Category Archives: Ryan Wheeler

Andouille de Guémené Crepe

We concluded our second day in Paris with a visit to Montmarte to enjoy the breathtaking view and dinner of either pizza or crepes (two adjacent establishments owned by the same proprietor gave us access to too many choices!). I love a good crepe and the menu promised delicious crepe fillings of mushrooms, ham, cheeses, veggies, and more. One of those “mores” included Andouille de Guémené, which several of my fellow travelers inquired after. In the states andouille is a distinctive pork sausage often associated with New Orleans cookery. Sounds like a perfect crepe filling to me, though the French speakers at my table agreed that the translation was something like “strange sausage.” The young woman taking our orders also seemed a little horrified at my choice, which suggested that something was up. Or rather down. Not to be thwarted I ordered my crepe, which arrived amidst a wonderful aroma of butter and a beautiful presentation, complete with a sunny egg in the middle.

The flavor was distinctive, though not strong or repulsive. Perhaps earthy would be the best description for the Andouille de Guémené. Back at our hotel a little online research quickly revealed that this is a Breton delicacy composed of pork chitterlings–essentially the large intestines of the pig, or “chaudins,” rolled one inside the other to create a sausage. Actually many intestines–apparently some 20 to 25 are required for one andouille! Apparently this sausage dates back to the 18th century or earlier but it wasn’t until the 20th century that the good folks of Guémené in Brittany created their distinctive version–when sliced the Andouille de Guémené reveals concentric circles representing each gut. If you’d like to know more you can visit the website of the premiere Breton andouille making dynasty and even follow them on Facebook:

Would I eat it again? Yes, it was quite good! Unfortunately I suspect we won’t be seeing it in the states anytime soon…. So, here’s to you, strange sausage of France!


Next stop prehistory!

The Piette travelers outside of the Musee National de Prehistoire in Les Eyzies

Our Piette program travelers have taken a departure from the traditional school trip to France to explore an extremely ancient part of our past. This began early in our stay in Paris when we rode the train to Saint-Germain-en-Laye, an affluent suburb northwest of the metropolis. The curator of the Musee Nacional d’Archeologie spent considerable time showing us their oldest collections–those on exhibit as well as behind the scenes. Most notable was the Piette Room discussed in my earlier post. Despite the extensive collections of stone tools, carved bone and ivory, as well as numerous examples of Magdalenian portable art dating from 10 to 12 thousand years ago or earlier the highlight for many of the students was a visit to the roof of the royal castle that houses the museum. This is not surprising, as this part of our past lacks written sources and is enigmatic and inaccessible for even those diehard students of prehistory. In some ways that trip to the castle roof is a metaphor for this inaccessibility. The tools and carvings and decorated chunks of cave walls belong to a subterranean underworld inhabited by long dead people and their even more extinct animal muses standing in stark contrast to the bright blue sky, breeze, and sweeping panorama seen from atop a castle just a few hundred years old. How can we access the human world of 10, 12 or even 15 thousand years ago when WWII and the events of D-Day just 70 years ago begin to recede from us? Are the people of the Paleolithic lost to us or can they be recovered by going to them, to the cavern landscape of the Dordogne and the Midi-Pyrenees?

After our encounter with the beaches of Normandy and the American Cemetery we traveled to Les Eyzies, arriving at the Musee National de Prehistoire at the end of an international conference on Magdalenian portable art and a new temporary exhibit on the subject. Important pieces of carved and engraved bone and mammoth ivory were assembled for the exhibit, uniting a handful of tiny artifacts from different caves for comparison. We had seen some of these artifacts a week earlier in Saint-Germain-en-Laye. For example, in one case the famous antler carving of a bison licking its side from La Madeleine rock shelter was exhibited alongside a similar carving. The carving is truly magnificent and would be at home on a Pablo Picasso canvas. Despite the excitement and energy surrounding the exhibit, however, our connection with the makers was incomplete. What happened so long ago that caused people who had never carved antler or decorated caves to do so? Was this great awakening a neurological shift, as some have suggested? And why does the abstract quality of these drawings, engravings, paintings, and carvings appeal to our modern aesthetic?

The wooly rhinoceros cast at the Musee National de Prehistoire

Our next step back into the Upper Paleolithic took us even closer to the Cro Magnon realm: the caves. Our first cave visit was Grotte de Rouffignac. Visitors board a small train for an hour long tour–the train helps protect the decorated walls and helps limit the duration of each visit. Evidence of cave bears–both innumerable scratches on the walls and “nests” used for hibernation are evidence that the cave was used well before the engravings and manganese drawings of mammoths, rhinoceros, ibex, horse, and bison were added some 10 to 12 thousand years ago. What is most striking is the intentionality in evidence. Drawings of animals were often made with one confident and sweeping line, defining rump, back and head. But beyond this, the placement shows that the makers had conceived of their design and then executed it, grouping species or placing drawings in a frieze below a layer of projecting chert nodules. But the bears and ancient artists were not the last visitors to Rouffignac; much of the cave ceiling has been defaced by those who crawled in the cave from as early as the 16th century, largely unaware of the depictions. A visit the following day for a very animated tour of the main exhibits in the Musee National de Prehistoire added context to the Rouffignac Cave–one exhibit is a cast of a wooly rhinoceros preserved by salt and crude oil deposits in Poland, displayed with a skull and the cave art outline. It’s still hard to imagine the intrepid souls who crawled into these caves armed with their manganese crayons and flickering oil lamps, working their way deep into caverns to lie on their backs to execute a fabulous bestiary of the last ice age. Images that were perhaps never meant to be shared, were it not for our modern drive to hollow out these spaces and illuminate the images with electric lamps.

The beautifully carved and engraved stone lamp from Lascaux

A visit to the Grotte Font-de-Gaume brought our group face to face with polychrome cave paintings not unlike those at the famous and now closed Lascaux cave. Too many visitors are bad for caves. Our guide told me that in the 1960s they had over 1,000 visitors a day. Now visitation is capped at 80 per day in an attempt to control the cool microclimate within the cave. At Font-de-Gaume some 15 thousand years ago cave artists mixed multi-colored paint to illustrate mammoths, horses, reindeer and other ice age animals. In one scene–and there are most certainly scenes here–a reindeer bends gently forward and licks the antlers of another reindeer, perhaps a mating ritual. Here the depictions of these creatures draws on the natural shapes of the cave walls and draperies. In at least one case a natural declivity in the cave became the eye of a bison. But leaving the cave our guide beckons us to bend down to examine one last remarkable decoration: the silhouette of a human hand made with black paint. But this is not a signature, the hand print may predate the artwork by some 10 thousand years. Another enigma!

The so-called troglodyte dwellings of the Neolithic pock mark the limestone and chalk cliffs of the Dordogne and give some hint to the significant relationship between the people of this area and the rock. Even during the Neolithic some 5 or 6 thousand years ago caves and rock shelters were used for dwellings. People of the region are still proud of their relationship to the rocks and caverns

WWII memorial and museum at Caen


Our group spent Tuesday and Wednesday this week in an encounter with the beaches of Normandy and the long shadow cast by the events of June 1944–the D-Day landing and invasion of France. We began with the American Military Cemetery on the bluff overlooking Omaha Beach. Simple white markers identify the graves of nearly 10,000 men lost during the invasion and subsequent offensive. Most striking to me was that as you make your way through the manicured lawn away from the memorial, the vast sea of markers are oriented to the west, away from visitors. It’s as if this lost generation of young men has turned away from the living. The desire is to constantly turn back toward them in a hopeless effort to miss none of their names. Seeing their names, rank, company, date of death, and home state inscribed on each marble marked is staggering. The soundscape also made an impression: the waves below the bluff, the wind through the pine trees, and the birdsong unite to create an impression of peace in stark contrast to the day of the invasion just over 70 years ago. During our visit two F-16 fighters flew over the cemetery, coming in low and gently rocking back and forth, the sound catching up with them a few moments after they were gone. But it is the names of the dead that command your attention as you walk back toward the memorial.

Following the cemetery we headed to Arromanches where the allies fabricated a temporary dock, first envisioned by Winston Churchill, designed to offload tanks, troops, and supplies to fuel the liberation of France and the offensive toward Berlin. Remains of the once massive concrete and steel construction can still be seen offshore. Also in evidence in the towns in Normandy are numerous flags and signs hailing the liberators–reminders of the recent D-Day anniversary. A capstone to our D-Day history lesson was a visit to the World War II memorial and museum in Caen. This museum included an extensive exhibit that explored the events leading up to Germany’s invasion of France in 1940 and the entire history of the conflict. The French perspective was interesting, since we rarely consider the battles that ensued, the roving French government, and efforts at resistance. Little known are the concentration camps established in France–some of these before the war–to intern refugees from the Spanish Civil War and French Communist Party members, like those at Gurs or Vernet. These camps swelled after 1940 with anti-Nazis, Jews, and others.

I do take umbrage with one statement in the Caen memorial exhibit: that Adolf Hitler had legally come to power in Germany. The events leading up to Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor of Germany at the outset of 1933 were the result of more than a decade of fear mongering, bullying, intimidation, killing, and payoffs (including those to Paul von Hindenberg, President of the Weimar Republic), which characterize the Third Reich. Hitler’s unsuccessful attempt to seize control of the government in Munich in the early 1920s, the so-called Beer Hall Putsch, to the Reichstag Fire Decree, which gave him total control of the government could only be imagined legal in some bizarre mirror universe. Payoffs continued throughout the regime, often to secure loyalty of high ranking military officers.

The film at the Caen memorial, however, demonstrated without a word that the soldiers fighting on both sides on June 6, 1944 had much in common– their youth, for one, as well as lives scarred by war or cut short altogether. The world was robbed of their existence and that of countless generations of children and grandchildren that never were. If you visit the American Cemetery study the names. Can their sacrifice teach us how to avoid conflicts today?

Hawker fighter plane in the Caen memorial.

International flags at the Caen memorial.

Steel piers called “whales” were components in the temporary harbor created at Arromanches.

The Piette group in front of the Caen memorial.

Piette group members join the French marines…for a photo.

The pebble

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.

From Pearl Harbor to Normandy: A personal journey

Looking forward to our upcoming time in France, one might imagine that an archaeologist would be most excited to see the painted caves, the national archaeology museum, and to participate in the open-air excavation of the Upper Paleolithic Peyre Blanque site. You would be correct, but our visit to the beaches of Normandy have a special significance for me. Just over 70 years ago my father—H. A. Wheeler (1919-2010)—participated in Operation Neptune, the code name for the naval aspect of the D-Day invasion. Howie—as he was known to his friends—was a Boatswain’s Mate on the USS Nevada (BB-36).

Detail from the mural at the Pearl Harbor Memorial
USS Nevada. Detail from the mural at the Pearl Harbor Memorial.

The Nevada had a long and distinguished career. Constructed in 1916, she was one of the first modern “dreadnought” battleships of the American fleet. Moored in a row with her sister ships at Pearl Harbor, she was the only large vessel to get underway during the Japanese attack on December 7, 1941. Ultimately, her commanding officer scuttled her on Ford Island as the heavily damaged vessel was likely to sink and block the narrow channel. The Boatswain’s crew was generally responsible for maintenance, and as such my father worked on the repair and refloat of the Nevada. Once back in service she provided fire cover during the offensive on Attu and again during the landing of troops on Utah Beach in Normandy.

French map illustrating the D-Day invasion. Utah beach is on the far left. Image courtesy of:
French map illustrating the D-Day invasion. Utah beach is on the far left. Image courtesy of:

Accounts of the invasion indicate that the Nevada trained her guns on German shore defenses on the Cherbourg Peninsula, sending some projectiles 17 miles inland to diffuse counterattacks and some as close as 600 yards from the Allied front lines. After the D-Day invasion, the Nevada headed to southern France for the amphibious assault on Toulon. After service in Europe, the Nevada aided in the assault on Iwo Jima before heading to Okinawa to prepare for the invasion of Japan. After the war my father helped prepare the vessel for atomic test blasts in the Marshall Islands before seeing her decommissioned in 1946.

My father never shared much of his wartime service, though from his station on the USS Nevada likely witnessed many of the major naval events of the war. He was awarded a Purple Heart and in the 1990s I submitted the paperwork for the survivor’s medal established by Congress. Reading and looking at pictures is one avenue to understanding where my dad was and what he might have been doing and seeing. Visiting the places that figured in the cruise of the Nevada and the geography of World War II, however, provides another view into a now distant time. Places like Pearl Harbor and the Normandy beaches are charged with an energy that can’t be gleaned from a book or the internet.

Ryan in front of the anchor of the USS Arizona, Pearl Harbor Memorial.
Ryan in front of the anchor of the USS Arizona, Pearl Harbor Memorial.

In 2013, during the annual meetings of the Society for American Archaeology, I was lucky enough to visit Pearl Harbor. Riding the launch out to the USS Arizona Memorial I kept glancing over at the small white platform that marked the position of the Nevada during the attack. It’s hard to describe the waves of emotion that washed over me walking through the memorial museum or actually riding the waters where the Nevada had floated. I’m looking forward to visiting the beaches of Normandy and expect I may experience some of those feelings again. And I know, too, this is why we preserve historic places—to experience a connection with people and places of the past.