There was "nothing simple about the simple life," said Jeff Wyers, one of about two dozen volunteers who journeyed to the Maine coast to live in a colony as it would have been in 1628.
Their challenge: to live by 17th-century laws, using only the tools of the period and the resources of the land, and build a prosperous community. Their stories unfold in "Colonial House," an eight-part series premiering on Monday and Tuesday this week and next from 8 to 10 p.m. on PBS.
The colonists had to deal with religious conflicts -- which played a big part in the life of the colony -- as well as an AWOL colonist, punishments for profanity, and struggles in filling their roles in a strict hierarchy. They also examined such issues as slavery, homosexuality and gender roles.
They lived in tight quarters -- four cottages about 15 by 20 feet each, with as many as 12 people per house -- and had to ration food. They were visited by members of the Passamaquoddy tribe as well as the Wampanoag Nation, who offered to trade and expressed Native American views about the colony.
The participants wore authentic clothes, planted crops, tended animals and cut lumber. They also received devastating news from the outside world that affected them all.
"We were approaching [the experience] as best we could, but the 21st century wouldn't stay out of it," Wyers said. "There were some things we could achieve -- we were able to achieve a colony feeling -- but a 17th-century mentality was too far for us to go."
Before they embarked on their journey, the colonists prepped with classes -- in everything from social customs to the law -- at the Plimoth Plantation in Massachussetts. They also were tutored in such things as colonial cooking, animal care, woodworking, and use of tools of the time.
Craig Tuminaro of Alexandria, who was assigned as an indentured servant in the colony, said, "The first two weeks really were an adjustment in the sheer physicality of being there." Some things -- such as the lack of bathing and sleeping on a straw mattress -- became commonplace very quickly, he said.
Emerson "Tad" Baker, chair of the history department of Salem State College, was an adviser to the series and a member of the panel that evaluated the economic success of the colony. The series shows "how difficult it is to put yourself into other people's mind-sets. It's one thing to put on the clothes and live the life -- but to try to understand the world view that people had in the 17th century is really hard work," he said.
The religious conflicts, for instance, centered on colonists balking at attending Sunday services, required by law in the 17th century. Objectors paid a price: They spent time tied to stakes in a cornfield. For various transgressions, such as swearing -- once the forbidden words were defined -- scarlet letters were worn to indicate guilt.
Besides learning about the laws of 1628, the participants also gained insight into the economics of the time. In their day, colonies were seen as get-rich-quick schemes by investors, much like today's Internet stocks have been considered, Baker said.
But the participants learned what a difference 400 years can make. "In Maine in 1628, we are talking about a world of plenty, with furs and fish and lumber galore," Baker said. "The people of those times would have had more supplies to ship back to England than they knew what to do with. But it's no longer a world of plenty. It's hard to judge on anything approaching the standards of 1628 because [the modern colonists] did not have the same resources of that era.
"I take my hat off to these people -- there is no way I would even attempt to do what they did. I wouldn't survive a week," Baker said. The colonists, who were selected from across the United States and Britain, were involved with the project from mid-May to October last year.
While the filmmakers did their best to isolate the participants on a 1,000-acre site, a few concessions were made for safety or health reasons, said Beth Hoppe, executive producer. Insect spray and sunscreen were used, and emergency boxes with radios were placed in each house. "We also gave the colonists rice, which wasn't historically accurate. But with all of the peas and oats, everyone was sick, so we added rice on the advice of the doctors," she said.
The filmmakers also supported the decision of several participants to leave when a family emergency occurred outside the colony. The departure deeply affected all of the colonists and had far-ranging ramifications.
The project covered "a whole range of emotions," Tuminaro said. "I truly felt we were a colony -- a group of people who relied on each other and respected one another. It's hard to capture that in such a powerful, clear and succinct way in modern life."
One thing that surprised him, Tuminaro said, was his reaction after leaving the colony. "I got back to my hotel room and, despite being filthy -- if you live in a house with a dirt floor, you can never really get clean -- I didn't want to take a shower, because [I thought] once I do, it's really over."
On the Web
* A companion Web site to the program is at: www.pbs.org/wnet/colonialhouse/
* Join "Colonial House" participants and experts for live onlinechats this week at: www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline