Experimental Learning Turns Back Clock: Students Travel to Colonial Williamsburg to Practice Blacksmithing

By Lori Wysong  
Elm Staff Writer

The opportunity to learn blacksmithing doesn’t come every day.  Over spring break, a group of Washington College students got the chance to learn this and other historic trades at Colonial Williamsburg.  The trip was the first WC program of its kind.

According to the director of the Center for Environment and Society, Lammot du Pont Copeland associate professor of anthropology and environmental studies, and a co-sponsor of the trip Dr. John Seidel, the group’s activities ranged from “visiting sites and going behind the scenes into museum collections, to actually working in the workshops, alongside blacksmiths, tinsmiths, leather workers, carpenters, and armourers.”

Dr. Charles Fithian, lecturer in anthropology and the other co-sponsor of the trip, said that students were able to “take a sort of experimental archaeology approach looking at the material culture of the Revolution.”

This partnership between WC and Colonial Williamsburg has been some time in the making.

“This spring, the stars just seemed to align, and we were able to work out the details for a pilot program,” Dr. Seidel said.

Dr. Fithian said he hopes that this partnership with Williamsburg can be extended into other opportunities for students.

“If this goes well—and we’re confident that it will —we will have future programs,” he said.

Specifically, Dr. Seidel anticipates future programs in topics such as architectural history, museum studies, museum interpretation, and collections management.

In establishing the program, Dr. Fithian and Dr. Seidel hoped that students would walk away with a different perspective on the Revolution.

“We’re not just looking at history, but also at how we interpret the past and the challenges in such interpretations,” Dr. Seidel said.

“It’s very exciting, I think, for the both of us.  We’ve both been very professionally involved in the study of this period,” Dr. Fithian said. “There’s a lot of mythology that surrounds the revolution, how it was fought, when the reality is often quite different.”

Dr. Fithian hopes that students on the trip were able to see how much logistics were involved in the development of the Continental Army.

Junior anthropology major Madison Kaye believes the experience of working with these tradesmen was “invaluable and rare.”

“It’s not often that you are immersed in a historic environment, including what would have been seen, heard, and even smelled by those who lived it,” she said.

Many of the professionals that the students worked with are some of the most well-known in the field of living history.

Dr. Fithian said, “It’s a real singular experience. These are people who are probably internationally known in some cases as being the top practitioners of these traditional skills.”

Commenting on the work of these artisans, Dr. Fithian said that many of the craftsmen develop their trades using what they learn about archaeological finds.  He believes accuracy is crucial to the success of living history.  From working with these professionals, students got an “awareness of what the Americans had to create,” he said.

While the two-credit program was certainly a unique experience, Dr. Seidel believes that the students’ enthusiasm contributed to its success.

“The program’s practical, applied, and experiential orientation is certainly something that we do well at WC,” he said.

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