Students visiting with a flock of sheep for Earth Week.

Hands-on Learning

Hands-on Learning

A flock of sheep spends the day on campus, marking the start of Earth Week and sparking research and conversation about the ancient Roman celebration Parilia, agriculture and textile-making.

Williams kicked off this year’s Earth Week activities with some special visitors to campus—a flock of Merino and Tunis sheep from Brattle Farm in nearby Pittsfield, Mass.

Their daylong visit on April 19 in a grassy area nestled between Hollander Hall and the Class of ‘66 Environmental Center sparked conversation about how the college uses and maintains its open spaces. It also demonstrated how integration between people, land and animals promotes social, mental and physical well-being.

Organized by the Classics department, in collaboration with the Zilkha Center and the Center for Environmental Studies, the sheep’s visit also had a starring role in classics professor Nicole Brown’s courses Introduction to Latin and The Nature of Work. In The Nature of Work, a new seminar, students explore a variety of skilled crafts and labor in classical antiquity, including agricultural work. Students in Introduction to Latin spend a full year studying the fundamentals of the Latin language. They also learn about Parilia, the ancient Roman festival held in April that each year celebrates the founding of the city and the leading of new flocks to pasture.

“Classics faculty are always looking for ways to bring our students into closer contact with the materials we teach so they can understand them better,” says Amanda Wilcox, professor and chair of the classics department.  “Sheep were integral to the ancient cultures we study all across the Mediterranean but especially in the lives and imaginations of the Greeks and Romans.

“We are also committed to exploring new ways to approach teaching and learning,” Wilcox adds, “and we’re particularly invested in experiential and holistic modes of learning.”

Computer science professor Iris Howely demonstrates how to spin yarn.
Computer science professor Iris Howely demonstrates for students the stages wool goes through before it can become clothing.

Throughout the day, students and visitors sampled cheeses, chatted with local farmers and learned about wool and the craft of wool-making. Computer science professor Iris Howley, who also has expertise in textiles, brought her spinning wheel to demonstrate for students the stages wool goes through before it can become clothing. 

“It was fascinating to hear how Professor Howley mixes her dog’s fur with sheep’s fur to create hats, sweaters and other items,” says Meredith Tutun ’25, a student in The Nature of Work course. “She noted how while she knits for enjoyment, in ancient times, knitting was essential to the Roman livelihood. There were strong parallels between weaving and women and this sense of femininity and moral duty that women of the Roman empire were expected to embody.”

Image of a student research project on sheep and shepherds in ancient Greece.
Student projects highlight pastoral life and creativity in ancient Greece.

Tutun was among Brown’s students who displayed research projects showcasing the central role that sheep and their caretakers played in the ancient Mediterranean, from the production of wool and cheese to the invention of the pastoral as a genre of art, literature and music. 

Tutun’s joint project with Jonathan Fischer ’24 and Luke J. Graupmann ’24 highlighted how creative works—including those by the ancient Greek poet Theocritus, known as the creator of pastoral poetry—idealizes rural life in ancient Greece and Rome. 

“The event allowed me to better understand the experience of ancient shepherds and sheep in the Roman world,” Tutun says. “I can now say that the experience of ancient peoples in the Mediterranean was one of hard work, discipline and a breadth of knowledge for the land and animals that surrounded them.”