The Perfect Cave

The paleolithic part of the Piette journey was intriguing to me as I knew the least about it. I had never visited a cave before, nor seen real flints. I imagined the caves as shallow inlets or giant caverns with expressive pigmented animals dancing at the back. I could not wait to board the tram through the Rouffignac cave to see if it met my expectations. The tram [rolled] through tunnels that had been expanded for easy access, a meter or so below the original cave floor. Although it was difficult to understand the guide’s French over the garbling microphone, I learned that this cave had more drawings of mammoths than any other cave, as well as over two-thirds of all mammoths depicted in known cave art. I strained to pick up the lines and etchings on the walls that represented the wooly animals. Suddenly, I realized there were words covering the walls and ceiling! However, as the guide explained, these markings were not traces of a paleolithic language: this was graffiti left by explorers in the 1600s. We reached the end of the tunnel; I was disappointed that the cave had not opened up into a giant gallery as I had read about in other caves. However, upon looking up, I spied the incredible network of mammoth and horse drawings that covered the ceiling. Though the drawings had amazed me, I still was not completely satisfied with my experience, as the cave itself felt artificial because of how much they changed it to make it accessible by tram. I could not wait to explore the next one on our itinerary!


In the Mas D’Azil cave, I was immediately more impressed. The ceiling stretched over the highway and river, creating a cool tunnel. The entrance to the cave was at the middle of the overpass. When we stepped inside, my first impression was how much the cave stretched in three-dimensional space, with small corridors to walk through and open chambers. I was eager to explore this much more ‘cave-like’ cave. We followed the snaking path around and through the rock formations, through caverns and tight passes. However, I was disappointed with the presentation, as the ‘curators’ had installed out-of-place exhibits throughout the cave. In the main gallery, there was a light and music show, designed to enhance our appreciation of the cave, which just took me out of the experience. In the next room, there were ‘modern art’ chandeliers that did not belong in a prehistoric site, even though the crystals were shaped like bones and flints. I was happy to discover the presence of live bats in the modern art room, though all we could hear of them were their squeaks. We looped above and back as I thought about how this cave compared to the last: the rock formations were far more spectacular in this one, but we did not see its cave art. I hoped that the last cave on our trip would finally reach my expectations.


The last cave we visited was Niaux. The road to the cave was breathtaking, with views of ever-higher mountains and the valleys in between. At the entrance, we picked up lanterns to light our way and then stepped through a vault-like door to the cave. From the beginning, it was more spectacular than I could have expected. Though the lanterns made it impossible to see the entire extent of the cave, the flickering of the many lights created an effect like what I imagine the cave painters must have seen. There were stalactites and stalagmites, though apparently people had taken many as souvenirs before it was banned. The cave stretched on and on, with tunnels and open chambers and pools of water. In this cave I could imagine being a paleolithic person, venturing into the deep darkness. We reached a rock with dots and markings, some of which I speculated to be handprints of a sort, fingertips drawn inwards. Was it a direction marker? Some sort of calendar? Later, we approached the Black Gallery, where most of the paintings of the cave were. We climbed a great hill before the ceiling opened above us. I could sense why the ancient humans had decided to paint at this location—it seemed like a destination in the cave, not just tunnels leading ever on. The guide explained each set of paintings; half finished pictures, giant reindeer, and beautifully drawn bison were dramatically illuminated before us. After viewing the art, the guide instructed us to turn off our lanterns. Each click invited the darkness closer, until we could see nothing. The guide suggested that someone sing a song to demonstrate the acoustics of the cave. After everyone volunteered their neighbor but none rose to the challenge, I offered to sing a line of my favorite song. It resonated beautifully, and I wished I could sing there all day in the darkness. One of the group suggested a moment of complete silence. It was so peaceful to stand there with only our ears in focus, listening to a far off drip in the cave and feeling the sense of space.




Perhaps my favorite town of any we visited was Bayeux. It was a charming place with medieval houses, a water mill, and a small park just out of the town’s center. I enjoyed our hour to walk around, though I did not get to see the market which others visited. My favorite part of the town was the cathedral. It was in the gothic style, with different patterned tracery across every window, elaborate stonework and soaring ceilings. It rivaled even the ones we saw in Paris.


In the afternoon we saw the Bayeux tapestry itself, depicting the Battle of Hastings from a Norman perspective. I was eager to see the tapestry, mainly because of my interest in the year 1066: the first recorded appearance of the Halley’s comet, the Battle of Hastings, and the start of a transition of the English language all occurred within that time. It was extraordinary to consider that the tapestry was older than our language as we know it: the Norman invasion introduced French to the Germanic language of the Anglo-Saxons, marking the transition from Old English into Middle English. With my fascination in etymology, I was more than eager to see the story behind this linguistic revolution.

Although I knew that the tapestry was incredibly long before arriving in the gallery, I could not believe how many details and micro-stories fit together to weave the tale. Sewn figures voyaged, ruled, and conquered, each scene surrounded by multicolored depictions of the landmarks, animal counterparts, and geography that featured in the chapter. Although the tapestry’s artwork displayed the classic symbolic style of the Middle-ages, I was surprised at how accurately the horses were portrayed, as well as the choice of colors used in the tapestry. When I reached the end of the cloth, I felt that I had voyaged across the sea of threads from France to England and back in the company of William the Conquerer.


Wednesday, June 24: Surveying and Tool Making

Today we started off the day riding the bus to a woodsy area in Fabas and hiking up a path, examining badger and deer tracks along the way. We stopped and Sébastien said to find flint along the paths. Someone spotted a large chunk of flint and soon he began to construct the piece into a tool, the way that a Magdalenian person would. It looked simple enough so after a couple students in our group gave a shot at creating the tool, I took my turn. But trust me, it is NOT as simple as it seems. I repeat. Not simple. First I had to find the proper position for my hand on the rock so that when I was breaking off bits of flint, I didn’t break off bits of my finger along with it. Next, I would find that it was even more difficult to hit the flint with enough momentum that it would actually break. And finally when you thought you were ready, hitting the rock in the correct spot became even more challenging the harder you swung. So now I have had a glimpse of what stone tool making is like. So Magdalenians, I applaud you.

Next we went to a field with crops growing in it. Because the ground had been turned over by a plow, it was the perfect opportunity to see what lay beneath the surface of the soil. We surveyed the field, finding bags and bags of possible artifacts (and some useless sandstone to Sébastien’s displeasure). After packing up and going back to the Gite and eating lunch, we lay all of the artifacts across a table and cleaned them off to examine them. It was incredible that just from looking at the rock you can tell whether or not it was a tool, or a core, where the flint was struck, and what time period it came from. I really enjoyed this day of surveying, and I feel like after this day I have a better understanding of archaeology and the Paleolithic era.


When friends and family ask me now about the Piette trip and why I enjoyed it so much, I usually give them a pretty standard answer about scenic the country was and how great the food was and how different the culture was, but in reality, what made the trip so memorable was far beyond the standard reasons people love to visit France (however valid they may be). What really made the trip so fantastic for me wasn’t the usual joy of travelling, but rather the privilege of being able to share it with a close, dynamic group of fellow Andover students. While we may not have all been exceptionally good friends- or even aquaintances-  at the beginning of the trip, I feel I can now say that we’ve all found a new family on campus: the Piette fam. Each day, the group embarked ready and eager to learn new things and encounter new experiences. In discussions of history, art, culture and archaeology, the group was always able to provide new points and perspectives that greatly improved my appreciation of the materials and topics. From the Upper Gîte to the Queer Table, each of the relationships I formed during the trip greatly enriched my time abroad. I’m so glad to have shared my experience in France with the rest of the Piette group, and I hope our shared experience will enable us to bring a new perspective back to campus.

piette fam

Thanks Piette fam- couldn’t have done it without you. Photo credits to Sophie Miller.

Multitudes of Water Lilies

On our last afternoon in Paris, we had the choice of visiting Le Musée d’Orsay or L’Orangerie. Although there was more to see in the Orsay, I couldn’t resist returning to see Les Nymphéas, especially as we would be visiting Monet’s gardens in Giverny the next day. When I had come to this museum with my parents a few years before, I had been struck by the scale and how dynamic the paintings were. I had also realized how calming the vast blue images were. This time, I was not as surprised when I entered the gallery, but I immediately felt relaxed. I imagined the serene settings that had inspired the paintings, eager to see them in person.


When we arrived in Giverny, my first reaction as we entered the gardens was disappointment at the number of tourists milling around. Instead of being the calming, inspiring garden retreat I expected, it felt like a public attraction such as the Eiffel Tower: something to see just because of how famous it was, not for the value of the place itself. It did not satisfy my expectations, for at first, the atmosphere was not nearly as serene as the paintings themselves, nor could I truly get a sense of what Monet saw. However, before long, I could not help but enjoy the spectacular flowers and trees. The gardens exuded a sense of green, and I marveled at how Monet captured so many other colors in his paintings to counter the overwhelming lushness. I wished that I could have seen the gardens in different lights and times of day to truly see the inspiration of the paintings.


After wandering through the network of ponds, we entered the flower garden, closer to the house. I saw many flower varieties I had never even imagined before entwined amongst roses, poppies, and daisies. The flowers were so densely grown that it was impossible to tell one plant from the next. The colors were unbelievable, varied and bright. Remembering that Monet had created the gardens as if they were an ongoing work of art, I could see how the flowers themselves formed a natural masterpiece. Although initially disappointing, my visit to Giverny was as picturesque as the Nymphéas paintings.

Animal Lover: Part 2

Just as Normandy is known for its cows, the Perigôrd is famous for its ducks and geese. Though I don’t share the same love for ducks and geese as I do for cows, I’m just as enthusiastic about eating them, and our stay in Sarlat provided quite the opportunity. Whether in the form of fois gras, mousse, pate, confit, magret or liver, each restaurant and shop we visited offered some delicious dish at the expense of our feathered friends.

Since almost all of the duck and/or goose dishes we had in Sarlat were absolutely fantastic, it’s easier for me to walk through a typical Perigord menu than to choose a best dish. For the entrées (appetizers), most Perigôrd restaurants give you a choice between toast with fois gras, sometimes accompanied by a light side salad, and an omelet with cèpes, a type of savory mushroom indigenous to the region. Now, the fois gras entrée comes in many other forms as well; while each restaurant presents its own slight variation- a bloc with walnut toast, a sliver on baguette, a slightly diluted goose liver pâté- almost all present some combination of fois gras, bread, and salad. Next, for the plats (main dishes), the typical Sarlat restaurant would offer a choice between a large bloc of fois gras with goat cheese salad, some fairly standard fish dish, and one of several permutations of duck. The two most common were confit, a type of preserved duck breast, and magret, a roasted duck breast sliced into medallions. Both were often served with roasted potatoes with herbs and either an orange or truffle sauce. Other servings of duck were also common- a pan-fried duck liver with peach sauce was one of the best dishes I had in Sarlat. Lastly, for the dessert, you would often find a choice between walnut cake (seeing as walnuts are another regional specialty), ice cream, and profiteroles.

Making Tools

Blog Post #4
Despite having been involved with the Peobody Museum since the beginning of my Upper year, I’m not sure what I was expecting for the archeology portion of this trip. Thus, our time with Professor Sebastian Lacombe on Wednesday was a pleasant surprise. Our morning was divided into a lesson on prehistoric tools, time spent surveying a plowed field for artifacts, and a follow-up meeting observing and discussing what we collected.
During the lesson on prehistoric tools, all of us became instantly enthralled with the hands-on aspect of the archaeology. To demonstrate methods of making tools, Sebastian showed us flint, which is a type of rock suitable for various uses. In his demonstration, a harder and blunter rock was used to chisel away at hunks of flint called “cores”. One by one, we passed around the materials, and tried it out. Most of us were able to break off sizable pieces of flint! With our new tools, some of us carved fallen sticks into spears; I, personally, worked on an whittling an arrow. As someone who teaches archery, I found this process insanely interesting, because it really hit the demonstration home for me.
In all, I really enjoyed the archeological portion of our trip!

Piette reflection

Reflection on my project:

I have been collecting pictures of pottery for almost two weeks now, and have gone through many stages of ideas for the focus of my project. At first I thought perhaps I would center my project around different time periods of ceramic, and later I thought that maybe specific regions would be more relevant. And now, I think that maybe I should focus on the usage of pottery. After exploring multiple museums and finding some ceramic in the field today, I have started to realize that ceramic wears many hats; sometimes it is simply something practical, and other times it is 100% decorative. This is something that I find fascinating, and would love to explore more deeply. Does the usage of ceramic depend on time period or the culture of a certain region? Does it depend on access to certain materials? Does it depend on other art? Perhaps this focus is just as broad and confusing as my other ideas, but I think it is fascinating and could tie everything together.

Reflection on the Piette trip:

It feels too soon to be reflecting on this trip because it is hard to believe that it is almost over. However, looking back, I am not only reflecting on specific moments that stand out to me, but group and personal growth. I remember arriving at Logan airport, and how our whole group felt awkward and non-cohesive. I remember wondering how our group of twelve would bond, and what it would be like to spend over two weeks together. As a group, we have come so far. Not only have we created a family tree with designated family member positions (including the adults), we have had countless conversations and countless laughs. I am so grateful to have become closer to certain people who I did not know so well before, and being able to travel around France with this group has been a truly unique opportunity. In terms of personal growth, I love that my sense of history has expanded. From amazing visits to the inside of caves to “talking rocks” history has not only deepened, it has become more tangible; something that perhaps is not so far away and not so irrelevant, but something that is extremely important to our lives today.

The rocks talk

Today, we got a small taste of what it may be like to be an archeologist in Fabas, Ariège. A short bus ride landed us in a quaint rural area with green mountainous scenery. As we walked along a small woodsy path, Sebastian, our knowledgeable archeologist, pointed out different types of rock; limestone and sandstone. He then showed us how we could recreate some of the prehistoric tools that we have been learning about and seeing in museums. After many failed attempts and the realization that these tools are very difficult to create, our group pushed forward and eventually ended up in an open field of crops. Each of us took a lane in between the delicate greens, with the instruction to find things that may be prehistoric artifacts, and collect them. I quickly scanned my lane and wondered how I was supposed to find artifacts among plants, dirt, and rocks. I bent down under the persistent sun and began to search, still somewhat unsure of exactly what I was searching for.

In less than six minutes I had filled an entire small collection bag with artifacts. It amazed me how quickly your eye can become accustom to seeking out what is different, what stands out. Among the light brown dusty soil, I would spot hints of purple-pink flint or bright white rock sticking out; and while some were broken by modern day plows or simply nature, others had clear signs of intentional markings, they had clear signs of prehistoric man. I even found some ceramic pieces. How cool! While I don’t know if archeology is my desired profession, it was a very unique opportunity.

As exciting as it was to collect artifacts from a seemingly random field of crops, what intrigued me most was what we learned afterwards. On an open table back at the gîte, we spread out our rocks and started to wash and sort them. To me they all sort of looked like rocks. Yes, I could see that some of them had specific chunks taken out of them that clearly made them artifacts, but I could not exactly tell what was so special about any individual rock. Sebastian had us pick up certain rocks; he asked us questions such as “what do you see” or “why is this unique” and then explained specific pieces to us. As he talked about the pieces in front of me, I was baffled by how much interpretation and history the rocks held. A rock with different long strips taken out of it and bigger chunks meant that the rock was utilized as a core, designed specifically to create long pieces of flint. A rounded part of a rock that slimmed down meant that above it was the point of contact. A prehistoric man had struck the rock in that specific spot on the! The more I looked at the rocks and listened to Sebastian, the more I felt the rocks begged their story to be told.

Animal Lover: Part 1

I love cows. They truly have it all: adorable faces, chill personalities, delicious dairy products, and glorious red meat. What other animal provides such a perfect combination of friend and food capabilities? To those who know me, my love of cows is very clear. My dorm room is decorated with pictures and postcards of cows from around the world, and so far on the trip I’ve already purchased a number of cards to add to this collection. If you asked my friends what my life motto is, I’m positive “butter makes it better” would be at the top of the list (alongside “fat equals flavor” and “if you haven’t had one or two weird diseases in your life, you’re not doing it right”). I drink my coffee with pure whipping cream instead of half-and-half, and I’ve been known to make some ungodly sounds over a good steak. I LOVE cows.

Travelling across the various regions of France, you’ll see each one touting its own “regional specialties”. The region of Normandy is known, among many things, as cow country, so as you can imagine, I was thrilled about the prospect of a visit. I began to get even more excited as we started to roll through the cow-dotted landscapes around Giverny and Caen.

There are many ways Normandy celebrates its bovine renown. Ordering a dish with “Normande” in the name off of a local menu will almost certainly guarantee you some delicious cream or cheese. Many restaurants and shops in the region specifically advertise their dairy products as locally made in Normandy (and not just in the region- a lot of the butter you find in French supermarkets also touts “fabrique en Normandie”). The two most memorable cow inspired dishes I had while there were a seared entrecôte, a cut of steak equivalent to a sirloin, and a “Galette Normande”, a buckwheat crepe featuring apples, cream, onions and emmental cheese. It’s safe to say that cow country did not disappoint.