Archeology Surprised Me

Of all the things that surprised me on this trip, in addition to how much better French supermarkets are compared to American ones, I never thought I would love the archeological aspect of this trip the way I did. In all honesty, my main motivations for coming on this trip were for the French language, culture and history, and archeology and prehistory were really secondary considerations that were just parts of the package Piette deal. So maybe it was just due to my minimal expectations, but I was absolutely amazed by the prehistory we experienced on this trip. Walking through caves like Niaux and Mas d’Azil, or in the case of the Rouffingac cave taking the cave train, felt surreal. 
I became so interested in the archeology aspect of Piette that I actually ended up centering my trip project around it. At the different prehistory museums we visited, I paid special attention to the displays of prehistoric women figurines in order to study how the image of the “ideal” woman differs between prehistory and today. We saw female figurines in the National Prehistory Museum in Les-Eyzies, in the National Archeology Museum in Saint Germain-en-Laye, and recreations in all of the cave gift shops that we visited. I observed that nearly all of the figurines looked like they were pregnant with exaggerated hips, stomachs, and breasts. My project still has a long way to go, but I noticed that this commonality puts an emphasis on fertility in a way unlike modern images of women do. I’m looking forward to further developing my project back in the US, now that I’ve gathered evidence from across France. 

My Project

In all honesty, I went into this trip relatively unaware of French current events, so I was surprised by many of the cultural and political happenings of Paris; particularly, the extent of impact that the Charlie Hebdo shooting left on the city. This is most prominently displayed in the active military presence at every crowded (or otherwise popular) spot in the city. Men and women dressed in full gear and holding large, combat-style weapons, could be found at almost every destination we visited. Although I am not usually interested in military-related things, seeing these soldiers left me with a lot of questions, and a change in heart towards my project on this trip. Rather than creating a fictional piece surrounding the timeline we followed, as I had originally intended, I am now focusing on methods of defense.

I plan on completing my project in a timeline-like fashion, examining weaponry and methods of defense across the time periods we’ve studied. This will most likely be a vehicle for further exploration of my findings in Paris, as well as a way to explore other areas with which I am less familiar; in particular, I hope to extend this research to aspects of World War II in France, like the Battle of Normandy. I am not particularly knowledgeable on any of these subjects, so my research will have to be thorough, but I feel that it will nicely supplement what we have learned and experienced on this trip, and I am excited to present my findings!

Below are pictures of military personnel outside of l’Hôtel Des Invalides, a former military housing establishment, which we visited on our tour of Paris:

Saturday: 6/20

For me, last Saturday was one of the more particularly memorable days of the trip. Across France, we have visited some truly incredible places, but my favorite by far has been Sarlat. The town is adorable, my roommates were awesome, and the general atmosphere there is very pleasant— if I had the chance, I don’t think I would leave! While all 72 hours of our time there was great, I think our first full day really exemplified the nature of this town.

Our day on Saturday started off late, because we were given “free time” to explore the town until mid-afternoon; naturally, this started with a sleep-in, which has been rare on this trip. In Sarlat, there are outdoor marketplaces throughout the entirety of the downtown area each Wednesday and Saturday morning, so we got to spend the morning immersed in the local culture. Up and down the streets, vendors set up large tents, selling everything from jewelry and clothing, to fresh fruits and meats; duck is a local specialty, so many stands were selling fois gras and other pâtes. Armed with allotted lunch money and my french conversational skills, I wandered the streets observing all that Sarlat had to offer, and I was not disappointed. In the end, I purchased a carton of strawberries and some pork gyoza (delicious, albeit non-French), as well as nougat for my mother.

That afternoon, after about an short break to recover from the marketplace, our Piette family ventured to the ruins of a faux-castle, called “le Chateau de Commarque”. The structure is quite broken down, but was once a fortified community of towers, inhabited by a multitude of individual families. The structure is layered in three parts: at its base, there are caves with prehistoric paintings (which we weren’t allowed to see). The middle layer are troglodyte dwellings, and the upper portion is the collection of towers. While we all enjoyed the free wifi at the establishment, the experience was at Commarque was also extremely educational, and laid the foundation for our following castle excursions.

Story Telling

While walking around the U shaped room, squinting my eyes, trying to view each detail on the Bayeux tapestry, I was struck with a question about story telling. I wondered, how many different ways were there to affectively tell a story? I always associated story telling with printed words on paper or the soothing sounds of someone’s voice, but while trying to comprehend the nearly one thousand year old linen tapestry, I realized story telling could come in all forms. The Bayeux tapestry depicts the Norman invasion of England with more beauty and clarity than any combination of words could create, so why was it that this form of story telling has become almost unknown to the modern world? While today we focus mostly on phonetic story telling, in the past pictographic writing was quite common across many cultures. This year in history I learned about the Maya people’s pictographic script, so it was interesting to see the other ways in which pictographic writing had been used. While the Bayeux tapestry was created in a time where phonetic writing was known, it is still interesting to see the ways in which pictographic depictions were present.

Today in the caves of Grotte de Rouffignac, the 14,000 years old drawings on the walls tell another pictographic story. While these striking illustrations of mammoths, ibex, mastodons, and horses seem just simple artwork, to me, they tell the story of the lives of these prehistoric people. Pictographically, they display what these people saw and encountered in their sector of world history, as well as showing which animals were the most important to them. Animals like the mammoth, portrayed several times throughout the cave, were sources of food, clothes, tools, etc. for these people.

While these were ways of story telling I had given little thought to beforehand, thinking back on our experiences in Normandy provided me with another view on story telling. The battle on the beaches on D-Day tell the story of heroism, teamwork, and determination. Being present at the cemetery and on the beaches really allowed me to understand and really get a feel for the story that this great day in history told.

French Paintings

June 15, 2015

Before coming to France, I decided that I wanted to do some research on French art, specifically paintings, and maybe compare pieces from different time periods in history. I chose to look at paintings because while I used to paint, I had never taken the time to learn more about its history.

Research for my project began in the Louvre, on our last day in Paris. I had been to the Louvre before, but I remember not having a clear idea of what I wanted to see, and simply wandered around the vast museum with my family. This time, however, I had taken a map of the Louvre from the information desk and was excited to find the rooms containing French paintings.

For the first hour or so I spent in the Louvre, I found it nearly impossible to cross from the left wing to the right, where most of the French painting galleries were located. Though I couldn’t find my way in the museum, I found this to be a great time to practice bits of French by asking for directions. After stumbling upon several of the Louvre’s main attractions such as the Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo and the Winged Victory, I finally found a room containing French paintings from the 19th century. These paintings all exhibited stunning realism with a dark palette, and I discovered most depicted war scenes. I then took an elevator up to the second floor where I sadly was notified that the room containing the 18th century French paintings were undergoing renovation. Luckily, I was able to view the 17th century paintings instead. Several of these shared secular themes, with quite a few paintings illustrating Christ in various settings. I was very pleased with my time spent in the Louvre, as I felt that I had witnessed a large majority of the French paintings that they exhibited.

After a lunch at the Louvre, we went to a yet another museum, the Musée d’Orsay. While not as large as the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay has many interesting qualities of its own, originally having been a train station, and now housing the world’s largest collection of impressionist and post-impressionist paintings. The paintings in the museum were mostly completed in the late 19th to the early 20th century, in other words, not too long after the first gallery I had visited in the Louvre. However, the paintings in the Musée d’Orsay were remarkably different. Instead of the dark colors, and realistic portraits/war scenes found in the Louvre, the impressionists decorated their canvases with bright colors depicting beautiful landscapes, with visible brush strokes.

In this one day, I was able to find a remarkable amount of information on my project. I hope to find more later on during the trip in other regions of France!

Château de Commarque!

On Saturday we went to the Commarque Castle where we explored and walked through the castle ruins. Although it was scorchingly hot in the sun, we were all equipped with some form of sun protection and water. It was also surprisingly cool in the shade of the castle’s stone walls. Near the end of our tour, we approached the tallest tower of the castle. It required 140 steps to reach the top, and we all joyously took on the challenge. The stairs turned into a spiral at one point and we had to be very careful not to slip.

We finally reached the top, and the view was definitely worth the climb. I definitely feel myself getting out of shape day after day of really good food…

The entire time I was marveling at how well-preserved the castle (built in the 16th century!) was. I can’t imagine the skill it takes to carve and put together giant blocks of stone (especially that 140-step tower).

Prehistory :)

Today we traveled even further back in history—visiting first the Musée National de Préhistoire, and La Grotte de Rouffignac, to see cave art dating back tens of thousands of years.

Walking into the museum this morning, we were met by a massive timeline (maybe infographic of sorts is more appropriate…) that documented the progression of evolution that led to the human species. Initially, I was overwhelmed by the huge span of time represented before me. As I gathered my thoughts (slightly), I formed my first of a few takeaways from the day– human history is microscopic in the history of the world, and within this narrow window of human history, is the even narrower window of modern humans history, a window so small it looks highly insignificant and somewhat irrelevant on a timeline like this. Even more so, each individual human’s role in this is even more minuscule, so any stress over these things is unnecessary. Despite entering the exhibits with this mentality, I was quickly met with various others, some of which felt at least remotely conflicting.

The sheer number of humans that have lived makes it impossible to ‘remember’ each individual human, and also gives evidence for the fact that those artifacts that have been discovered and studied that we have had the opportunity to see on this trip make up only a very small portion of all those that exist that say something of the lives and ways of earlier humans; but, that being said, this relatively small collection of artifacts have led to a remarkably thorough understanding of the behaviors of these populations. I’ve spent a huge portion of today considering the huge importance of any individual artifacts in the way of the additional understanding it brings to this history. At the museum today there was a case of prehistoric jewelry, including a set of beads, each of which was no more than a centimeter in height. Looking at these pieces, I was astounded by how what was probably never intended to act as a form of historical documentation of their society, was placed before us in a case, and was seen and treated as an important indicator of culture and practice.

My amazement grew when I began to consider what the objects in my life, society, and world say about myself. Looking not at the value of an object in the way of its style or use, but in the way it creates a window to be opened into my world.

Having entered today unsure of what to expect, and having assumed I was uninterested in the topics simply because I was less knowledgeable about them, I’m excited and surprised to have such a strong takeaway. Additionally, I’m glad that I was able to be opened minded, thoughtful, and attentive enough today to get the most out of it. I know that, before this trip, I would have walked away from today with a drastically different reaction.

Le Château de Commarque

Winding staircases, towers and caves accompanied our visit to Le Château de Commarque. After exiting the bus, our group descended into an open and green valley with what was left of a magnificent stone structure into view. The building had many tours and small caves lined its base. Soon we began our tour and climbed up the stairs to the château. First we entered one of the small cave homes that were found around the bottom of the castle. The small cave contained pottery, kitchenware, small rooms for storage, livestock and what looked like a bed. I was surprised about how chilly it was inside of the rock shelter.

We continued up the hill and the guide told us about the six towers that were occupied by six different families. It was interesting to me that they all lived on the same hill because it’s easier to protect yourself in a group, despite their large family rivalries that continues to exist even today. Even more shocking to me was that even though these families spent a lot of their wealth to build these tall incredible towers, the families rarely entered these towers. Because the only entrance was an impossible and risky staircase, it not only made it nearly impossible for their enemies to enter, but it also prevented them from going into their own towers. It was just a symbol of their pride and wealth.

One of my favorite parts of our visit to le château was the view from the top of the Beynac tower. The over 150 steps through a tight spiral staircase to the top was definitely worth it. We could see rolling green hills dotted with other small castles. The visit to Le Château de Commarque was a great and memorable experience. I would say it was one of my favorites, but I feel like on this trip, every single experience has been a favorite.

When Views of Prehistory Change…

Today we went to Les Eyzie to visit the Musée de Préhistoire. I loved this visit. My project is on gender roles in prehistory and how our modern ideas of gender affect the assumptions archeologists make. The museum was filled with glass cases holding an uncountable number of stone tools. On the side of the glass cases were videos of demonstrating the techniques used to create them. What initially looked like a rock was unveiled to be a carefully crafted specialised tool. I was unaware of the preconceived  notions that I had about different aspects of prehistory. The media often feeds us a very specific image of “the uncivilised caveman”, but seeing the intricate flint tools, and learning about some of the possible burial practices cast them, especially Neanderthals, in a new light.

Also our tour guide was amazing. Cécile gave us and in depth introduction to Prehistory while being weary of the possible inaccuracies of the assumptions made on such old remains. After our tour I got to ask her a few questions pertaining to my project topic. We discussed if there was any possibility that women made some of the cave art and tools. She told me about the relatively new studies being conducted about this very topic. With some research underway, I am excited to got to Le Mas d’Azil and possibly talk to some archeologists about my topic.