Yesterday the Piette travelers visited the Musee d’Archeologie Nationale–the MAN–to return a painted pebble of the French Epipaleolithic and tour the museum galleries and behind the scenes collections and labs. I’ve been serving as courier of the pebble, which has given me a chance to think about repatriation in general and specifically about this very ancient object–perhaps representing one of the earliest symbol systems created by humans.
Edouard Piette, a jurist and avocational archaeologist discovered over 200 of these river pebbles painted with dots, lines and other geometric forms in Mas d’Azil Cave in the 1890s. Piette’s collection of Paleolithic tools and art objects are housed in a special gallery–the Piette Room–at the Musee d’Archaeologie Nationale in Saint Germain en Laye, just outside Paris. In the early 1920s the MAN loaned five of these pebbles and other Paleolithic tools to the Peabody Museum. Materials from Pecos, NM were sent to France. Apparently there was some confusion about the nature of the exchange, as the Peabody sent two pebbles to Harvard. When the MAN contacted the Peabody about return of the materials in 2009 only two could be located in the Andover collections. Claire Gallou’s advanced French language students facilitated translation of correspondence between the two museums. Dr Gallou and former Peabody director Malinda Blustain effected the return of the two pebbles and conceived of the trip we are now on.
Archaeologists are unsure what these painted pebbles were for, though in all Mas d’Azil Cave produced over 1200 of them. Similar pebbles painted with red ochre are known from other early sites too. Piette thought of the cave as an early school–perhaps a predecessor of our own Phillips Academy–where teachers used the pebbles to pass on knowledge of a now long extinct symbol system. Others have noticed that the number 9 is rarely represented, suggesting that a base 9 system of computation was being used. Still others are using game theory to decode the pebbles. What we do know is that they have been easy to forge–a number in the British Museum are likely fakes–and that Piette intended his collection to remain together in the MAN, arranged according to his site and classification system. Hence the museum’s desire to see all the pebbles reunited.
Several people have asked how I felt about returning the pebble, asking if I was reluctant or wanted some of our American materials back. My main experience with repatriation has been under NAGPRA, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which directs museums to return ancestral remains and funerary items to descendant tribal communities. Based on NAGPRA repatriations, I offered that a true repatriation must be done with an open heart, or it doesn’t really count. I should note, however, that several of our colleagues working in France have suggested that perhaps artifacts like the painted pebbles should be exhibited at Mas d’Azil or somewhere else close to their original find spot and that there is a bit of dispute between the MAN and the local communities. This suggests a more complex picture, one that might be challenging for us, as outsiders,to completely comprehend.
In the end, we returned the pebble and had an opportunity to meet the director of the MAN, who noted that the original loan from the 1920s created a long standing bond between our respective institutions. We also had a special treat, a long visit to the Piette Room. Each corner of this very ancient gallery housed an assemblage of painted pebbles. Soon the pebble we returned will join its enigmatic companions.