Anthropology of American History Visit to the Frontier Culture Museum

Washington and Lee University students in Professor Alison Bell's Anthropology of American History course (cross-listed in the History and Sociology/Anthropology Departments) recently visited the Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton, Virginia.

To provide visitors understandings of the lives and challenges that prospective American immigrants faced, the museum exhibits historic houses and associated buildings from Germany, England and Ireland, as well as examples of 18th- and 19th-century Virginia farmsteads.

After touring these structures, W&L students helped to construct the Frontier Culture Museum's newest exhibit: an Igbo compound representative of houses in 18th-century Nigeria. According to the museum's website, "Enslaved African and African American laborers were among the earliest settlers on the colonial frontier. ...The West African Farm recreates a type of home many Africans were taken from and brought to America."

To create part of a wall in the museum's Igbo-style house, W&L students combined clay, sand and warm water by "puddling," or mashing and mixing the ingredients with their feet until reaching the correct consistency. They then formed the mixture into cantaloupe-sized balls and tossed them up to Ray Wright, the Frontier Culture Museum's interpretive coordinator. Mr. Wright added the clay balls to the house wall and smoothed them to mesh with the wall's rectangular form.

Students discovered how labor-intensive these seemingly simple buildings were, and how much organized, motivated, collective effort would have been needed to construct each family's house among the historic Igbo.