Tag Archives: archaeology

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.


Dinosaurs, Dragons, and Digging

Exactly five weeks since we stepped foot back unto American soil, I am once again revisiting our two-week adventure in France known as the Piette program. While some specifics of the trip have become a bit fuzzy I definitely have not forgotten the camaraderie that our little group managed to achieve by the end of the trip. Our closeness was especially evident during the last four days of our trip when we stayed in gîtes in the Ariège. We knew our stay in the gîtes would be special immediately upon arrival when we saw Frédéric Moncassin, the former professional cyclist who owned the gîtes, wielding a chainsaw to remove branches that prevented our (giant, flaming red) bus from entering his drive. He remained such a kind host throughout our four-day sojourn. In the girl’s gîte, five of us stayed in one huge room where the beds were lined up like in a sorority house. Although we loved the set-up, most of the fun happened in the boy’s gîte where we ate breakfast and dinner and sat around the couch laughing for hours.

This is what it looks like to buy four days worth of groceries for twelve people. Courtesy of Mr. Porter’s well-maintained SmugMug for the trip.
This is what it looks like to buy four days worth of groceries for twelve people. Courtesy of Mr. Porter’s well-maintained SmugMug for the trip.

The whole reason we were in the Ariège, right on the foot of the Pyrénées, was to be members of Sébastien Lacombe and Kathleen Sterling’s team at Peyre Blanque, an open-air archaeological site. Prior to our arrival, their team had already uncovered the top of a set of rocks in a unique structure. Our two full days at the site were spent gently pushing aside dirt to find small clues as to what lay beneath. While that might sound boring it felt so good to be working together as a team, moving towards a goal that could expose more about the pre-historic people we had learned about in museums. [Also working at the site was wonder-woman Meg Conkey. She was ah-mazingggg.]

Sébastien discussing what the rocks could be. If I remember correctly, one possibility for the structure was a burial site! Once again courtesy of Mr. Porter’s well-maintained SmugMug for the trip.
Sébastien discussing what the rocks could be. If I remember correctly, one possibility for the structure was a burial site! Once again courtesy of Mr. Porter’s well-maintained SmugMug for the trip.

A small disclaimer to anyone who ever plans on doing any archeological digging: You will be sore the next day. Lying, bending, and crouching for hour on end works a lot of muscles. I learned this on the last day of our trip when I woke up sore legs and arms. The pain was assuaged slightly though because on our second day at the site Ashley, Sam, and I started playing games and telling a story… about dinosaurs and dragons. While our (slightly crazy) story was not appreciated by those who preferred the quiet while digging, this was just an example of the friendships made on the trip.

It’s all about the people

The Piette trip was extra-ordinary.  Literally.  Not so much because of the Louvre or the Chenonceau castle themselves, though they too had a significant impact on our participants, of course.  Yet for me, and I believe for all of us, whether we noticed it or not, what made this adventure so special was the people who welcomed, cared for, guided, and taught us.  I was blown away by how eager each scientist, archaeologist, guide, host, historian, and administrator was to spend time with us and share with us passions, knowledge, lessons, and values, without prompting.  I did not expect this much enthusiasm, from this many extraordinary people.

Each of these people provided a mine of information, but also craft, eagerness, and kindness.  Each of them was an example of what happens not at the higher level of any art, when an expert enjoys success and can afford to be demanding, but what happens at the highest level: when an expert becomes interested in what is outside of his or her field of expertise, and when he or she becomes completely and genuinely humble.

Take our first host, Catherine Schwab, curator of the Paleolithic collections at the Musée d’Archéologie Nationale in St-Germain-en-Laye.  She knows everything about the prehistoric era.  She has published many articles, is invited everywhere to curate exhibits and attend conferences.  She holds a key position in a national museum, where millions of artifacts are stored, preserved, loaned, studied, and exhibited.  My interactions with her before the trip were, as I expected, formal and efficient.

Yet when we showed up at the museum on June 13, she took her formal hat off and spent the entire day with us, doing all of the guiding and commentary herself, conducting our private Piette room visit herself (all in very good English), taking us to the reserves herself, and staying with us the entire time as we observed the work performed in the conservation workshop.   She could have skipped the chapel, but she made a point of taking us there between two other locations.  By the end of the day (she did overtime for us, as did the workshop staff, without ever letting it show) she was all smiles and decided to take us onto the roof of the castle that hosts the museum, something that was clearly not part of the original plan.  She let us frolic up there until we had taken dozens of pictures and had gazed leisurely in the distance to see Paris, the gardens, the hills, the rooftops.  It almost seemed as though she had a hard time saying goodbye!  Luckily for us, we realized that we would see her again a week later at the exhibit opening we would attend in Les Eyzies, 400 miles south.

SpSum2014_230Catherine Schwab with us on the roof of the MAN.

When she saw us there, Catherine was clearly pleased.  We could sense her stress as she had been frantically setting up the exhibit there all day and was about to let the first visitors in, a large group of experts in the field (and us!).  She again spent time with us in the exhibit, and smiled for group pictures.  I noticed how eager some of our students were to see her again.  She had become a role model, mentor, figure, or simply very interesting person to them and they felt something special with her.  The impression she made on them will stay for ever, and will, I’m sure, be with them somehow as they set off to decide what it is they want to do for a living.

Instead of a demanding, busy, unreachable figure, Catherine was genuinely interested in us, eager to share with us, and incredibly humble.  That is what I call the highest level of an art, science, or profession.  Thank you, Catherine.

Now, I don’t have enough space here to explain how each of the incredible people we met on the trip matched Catherine’s greatness.  But I will indulge in thanking them, roughly in chronological order.  I will probably forget some, not because they are forgettable, but because there were so MANY.  I must admit I did not realize that as I was planning Piette.

Philippe, the master artist of the MAN workshop (with the most unusual professional path), showed us how to make a cast of an artifact, went on to show us his metallic creations (made of steel wires, hidden in a cabinet) to hold artifacts the perfect way for an exhibit, and was looking for more things to show.  We learned how to take off layers of dirt and corrosion from glass, and how to cautiously sandblast pieces to bring their original splendor back to life.   He explained to us how his job is to look at all kinds of fields, practices, and professions to find the right tools for artifact conservation.  Dentist drill?  Check.  Philippe even stayed with us to go onto the roof — something even he did not get to do often!

Josh, guide extraordinaire (but that I knew beforehand, as the students will tell you!), clicked with us immediately and offered us the best tour of Paris and Versailles I could have imagined.   Born in Massachusetts, he lives in Paris now.  He shared his life story with us and had many, many anecdotes to tell as well as questions for the students.  He explained history as a story, and brought it to life.  He was genuinely interested in us.  He knew his craft so, so well and the day was a breeze.  He had gotten us a small VIP van instead of a tourist bus, so we could go to Montmartre and take the smallest streets.  Ok, there is more, but…   Thank you, Josh.  I’m going to work hard on getting you as a Tour Director to be with us throughout the trip one of these years.


Josh at the Sacré Coeur in Montmartre

Christian, the kindest human being one can imagine, and hence the best bus driver ever, had quite the life story to share, too, and agreed to take us on roads he could have refused to take his 53-seater on.  He was at the highest level of his art too, as students will tell you when they remember his parking and u-turn skills!  And he was extremely humble about it.

Christian at Commarque SpSum2014_506

Marie-Cécile Ruault-Marmande, of the Musée de Préhistoire in Les Eyzies prepared a unique visit for us.  Not only did she invite us to the opening of their temporary exhibit, but she put us in touch with the best of their guides for a private museum tour and a visit of one of the most impressive caves in the area, Font de Gaume.  Our guides themselves, at Font de Gaume and at the museums, were unusually kind, interested in us, and passionate about their art.

Our guide at Commarque was also named Philippe, if I remember well.  We spent only an afternoon with him, but I will never forget how personal the visit was with him.  He gave us a sense of the depth of the history of the place in an unobtrusive, casual way that made us experience it for ourselves, somehow.  He knew all the details about the property, too.   By the end of the visit I felt as though I had known him for years.

I had the same feeling about the owner of the gîtes where we stayed in Ariège, Frédéric Moncassin, former professional cyclist who is still very active on the scene.  While we were admiring his professional victory jerseys, articles published about him and other realia framed on the walls of the houses, he was offering to do our laundry!  He came to us every time he saw us and was the kindest, most flexible person imaginable.  He let our Tour Director work in his living-room for wifi access and offered his driveway to our gigantic bus.  We will be in touch and I can’t wait to go back next year.

Count Robert Bégouën, most famous prehistorian, who discovered some of the most important caves in the field, opened his mansion to us so that we could see his family’s private site museum.  I felt as though I were in a Harry Potter book.  He was so casual and open about our visit!  He and his family always refused to open the caves on their property to the public or to make any profit from them.  All they want to do is share the wonder.

Sébastien Lacombe and Kathleen Sterling may deserve the “Most Extraordinary” award, although comparison is almost impossible at this point. I don’t know where to begin.  They welcomed 9 untrained teenagers to dig at their fragile and unique open-air archaeological site of Peyre Blanque.  They had visited Andover in the spring to present their work and meet the Piette crew.   They joined us for dinner at the gîte.  They spent hours explaining to us why prehistory and archeology are so important for humanity, how digging should be done (CONTEXT!!), and why it should be limited (new techniques will surely emerge that will allow for better study of what is buried, so let’s dig out only 10% and leave the rest of our distant past untouched — how humble is that?).  Believe it or not, they want to do MORE with us next year.

SpSum2014_561Sébastien Lacombe shows a horse-shaped sculpted stone he found at the site.

Margaret Conkey, whose name students noticed on the wall of the Mas d’Azil museum, astounded me with her incredibly personable and passionate teaching.  Professor Emerita at Berkeley, having revolutionized the field several times with her new theories, former chair of the Society of American Archaeology, she spent hours with us at the digging site sifting through dirt and sharing anecdotes, asking about each student’s life and story.  She spent a long time with a group of our girls at dinner and quickly became a mentor figure for several of them.  To top it off, she spread the word about how happy she had been to work with us!  A few days ago, she agreed to become a member of the Peabody Museum’s Advisory Committee (PAC), and we are elated!  Thank you, Meg.


Meg and Sharan screen dirt together.

I could go on.  Remember, Piette crew: it was all about the people.  And we will stay in touch with them!


After coming back home and getting back into the swing of things, the idea that only three weeks ago I was part of a group engaging in an archaeological dig almost seems like a dream.  Yet, I know that the experience was very real and I enjoyed every minute of it.

In addition to this experience we visited numerous caves such as Grotte du Mas d’Azil (Cave of Mas d’Azil) and observed the Magdalenian era artifacts in the Musée national de Préhistoire (National Museum of Prehistory), and as a result I learned a lot more about this prehistoric era and what life must have been like during this time period.  The people in this era were nothing like the stumbling, bumbling image most people have of cavepeople.  They were resilient; creating cave art in close, constricted areas despite not being able to see what they were drawing, carving and painting.  Also, the figures that they chose to draw meant a lot to the lives of the people as one theory suggests that the animals that were drawn were representations of gods that the people believed in.  Their creations whether cave art or carvings were highly detailed and artistic and the presentation of this art was breathtaking.

While the open – air site had more flint  tools and burnt bone fragments, the discovery of these items was just as exciting and fulfilling as well when one realizes that their hard work allows for an artifact to be found.  Add in the fact that we were surrounded by the beauty of Pyrenees, from the looming mountains to the rolling hills, and it just made the entire experience worth it.

Post-trip reflections

Screen Shot 2014-07-04 at 9.10.26 AM  It’s been almost a week now since our small group returned from France, and I find myself still processing all that we saw and did. I’ve reviewed the SmugMug photo gallery several times, reread the blog posts, and repeated my story about the trip to family, friends and coworkers who are all eager to know “what it was like” or “what was your favorite part.”

There is no short answer to that first question. The experience was so rich and full that there simply is no way to summarize it. Saying it was “great” is the easy response, but if someone really wants to know what it was like, they’ll need 15-20 minutes to spare to hear the details. As for the second question, “what was your favorite part,” that is virtually impossible to answer. The trip was filled with wonderful moments, each special for its own reasons. Trying to identify a favorite thing would be like trying to select your favorite brush stroke in a Monet painting.

Screen Shot 2014-07-04 at 9.22.15 AMThe grandeur of Versailles, the works of art in the Lourve, the emotional impact of the Normandy beaches, the remnants of the artificial WWII harbor at Arromanches,  the beauty of Monet’s garden, the architecture in Paris and Sarlat, the sense of history conveyed by the various medieval castles and chateaux, the models of Leonard da Vinci’s inventions, the 1000-year-old Bayeux tapestry, the awe-inspiring cave drawings and artifacts left by prehistoric man, the wooly mammoth bones, the cave bear nests, the participation in an actual archaeological dig, the gorgeous countryside that flew by the windows of our bus, the views of the snow-capped Pyrenees, the long dinners, the wonderful food, the sense of camaraderie that developed among all those who participated in the trip. The list of favorite things goes on and on.

If pressed, however, the one thing I would list as being the most important thing I got out of the trip is my greater understanding of and appreciation for prehistoric man. Admittedly, it is the topic on which I was the most ignorant prior to going on the trip.  I certainly had no idea that southern France played such an important role in the history of prehistoric man. But over the course of the two weeks,  that ignorance was replaced by a new understanding of the amazing capabilities of prehistoric man, their relationship to ourselves, and the reasons why the geography of southern France provided such an hospitable location for prehistoric civilizations.

Screen Shot 2014-07-04 at 9.11.13 AMDuring the trip, we visited two different prehistory museums, went inside four caves once occupied by prehistoric man, worked on an active “open air” archeological site that is contributing new information to our understanding of life in the Upper Paleolithic era, and visited the ruins of a medieval castle, Commarque, that is built upon a cliff that also houses caves in which Paleolithic people once lived.

We typically think of prehistoric man as brutish “cavemen”, Cro-Magnons, who grunted and hunted and were barely distinguishable from the rest of the animal kingdom.  But I was slowly disabused of that notion as we had the opportunity to view the tools and clothing and artwork they created. Intricate, delicate, detailed and beautiful. The artifacts left behind by these people who lived 10,000-30,000 years ago make it clear they were not some inferior version of ourselves. They were us. They were humans who were simply figuring everything out from scratch. How to survive, how to eat, how to think, how to invent, how to create, how to cooperate, how to communicate.  They are as much apart of our history as the Greeks or the Romans or the Renaissance men of the middle ages. We benefit from their achievements and stand on their shoulders just as we stand on the shoulders of all the civilizations that preceded us.

Screen Shot 2014-07-04 at 9.11.44 AMAs a species, homo sapiens have been around for less than 200,000 years,  barely the blink of an eye in relation to the age of the earth. Other species, including other humanoid species, have lived far longer than we have. In realistic terms, we are just getting started as a species, and only time will tell if we will live as long as those species that have preceded us.

These are facts that I vaguely knew before I took the trip. But thanks to this trip, my understanding of these facts is not only much deeper and more enduring, but I have the proper context in which to place them. Reading about history in a book is all well and good, but traveling to the places where history took place and engaging with it using all your senses allows you to connect with that history in a way that would otherwise be impossible. It brings history alive, makes it intimately human, and raises questions in your mind that you otherwise would have never thought to ask yourself. For me, and I hope for the students, this truly was a trip of a lifetime. And for that I offer my deepest thanks to Dr. Claire Gallou, who conceived and organized the trip and put together an itinerary that was spectacular,  fun and educational.

Les grottes

These past two days have been nothing short of amazing.

At this point in our trip, we’re embarking on the archaeological and prehistorical portion of our itinerary. While we have been staying in the medieval town of Sarlat and enjoying the rich history and culture there, we have been commuting each day to les Eyzies in order to study prehistory.

After Normandy, we spent a short amount of time in Blois, in the Loire Valley, exploring castles and chateaux and noting the transition from the medieval to the renaissance styles in France. Two mornings ago, we boarded our big red bus and drove about six hours into the countryside.

We arrived in les Eyzies-de-Tayac at 14h to attend the opening of an exhibition of Magdalenian art at the Musée National de Préhistoire. Standing in the reception area, my eight trip mates and I received some perplexed looks from the specialists attending the opening (the youngest of whom was at least 20 years older than us). The museum curators and staff were ecstatic to know that the such young people were interested in a field usually attractive to older people. We were ecstatic too, particularly when they started passing out fresh macaroons.

The exhibition was introduced in short speeches by the director of the museum and a government official. Complete with video simulations and glass cases detailing the different pieces of Magdalenian art the museum had collected, the new exhibition was a hit. Small glass cases contained fragments of bone and stone decorated with carvings of animals and delicate designs. We wandered from case to case, examining the precious specimens along with some of the leading archaeologists in the world. Because the world of archeology is so small, we also got to catch up with some specialists we had met at the Musée d’Archaeology National, which we visited on the second day of our trip.

The next day, we spent the morning and early afternoon exploring Sarlat. In the late afternoon, we drove into the countryside past les Eyzies to reach le Grotte de Rouffignac.

Tucked into the hillside, Rouffignac is not notable at first sight. A small opening in the side of a mountain, the entrance to Rouffignac could be easily missed. Stepping inside, the first thing I noticed was the change in temperature. While the outside air had been a balmy 85 degrees, even the first cavern of the cave system felt a good 15 degrees cooler.

A small desk was set up in the first cavern, where a kind lady lent us sweaters and handed us our tickets. Fifteen minutes later, after we had a chance to peruse the available gift shop plunder and read some background information on the caves, an older French gentleman led us into the second cavern of the Grotte, where the temperature dropped again. He closed an iron door behind us, and we were plunged briefly into darkness before the dim lights were illuminated. Walking into the back of this cavern, we boarded a tiny train that would motor us a kilometer into the rock.

My first impression of this train and the cave was that it looked like a scene from one of the Harry Potter movies, in which Harry and his faithful cohorts board a train in Gringott’s Bank to access Bellatrix Lestrange’s vault. For the Harry Potter fans reading this, you may agree with me in that this scene is one of the most epic in the movie: our favorite trio zip through cavernous caves with mind-blowing rock formations and dripping stalactites. Traveling through the Grotte was a comparable experience.

Our guide narrated to us the story of the formation of the passageway by an underground river as we rolled through cavern after cavern. The majority of the walls were covered in scratch marks from an extinct species of cave bear whose circular nests were still intact in the caves.

As we travelled deeper, we began to see traces of human life – finger markings on the ceiling, some faint outlines of wooly mammoths. Soon it seemed every cavern held some drawing – wooly mammoths, wooly rhinoceros, bisons, and horses were depicted in incredible detail. In the farthest cavern, the entire ceiling was covered in drawings, which the people of the Neolithic era would have painted lying on their backs (several years ago, the owners of the cave extended the floor of that cavern to allow for the preservation and viewing of such works).

What was remarkable about these paintings, asserted our guide, was that they were never made to really be seen. The artists themselves would likely never have been able to behold their drawings in full, lying on their backs so close to the ceiling. Art for the sake of art.


This image is one from today – just outside the Font de Gaume cave. While we were not allowed to take photographs in the cave today (or yesterday, for that matter), nobody said anything about photographing the entrance. Doesn’t it look so mysterious?

What baffles me about these caves is that they have not changed for thousands of years: the structures we see today and the experience of walking through the caves is largely similar to the experience someone would have had many thousands of years ago.

Too reach the cave, we climbed about a half kilometer up the steep mountain. The ancient peoples would have had to do the same, yet without the aid of maintained paths and bannisters installed by the keepers of the cave. This photo I took just when we reached the top, staring into the black cave with rock outcroppings hanging overhead.

The image you see here shows the entrance to the cave as the prehistoric men and women would have seen it when they occupied this cave 15,000 years ago.

This cave we traversed exclusively on foot. The passageway was extremely narrow, requiring me to slide sideways and crouch at certain points. The paintings and carvings in this cave were remarkably well preserved. Today, the cave is sealed to the public and climate controlled (we were not allowed to stay in the caves for more than an hour, lest the substances we introduced to the cave deteriorate the images as they did in Lascaux).

Our guide showed us paintings and carvings of reindeer, wooly mammoths, horses, and a feline. Many of these depictions combined painting and carving, with the eyes and eye sockets often carved into the colorful painted animals. Our guide would often turn off the lights in the cave and shine only his flashlight on the work of interest, giving us a sense for the experience a prehistoric person would have had with a simple lamp of animal fat.

The paintings were on several different levels in the cave, and our guide maintained that the people may have used wooden beams to lift them to higher rock faces.

Just before we left the cave, our guide asked us all to crouch down on the stone floor and look up into a small overhanging rock face. There, outlined in black paint, was the clear outline of a hand. Some prehistoric person had placed their hand on that rock and sprayed paint over it to create a negative. Knowing that someone had placed their hand in that exact place was somehow very touching.

The mysteries of early man

DSC_3171Students have already begun preparing for their trip to France by participating in pre-trip workshops. Hard to believe we leave in just two weeks! Last week’s workshop was presented by Professor Sebastien Lacombe, co-director of the Peyre Blanque Project. The Peyre Blanque is an open air Paleolithic excavation site in the south of France where we will get a chance to do some hands-on field work.

Prof. Lacombe explained how the artifacts they are uncovering at Peyre Blanque are challenging traditional assumptions about how man lived 15,000 years ago. They suggest, he says, that “stone-age” man was much more sophisticated than previously thought, and were not limited to simply living within caves. They also suggest that the notion of a “Neolithic revolution” is flawed. These open air Paleolithic sites are providing signs that many of the characteristics associated with the Neolithic age, such as the rise of agriculture, the domestication of animals, and the use of baked clay, were present well before the dawn of the Neolithic age.

After listening to Prof. Lacombe describe the work of an archaeologist, it occurred to me that it is not unlike the work of a police detective, who must piece together the story of what happened by studying the fragments of evidence left behind at a crime scene. For an archaeologist, the challenge is to piece together the story of how a particular people lived, what they were like, and what they believed by combing through the artifacts of their lives that have been left behind.  Why is this kind of information important? “So that we can better understand where we come from,who we are, and how we developed.”

Following the formal presentation, we had the chance to handle some of the artifacts that Lacombe brought with him in order to familiarize ourselves with the kinds of things we’ll be looking for when we participate in the excavation.  It was pretty amazing to realize these were tools crafted by men who lived thousands of years before the rise of the earliest Roman, Greek or Egyptian civilizations–which themselves seem so incredibly ancient.