Peek Behind the Scenes In Greater Williamsburg

From theme parks to historical sites to breweries and distilleries, specialized tours lift the veil on some of the area’s most popular attractions. Join them to get the inside story.

Colonial Williamsburg Gardens
The Williamsburg Winery
Clydesdale at Busch Gardens

Inside the cramped Materials Analysis Laboratory at Colonial Williamsburg's sprawling conservation building, Kirsten Travers Moffitt explains to a small group of rapt listeners how her high-tech tools solve one mystery after another.

In a box on the table in front of them, she has two identical sterling silver spoons. Are they both authentic? Is one? Is neither?
A curator needed to know. She turned to Moffitt's sleuthing and her portable XRF (X-Ray Fluorescence Spectrometer), a handheld instrument that analyzes the elemental composition of an object without leaving a mark. Moffitt knew silver in the colonial period up to about 1850 contained trademark traces of gold and lead, but silver made after that contained only silver and 7.5 percent copper. 

As the members of one of Colonial Williamsburg’s behind-the-scenes tours watch, Moffitt shows the XRF's analysis on a laptop screen. "If you zoom in here, you see only one of them has really small peaks for lead and gold," she says before pointing to the graph showing the other spoon's composition. "This one is actually a reproduction, but otherwise it's exactly the same."

Moffitt goes on to show off her other tools, including a scanning electron microscope that magnifies up to 130,000 times and an FTIR microscope (Fourier Transform Infrared Spectrometer) that uses infrared energy to identify organic materials such as varnishes, adhesives, waxes, and oils, from samples as small as a speck of dust. She explains how she identifies the wavy lines of historical paint under the microscope by looking at tiny slices of samples. She notes the oldest layer of one sample showsverdigris, a green pigment popular in the 18th and early 19th century made by exposing copper to wine. New paint schemes for the interiors and exteriors of buildings in the Williamsburg historic area are the result of her research. She shows rabbit and beaver fibers on a sample from a black felt hat. A few people in our group ask questions. One man takes notes.  

Moffitt's lab in The Wallace Collections and Conservation Building on a campus near the historic area is one of our stops today, although on other days visitors may get a chance to explore one of the eight other conservation labs in this building, including Archaeological Materials, Wooden Artifacts, Instruments and Mechanical Arts, Objects, Paintings, Paper, Textiles, and Upholstery as well as a Preventive Conservation group.

This tour is just one of about 20 offered by Colonial Williamsburg that pull back the curtain and give visitors insight and context to the wonders of the historic area. A "Bits and Bridles" tour of Colonial Williamsburg’s modern stables and Rare Breeds Program takes place daily. A two-hour walking tour goes behind closed doors every Saturday. Several tours explore the gardens of the historic area. 

The daily tours at the conservation labs fill up fast. Groups — limited to 15 — often linger, asking question after question. "We have a heckuva time getting them out because they're such compelling stories," says David Blanchfield, Colonial Williamsburg's director of conservation.

Roller Coasters and Breweries

Throughout Greater Williamsburg, you'll find tours that take you behind the scenes to indulge your curiosity or provide a chance to experience something special.  

At Busch Gardens, behind-the-scenes tours offer thrills as well as a chance to get up close and personal with the park’s critters. On the “Roller Coaster Insider” tour, get special ride time on five coasters, visit maintenance areas and speak with the mechanics about how they keep those screaming thrill rides open. Finally, get a special view with a trip to the top of the Griffon lift.

For animal lovers, there’s “Wolf Training Up Close” with a trainer who teaches you the basics and then lets you ask a wolf to perform a behavior. The Clydesdales and collies tour is a chance to meet these majestic animals, learn their history and how they are trained and to participate in a herding demonstration with Scottish blackface sheep and border collies. You can also become a zoo keeper for four hours during a unique, in-depth experience that will teach you how to clean, feed and train birds of prey, exotic birds, wolves and the Clydesdales.

For adults, there's the Williamsburg Tasting Trail, the official guide to Greater Williamsburg’s craft beverage scene. You can take the trail on your own, making stops at places like The Williamsburg Winery, Silver Hand Meadery, Copper Fox Distillery, 8 Shires Distillery, The Virginia Beer Company, Brass Cannon Brewing and Alewerks Brewing Company. If you love good wine and cheese, be sure to check out the Extensive Tour & Reserve Wine Tasting at The Williamsburg Winery. And keep an eye out for ongoing special events, tastings and new releases at all the Williamsburg Tasting Trail stops.

Clothing and Muskets

At Jamestown Settlement, you can take private tours and choose themes ranging from "Charge Your Pike — Defending the Colony," where you can participate in a special pike drill, to "Concerning Linen, Leather and Silk," which explores the fashion of 17th-century colonial America. At the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, tour themes include "School of t

he Soldier," with a focus on Revolutionary War training, and "The Place Where They Delight to Grow," a gardens tour.

Anne Price-Hardister, the on-site education manager, says the Jamestown clothing tour and the military programs at both sites are the most popular. 

During the clothing tour, visitors stop by sites to view and learn about clothing worn by Powhatan Indians and sailors and go to the historical clothing workshop where they may stitch a piece of historical clothing. At the museum's "School of the Soldier," the group drills during an abbreviated basic training of a Revolutionary soldier, handles a musket (but does not fire it), discovers what it was like to squeeze six people into a tent and learns about the food soldiers ate.

"We really want people to connect to the people of the past," Price-Hardister says, "and there is that opportunity when you have a smaller group that is focused on one thing."

Artifacts and Digs

History buffs can also connect with the past at Historic Jamestowne, which offers special tours like the "In the Trenches” tour with William Kelso, the director of Jamestown Rediscovery's archaeology team since 1994. In addition, the "Curator's Artifact Tour" provides a behind-the-scenes look at the artifact collection found in James Fort. Both are offered twice a month from April through October.

Daily at Historic Jamestowne, members of the archaeological team guide visitors through a roughly one-hour tour of the site. On one morning, Dan Gamble, a senior conservationist and 18-year veteran, took visitors first to an example of a dig site, explaining how in the early layers the artifacts are out of context because they've been moved around due to storms and plowing. But when excavators get to the red clay of Virginia, they use trowels trolling for treasures. More than 2 million artifacts have been found on the site, including one of the largest collections of Native American artifacts in the country, Gamble says.

He leads the group to the burial sites of four colonists in the chancel where a church once stood. Their burial in the church is a sign of their exalted status among the colonists during the “starving” winter of 1609-1610, when food shortages killedtwo of every three colonists at James Fort. Rarely does the team find anything but nails left when they exhume graves, but on this dig they uncovered a small silver box buried atop a coffin containing the remains of Capt. Gabriel Archer. 

Via a 3D image of the contents, they learned it contains seven pieces of bone and a tiny lead ampulla, Gamble notes. One mystery was solved, but another was opened. Could the reliquary, a sacred object normally associated with Catholicism, mean Archer was a secret Catholic in the Protestant settlement?

Nearby, Gamble steps down into a cellar kitchen from 1610 where he recounts the story of a historic find — a skeleton of a young woman that revealed for the first time that colonists resorted to cannibalism during the starving winter. 

"It was a very exciting find, but also very sad," Gamble says.

It's an answer to another mystery, the kind of insight you'll discover during one of the in-depth tours throughout Greater Williamsburg, whether you're a history buff, a thrill-seeking coaster fan or a foodie on the trail to a new favorite beer.

Looking for more ideas? Explore the free options in the area. Check out family fun around Williamsburg, Jamestown and Yorktown. And if you want to take a tour through history, trace Alexander Hamilton’s stops in Greater Williamsburg.

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