Friday, August 31, 2012

Stacking the Chimney

From Julie H., Historical Interpreter:

It's time to take a break from yams and return to Settlement! While yams have been growing, we have been working hard across the museum on the American side to finish building up our chimney before the cold weather hits. Yes, I am aware that the high today reached 92 degrees in Staunton. But we're a month and a day away from October, and that means cold weather! So for this post, we will take you through the steps necessary to build a basic rough chimney for a temporary home in the 1730s/40s Virginia backcountry. The Augusta County Militia guys began this hard job last year, and now our staff is finishing it.

The bottom of chimney is stacked stone. It stops about chest high, because if we continued higher, it would become too dangerous. We aren't stone masons. Neither were they. We would need a stone mason to build it all out of stone, and for a quick shelter that we'd make in a couple months and live in for only a few years, it would be impractical to have a nice stone chimney. In fact, we're lucky we even got to build the bottom chunk of stone! On the other side of the colony, the entire chimney might be stick-and-daub, because there isn't enough rock over there! So the rest of the chimney is made out of wood.

Using the right kind of wood is important. Because the upper portion of the chimney is stacked wood covered in mud daubing, it is likely that as the daub dries and cracks to expose the log, it will catch fire some day. If you pick pine to build your chimney, that stuff will catch a spark and go up in flame before you know it. It's best to pick a harder wood that burns slower, such as oak. It'll give you more time to go outside and pull the chimney down, so the rest of your house doesn't catch.

Once we had our oak tree trunks, we split them all down into quarters, sometimes eighths, about the same size for fence rails. We'll talk more about splitting rails in the future. Here is Andy, determining where to place the next metal wedge, while a wooden glut holds the log open.
 Once they are split to size, they need to be cut down to length. We needed our chimney to taper from a wide bottom to a smaller top, so we had to measure out the exact length we wanted our pieces.
Some of the rails were cut down to length using an ax last year, and these recent ones we did with a period hand saw. See the difference in the look below (note: these pieces have been fully worked into square shapes at this point).

Our rails initially are all shaped like a slice of pie- triangular. In order to get that nice squared-off shape that you see above, pull out a fro, a fro club, and a hatchet. The fro is an L-shaped tool, with the sharp blade on the bottom. The fro club is a big wooden mallet we use to drive the fro into the top of the wood, to pry the wood apart. We also use the fro to make the roof shingles, and all our fence palings. Below, I place the fro to cut off the triangular tip of our piece.
Here's the fro club. The pieces are short enough that the fro work is easy. Drive it in, pull the handle, and POP! But, if the wood gives you lots of "stringies" and becomes difficult to pry apart, like this one did, you can use the handle of the fro club to keep the piece open as you slide the fro down to pry lower.
Once the tip is off, the piece is still trapezoidal, so pull out the hatchet and start [carefully] hacking down the wider edge to match the thinner edge.
For the initial stacking, you can stand inside the chimney up on a stool or bench, but at some point, it'll become too narrow to continue inside, and you'll need to get a ladder and continue from the outside.
Once the stacking begins, we need two people. Just because we squared it off earlier doesn't mean it'll sit nice and flat on the piece below! Andy leads the effort by climbing the chimney, and I hand him up each piece, hoping it works on the first try. It occasionally does, but most pieces he hands back down to me, with instructions such as, "Take about a quarter inch from this spot here down to the bottom." I shave the piece down, and hand it back up. Sometimes, it takes a couple tries to get the piece to sit stable on top the chimney.
 We keep doing this until it finally reaches the desired height. It needs to be a little taller than the house, in order for it to draft properly when we build a fire inside. As we learned, it's difficult to judge how much wood you need to reach that height without actually stacking it. Also notice that there is a significant space between the the chimney and the north wall of the cabin. Remember how I said earlier that it might catch on fire at some point? If the chimney leans away from the wall, it'll be less likely to catch too.
When you finish, be sure to take a fun and artsy photo or two! Notice all those little black square smudges on the pieces? Those are the shadows from our iron wedges from when we split the logs in the first step.
 Now that our chimney is finally stacked, we will start daubing it with mud TOMORROW! If you're in the area, come on by tomorrow during museum hours (9-5). Visitors are invited to daub with us, but if jumping in mud isn't your thing, we'll take friendly words of encouragement!

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Yam Day- Masquerades

From Brad, Historical Interpreter:

Yam Day Update: Masquerades!

This week we dug deep into our video archives to to show you a masquerade that took place here at the FCMV! We also took the liberty of finding some more extravagant costumes, and we have updated our yam experiment.

It's still the time of year for the New Yam Festival over in Igboland, and that means it is time for the year's biggest feast and masquerade. We've already discussed the importance of having a colossal  feast, so now we'll turn to the more colorful masquerades. Traditionally, when there's an Igbo masquerade, it's not simply for fun. Masquerades are only held on sacred days when the line between the natural and supernatural worlds is the thinnest, permitting the spirit world to walk amongst the living. This only occurs at certain seasonal celebrations (like the New Yam Festival), funerals, and sometimes judiciary trials.

In order to participate as a masquerader, first of all you need to be a male (sorry, ladies). Secondly, you need to be initiated into a secret society that controls when, where, and how a spirit will be seen. This is not the most difficult achievement to accomplish, as it typically requires only a lump some of money and an oath to secrecy. Thirdly, you need a costume. Costumes vary in a shapes and colors, but the one thing in common is that every costume should not reveal any skin of the performer. In this way the masquerade is able to retain a mystic, magical side. Every costume represents a different deity (there are hundreds) or sometimes a late friend. These costumes often include a mask carved from a solid piece of wood that slides over the masquerader's whole head, which I can speak from experience is very heavy and severely limits one's mobility. Despite this fact, masqueraders will dance and dance, or otherwise walk the streets in their costume, typically scaring women and children.

It is a wonder that anyone within these secret societies actually believes in Igbo deities, given their knowledge and oaths of secrecy, but for many Igbo's their spirituality is actually reaffirmed. They don't believe they are "playing the part" of a deity.  Rather, they become entranced and believe their body acts a vessel for the spirit to vicariously live through them. The women and children, however, appear to be more scared into believing than anything. Often masqueraders are surrounded by men carrying switches to clear a path for the deity and people frequently throw money at him (or her, depending on the spirit) to appease the spirit's anger--or at least to secure his blessing. I've also heard that the dance alone is enough to inspire belief, as one Igbo woman put it, "The way they move is inhuman!"

Rather than go into more detail describing masquerades, we found a few videos from our dedication ceremony at the West African Farm. Here are some videos of the procession and the masquerade:

And the masquerade...(notice the raffia-covered deity in the back being chased by a man with a fan)...

Here's a costume of the spirit Ahobinagu or Obinagu. She is a spirit that inhabits many lifeforms in the rainforest, living in close quarters with Ala, the Earth Goddess. This picture also appeared in National Geographic recently:

This picture was taken in or near the city of Awka, the capital of Anambra State, Nigeria.  Here's a photo of a masquerader accompanied by lesser deities. Notice the mask and headdress:

Now back to our yam experiment. Overall the yam vines have slowed a bit in growth, with Yam 5 showing some wilting on the tip of the vine. Next week, we'll offer a synthesis of all the measurements taken thus far, and we'll have plenty of photos for you.

Yam 1:
 Yam 1's measurements:
 Yam 2 comes in this week at about 38":
 The Twins, 36" each:
We did not include Yam 5 (its height is about the same), but here's Yam 6 from the last few weeks, the baby, turned toddler:

Otherwise, there have been a lot of exciting things happening recently on the farms. In addition to Yam Day, in the next two weeks, we will be posting on finishing the chimney of the Settlement cabin, and thatching the roof of the Irish blacksmith shop! Stay tuned!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

New Yam Festival & Update

From Brad, Historical Interpreter:

Yam Day Update: New Yam Festival!

This week, we are commemorating the New Yam Festival that traditionally takes place this time of year in Igboland, and we have also updated our yam farm experiment!

August marks the prolonged period when individual villages or village groups in Igboland hold their annual harvest festival. Every day, different locales hold festivities, and no matter how close or distant your relationship to anyone there, you're invited! You'll be asked to eat your share (and then some) when they hold the feast, partake in dancing, and, depending on your gender, accompany the masqueraders.

The New Yam Festival is a time of jubilation that represents the beginning of a new season, turning from a time of scarcity to a time of plenty. The Igbo are eager to share the abundance of a successful crop by inviting anyone even remotely acquainted with the villagers to a feast. It's said there should always be leftovers. The jubilation also celebrates the cyclical changing of old to new, and new to old. All the old yams that families still have in their barns are thrown out, and the new yams are brought in. The wives thoroughly scrub pots and wash the clothes in a nearby stream, all of which are meant to purify the household for the incorporation of a new and sacred harvest.

It is, in fact, taboo to eat a fresh yam before your village's yam festival, because not only are your body and house still seen as unfit for a new harvest, but the proper sacrifices to the deities of the land have to be performed first. Typically, this includes making a sacrifice to the spirit of the land, Ala, the spirit of the Yam, and other deities a given locale chooses to recognize. After the sacrifice, the men in the village take the slaughtered chickens, cows, or goats to be eaten. Their sacrifices are not exclusive to the animal kingdom, as they may also offer kola nuts, or palm wine to Chukwu (the creator of all, almost like a Zeus figure) and the lesser deities. With the land purified and the next year's crop blessed, the Igbo are allowed to enjoy their sacred harvest.

This week, we are honoring the New Yam Festival by showing off some of our prize yams from last year's harvest in Africa, which we picked up from an African food store in DC. The Igbo festivals are celebrated at the beginning of the harvest season, and harvesting goes on for weeks or months afterward. So it's possible that our yams may have been harvested as late as October 2011.

They aren't so fresh, but still edible!
 I'm eyeing this one up for later. Will it be a bowl of pounded fufu, or roasted yam with palm oil?

Back to the experiment!

Here's Yam 1: standing at about 35", it grew the fastest this week extending itself by 14".
 Yam 2 is about the same size, around 35", and was our slowest growth rate at 4".
Yams 3/4, the Twins: both grew about 8" this week to stand around 35" tall. I would start to wonder if they are topping out yet, but....
Yam 5, our reigning Di Ji, is standing at just over 4' tall at about 49". This one, however, only grew 6".

Last week's baby, Yam 6, is now entering adolescence, standing around 10" tall today.

Next week we'll continue our New Yam commemoration, and I'll delve into the world of masquerades!  Also, the yam experiment will continue!

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Yam Day Update!

From Brad, Historical Interpreter:
Yam Day update!

This week, we get down and dirty to show you how Igbos traditionally farmed yams. Like any farm around the world, Igbos start their work in the off-season. This means they start in the dry season, when farmers clear huge swathes of rainforest to make room for their crops. If you ever visit during this time of year (usually October through March), you may have the chance to see complete pan-optic clouds of smoke rising on the horizon. This is because Igbos today still use the slash-and-burn method to clear land. A good farmer will save as many palm, banana, and plantain trees as possible to use for food, oil (for diet, candles, and personal hygiene), thatch, and palm wine, among many other uses.

After a farmer has cleared his land, he will wait until the transition period into the rainy season, which starts sometime in April. He will then begin making hundreds of large mounds of dirt with his hoe, or ogu in Igbo, leaving small patches untouched where his wives will plants other vegetables.  Interestingly, there is no reason of patterning for the organization of the farm. The mounds take shape wherever the man desires, and often he and his wives are the only people who know the outlay of the farm. A smart farmer will wait to plant his yams until he is sure the heavy rains will stay. A farmer often begins planting after the first heavy rains, only to find a period of drought before the real rainy season occurs.
If the farmer plants his yams at the right time of the season, and his yams have begun to sprout like ours have at the museum, he trains his vines to grow around a stick, making sure there are no breaks and that they receive optimum sunlight. If the sun is too hot, he'll use the banana leaves from the trees around his farm to make rings around the yam leaves to avoid scorching and wilting. This continues through the rainy season until it is time to harvest, sometime between August and October. The women weed and maintain the other crops, farming side-by-side with the men.    

Below are some of the most important tools for a farmer. The three implements on the left are the hoes, or ogus, used for digging and weeding. If a farmer is too poor to afford an iron plate, he may use the shoulder bone of an animal. On the right, we have an Igbo axe and pick. Notice how short the handles are!
Here I am, picking away loosening up the dirt to make my yam mounds. Yams require large mounds to keep them underground because they grow very, very large. The largest yam I've heard of was 250 lbs!
Now I am using the short-handled ogu to work up my mound. You really have to put your back into it!
The seed yam is planted just like a regular potato.
After the vine is large enough, the farmer carefully trains the vine around a stick or a piece of bamboo. This must be checked fairly often because of the yam's rapid growth.

WEEKLY UPDATE: Back to our yam experiment. Yam 1 grew 8", hitting 21" tall:
Yam 2 grew about 18.5" in the last week, standing around 31" tall:
Yam 3/4, the twins, grew about 11" in the past week, a bit slower than Yam 1 and 2:
Because of its incredible growth, we are adding a new botanical Di Ji, Yam 5, making its debut this week at around 43"!
We have one more new yam to report this week, he is the 7th yam to sprout out of the dozen we planted. Stay tuned, because there are more yams on the way!
Next week, we'll show you some pictures of the yams we bought that were shipped from Ghana, and discuss the biggest holiday of the year for traditional Igbos, the New Yam Festival.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

John Lewis Society Feast!

From Julie H., Historical Interpreter:

What an afternoon! Every year, our John Lewis Society (JLS) members get together to cook a massive historical supper on all the farms. Such a feast!

What is the John Lewis Society? It is an apprenticeship offered to young teenagers, ages 12-16, who are assigned to one of the farms as a mini-interpreter, costume and all. They learn to work with our animals, do household chores, participate in typical daily activities, and interpret the house to visitors. And, they get to cook. A lot!

So what's on the menu for tonight's supper feast? Let's hop around the farm and take a look at the preparation. Keep in mind that all the foods are from historical receipts (recipes), and are appropriate for each country and time period.

First stop, 1630s England! Menu: Roast lamb, mushy peas, rolls, almond tart, currant cake
 Notice the bake oven roaring away in the background above.
Try not to drool on your keyboard for this next one:
Group shot:

Next up, 1730s Ireland. Menu: Oat cakes, pottage (with oats, parsnips, turnips, carrots, and onions)
With only one JLS apprentice today, they kept the menu small, but mighty! Here is our Irish apprentice, rolling out the oat cake dough.

Onwards to 1720s-40s Germany. Menu: Sauerkraut, bratwurst, spelt noodles with bacon and sundry garden foods.
 The German JLS kids went for a fun group shot.

 Heading out to 1820s America next. Menu: Bacon & Eggs pie, blueberry pie.
 Building up the pile of hot coals before placing down the spider skillet. This is for the bacon.
 Blueberry Pie, fresh out of the dutch oven:

Last stop, 1850s America: Mashed potatoes, mashed squash, garden vegetable salad.

They harvested their own potatoes from the farm to get started, and washed them up.
Here is the squash they used, from the 1820s garden, called "Turk's Turban."
 Group shot!

Now, I know what you're all thinking. "Poor interpreters! They must've had to clean up after all those children!" I assure you, readers, that these wonderful apprentices even did the dishes!
If you're not drooling yet, here's some final photos of the feast before everyone dug in:

 Until next year!

(If you have a son or daughter between the ages of 12-16, and are interested in joining the John Lewis Society next year, please contact the FCM for details.)