and goes for a ride.
Willekes, 25, has been around horses ever since her parents gave her riding lessons for her 10th birthday. This practical knowledge was key to devising her research question. “I thought what if I took my knowledge from training horses and knowing what horses are actually like and tried to figure out how you actually put them on a battlefield?” she says. “Because if you know anything about horses it seems like the worst idea in the world. These things are afraid of everything and they’ll run away from anything.”
Along with fellow students Ryan Jones, who has a talent for making weapons, and Alison Mercer, whose parents own horses, Willekes has created a kind of bareback laboratory. In her master’s thesis, she writes about her findings regarding the sarissa, a long spear used by the Macedonian cavalry, which scholars generally believed to be about 4.5-metres-long. But Willekes was suspicious of that claim “If you have a small pony and no saddle or stirrups, how is that going to work?” she asks. “We made one that was 3.5- metres-long, and it wobbles like spaghetti when you ride.” She concluded that the sarissa could have been no more than 2.5 metres long. According to Waldemar Heckel, her thesis supervisor, Willekes’s research has larger implications. “Carolyn’s work shows that new methods can be applied,” he says, “and also that what is generally dismissed as ‘reenactment’ can be a very serious business—indeed an essential pursuit.”
WILLEKES’S WORK also demonstrates how student research can be an essential pursuit, one that makes real contributions to knowledge in a variety of fields. (Her work also shows how learning can flow from student to professor because, although he is a little afraid of horses, Heckel promised he would learn to ride if Willekes stayed at the U of C for her PhD. He intends to honour his pledge.)
Even when the research does not lead to anything as dramatic as overturning a previously held belief, the work has dramatic benefits for the students who undertake it. “New ideas, if they are to have any value, must be based on a fresh study of the evidence available,” Heckel says. “Students need to have access to the same materials in order to understand and evaluate a scholar’s conclusions.” In other words, research inculcates a solid approach to studies in diverse fields. What’s more, it is just as important to the undergraduate as it is to the grad student, to the aspiring academic as to those for whom the thought of starting a PhD immediately after completing a master’s produces either tears or laughter.
Somehow we've got to get a photo of Heckel and Robin Lane Fox together in full battle regalia leading a charge of some sort ...