A Knack for Anachronism

Tuesday, March 27, 2012 Road Junkies 0 Comments

Williamsburg, VA

Having heard rave reviews of Colonial Williamsburg for so many years, I felt we had to include it on our history tour.  Ken wasn't so sure.  "It's a tourist town," he asserted.

"It's living history!"  I countered.

"There are amusement parks there," he warned.

"But there are interpreters in period costume," I argued.  "It'll be like going back to colonial days."

"It's not like it's run by the National Park Service.  It's a tourist attraction," he cautioned.

 Finally we agreed that we had to see for ourselves before we eliminated a location with the web address www.history.org from our journey up the history highway.  And now we know.  It's a tourist town.

Yesterday afternoon we arrived in Williamsburg and hot-footed it over to the section called Colonial Williamsburg.  In this historic district, car traffic was appropriately prohibited and while we waited in line at the ticket booth we could see hundreds of tourists milling about in the village.  When it was finally our turn with the ticket seller, we asked why the nearly $40 admission fee.  She gushed about the opportunity to step into the village exactly as it was in the days when Patrick Henry served as governor in 1776, to watch craftsmen at work using colonial methods, and to hear colonials express their feelings about the British monarchy.  Adept at salesmanship, she was convincing enough that we forked over $76 for two one-day passes. 
As soon as we entered this authentic village, we marveled that the streets were paved with asphalt.  Who knew Williamsburg was such an advanced colonial town?  In the rest of the country, asphalt wasn't used to pave roads until the late 1800s. Electrical conduit snaked up the trunks of numerous trees, providing power to large light fixtures in the trees.  Again, remarkable developments for an authentic colonial town.
We needn't continue with the list of anachronisms, but there were plenty, including women wearing knee breeches and driving carriages.  The actors in period costume that we encountered were only in character when they were actively performing.  Maybe we've been to one Renaissance festival too many where the outgoing performers act as if they stepped out of the Middle Ages and want to carry you back there with them, but we fully expected that the staff of Colonial Williamsburg interpreters would remain in role so that guests might suspend disbelief and imagine they were actually speaking with a colonial, not just someone wearing a costume.  We were wrong.  Most of the actors we saw were just standing around idly and interacted only when visitors initiated it.

Just a handful of the 500 buildings in the village were accessible to the public, and many of those which were open served as shops.  It was a bit like a colonial version of the nearby outlet mall.  Though ticket prices didn't reflect it, perhaps late March is part of the off-season in Colonial Williamsburg because very few artisans were demonstrating their crafts.  Actually all we saw were a few ladies sitting on the steps embroidering and another pair weaving reed baskets.

The one dramatization we saw that approached fulfillment of the promised authenticity was a tour of the governor's palace.  Treating us as guests who would be attending an upcoming ball at the mansion, the guide provided insight into colonial life at the home of the British royal governor in the days leading to the revolution.
Governor's Palace
Perhaps the recreated village (only a few of the buildings are original) is an effective teaching tool for school kids, but we found it overpriced, pseudo-authentic, and decidedly commercial.  In hindsight, the admission fee we paid bought us only the 25-minute tour of the governor's mansion and access to a few lectures about colonial life by costumed speakers.  We would have obtained better value if we had just wandered the village for free.

Jamestown and Yorktown
Our experiences at Jamestown and Yorktown today were somewhat better, although anachronisms abounded at both places.  Perhaps because they haven't been given quite the hype of Williamsburg and the combined price for both places was half the cost of the Williamsburg tickets, we didn't experience quite the letdown at these smaller sites.  Admittedly the blonde Powhatan squaw with her hair clipped up in a contemporary barrette was a bit of a jolt, but after W'burg, we were getting accustomed to our apparent ignorance about historical details.
What we found most interesting and genuinely historical was the archaeological dig located at the original site of Jamestown and operated by the National Park Service.  At the more commercial "living history" Jamestown Settlement, with its recreated Powhatan village, James fort and replica ships, we saw many school groups, however, and perhaps this is the best use of these venues.
Yorktown also had its commercial side at the Yorktown Victory Center, with a recreated military camp staffed by costumed interpreters.  More compelling to us was the Yorktown Battlefield under the auspices of the NPS. 

With the critical role they played in our nation's history, these areas are certainly worth seeing.  The hundreds of thousands of visitors to the commercial sites annually attest to the popularity of that type of infotainment.  We found the authenticity of the genuine locations more to our liking.

"This reminds me of Disney World, except there they take you for a ride.  Here they just take you for a walk."    (Ken, about Colonial Williamsburg)

Clockwise from top left:  Tour guide at governor's palace, Yorktown military camp exhibit, Williamsburg silversmith, Actors in modern eyeglasses portraying Powhatans

Replica of the Susan Constant, Jamestown Settlement