Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

SDSU history class brings ancient infantry to life

SDSU history professor Graham Wrightson oversees the phalanx as they practice moving with the sarissas.
Jordan Rusche
SDSU history professor Graham Wrightson oversees the phalanx as they practice moving with the sarissas.

Brookings residents got a peek into the past in Larson Park Saturday as around 20 volunteers recreated an ancient Macedonian phalanx as part of a local history class.

During the event, volunteers worked with five SDSU history students—Caitlin Davis, Chad Lemme, Nathan Doll, Austin Huwe and Zac Chase—on how to use the traditional spears, called sarissas, that an ancient phalanx would have had. The volunteers were taught how to raise and lower the spears, each between 12-18 feet long, and how to move as a group.

Chad Huwe, one of the volunteers and Austin’s father, said he didn’t really know what to expect before training with the spears but thought it helped put what ancient soldiers might have gone through into perspective.

“It’s hard to imagine battling the enemies with these spears and how they could get hundreds of people together and all in sync and unison and actually do damage,” he said.

Lucas Anderson, another volunteer and friend of Lemme, said it was interesting to see how pop culture depictions of Greek infantries compared to a more historical recreation of the real thing.

“It kind of puts Hollywood movies into perspective if they were accurate or not,” he said.

The project ended with the five groups coming together to form a complete phalanx and practicing how to move as a 25-person unit, including making three-quarter turns and going up and down hills.

The infantry practice was the culmination of almost 10 years of research for Graham Wrightson, associate history professor at SDSU. He first received a grant to recreate the sarissas and phalanx in 2016.

"The end point of the research is to see how fast it is and easy it is to train a bunch of volunteers to use a pike and start marching and pseudo fighting in a pike formation, and then test out different types of terrain,” he said.

He’s had several classes over the years work on the spears and research phalanxes, though there were some delays due to COVID, and plans to publish the research done through this project.

"It’s exciting to finally get to the end point and then be able to write all 10 years’ worth of research and conclusions down into a book and start publishing it and hopefully get the ideas out there,” he said.

Another expert helping with the project was Lucian Staiano-Daniels, who studies 17th century history and pike warfare, one of the few other times in history that spears were a primary weapon in combat. He helped oversee the use of the spears while also offering insight into how their use in battle changed over time, like for example, what impact gunpowder and stronger metals had in the 17th century.

“Every change in technology is intertwined with changes in social and cultural formation. It all happens at the same time,” he said.

Staiano-Daniels currently teaches as a visiting professor in Peace and Conflict Studies at Colgate University in New York.

Along with preparing for the phalanx exercise, the students also learned how to spin yarn, weave, leatherwork and make other crafts that ancient cultures would have performed.

Katelyn Winberg, one of the other students in the class, said being able to experience these kinds of crafts and hands-on activities adds to her learning of the material.

“I think my favorite part is kind of understanding how they had to do things back then, because it’s one thing reading about it,” she said.

Wrightson said being able to physically reenact the concepts they’re studying can help shed light on details they might miss otherwise.

“This is what modern history studies are about is experimental archeology, where you fill in gaps in our knowledge based on practical experience, and it combines the knowledge that you can learn from reenacting with professional historical studies and fill in the gaps that you have between the two,” he said.

Staiano-Daniels said having a hands-on learning class like this can appeal to a wider range of learning styles, making it easier for students to engage with the material.

He also added that recreating these kinds of historic experiences can help us better understand what it was like to live in that time.

“If we are dealing with either the history of society/the history of ordinary people, or the history of an individual person, an individual regiment, you’re eventually going to ask the question of, ‘what did it feel like to be the person, what did it feel like to be these people?’” he said.

Jordan is a senior English and journalism major at SDSU in Brookings. She is from De Smet, South Dakota. She is based out of the Sioux Falls studio.