Tag Archives: #France

Inside the Piette Program: A Video Documentary

It took a while to finally get this together, but here at last is a short documentary about the Piette Program that I put together using all that video footage I shot back in June. Unfortunately, a computer crash did cause me to lose some footage, including interviews with both Cammie and James. I apologize guys. You both shared some wonderful thoughts with me. I’m sorry they are now lost to history.

There is also lots of great, additional footage I shot that I didn’t get to use, including the footage of the last group meeting we had during our final night in the gite at the foot of the Pyrenees.  I would have loved to include it all, but at about 43 minutes, the video is probably already longer than most people will be able to sit through. Nevertheless, if you manage to make it through to the end, the video hopefully will provide a clear explanation of the origins and purpose of the Piette Program, as well as a fun look at the experiences of the inaugural group of students and faculty who were fortunate enough to share this adventure together.


A Handful of Memories

As I wrote in my earlier post, some specifics of our trip have evaded me. I no longer remember exactly what I ate at each meal (much to my foodie father’s chagrin) and I do not remember every single one of the MANY historical facts that were thrown our way. But here are a few of the many things I will never forget from this trip:

  • While Versailles was magnificent, I was particularly fond of the Château de Chenonceau in the Loire Valley. Much subtler and smaller than Versailles (but definitely not less beautiful), Chenonceau was rich with history that really interested me. The beautiful estate and gardens have been home to many important figures in history (ex. Catherine de’ Medici and Diane de Poitiers who are both shown on the CW show Reign). Also, the château was used as a hospital for soldiers during WWI. A common thread I noticed at these once-royal chateaus and castles is that while the buildings were once for the elite they are definitely now the people’s. This is actually the main reason why Versailles holds so many ballets, concerts, and firework shows on their grounds because unlike during the time of kings and queens, they want to be open for all of France to utilize.
  • Christian, the bus driver of our 53-seater bus, was a gem. Even when we were boarding the bus and seeing him for the first time that day, he would give us a hearty “buh-bye.” His driving skills were incredible though. He lead our bus through the narrowest of streets, the bumpiest of paths, and the highest of mountains. Parents: your children were 100% safe on the road when Christian was behind the wheel.
  • La Grotte du Mas d’Azil was naturally quite spectacular. But for some reason, the people who run it decided that the cave would be a prime place for a light show. Well, I’ve got news for you, Ariège’s department of tourism, it is not. The natural splendor and history of the cave does not need a (rather subpar) lightshow with medieval chamber music.
  • Similar to many others on the trip my perception of pre-historic people has changed. It’s easy to think of those people like the Geico Caveman ads portray them but they cultivated beauty in their lives. One of the brochures at a Cave asked the question if the paintings in caves should be considered art and my answer is YES! Paleolithic people were so thoughtful and resilient about their creations. Seeing the 2-foot crevices in which they would lay for hours painting really blew my mind. So few people nowadays would be so hard working. One interesting fact is that they would see movement in their paintings because of the flicker of their lamps! Kind of like a really early film!! (also, friendly travel trip to anyone embarking on a cave visit, bring a jacket… you can thank me later)
  • Last but definitely not least… Each year in France they celebrate the Fête de la Musique. Everyone across the nation gathers in the streets playing music and generally having a good time. We happened to be in Downtown Sarlat on this night and while eating dinner we heard rock music coming in through the window. It sounded relatively good so after dinner our group ventured out to find the music and found a band of teenagers playing… and not very well even though everyone around us seemed to think they were the next Beatles. Despite this, we ended up enjoying our night because of each other’s company. It was definitely my no. 1 favorite part of the trip.

Lastly, I am so glad to have embarked on this trip for the opportunity to see so many beautiful parts of France and to meet so many kind people. At first I was not looking forward to some of our long bus rides but I soon appreciated them for the views that they provided. I also cherished our free time at sites when I wander by myself, taking in the beauty of our surroundings in silence. Without this trip I never would have been able to see those sights or meet the kind (definitely-not-rude-like-the-stereotype-says) French people who mentored and taught us throughout the trip. I promised myself in the last few days of our trip that I would return to France to experience the beauty and kindness again. Thank you, Piette program, for exposing me to these two things.


I found this short video on my phone and thought I would share because not only does it shows the beauty of where we were in the Ariège but it also shows Christian’s driving skills. In the video we are driving down a mountain after visiting a cave (the same cave with the vampire-lady… the people on the trip will definielty remember her) and the roads were way too windy and narrow for our bus but Christian managed to get us down without a scratch.

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!

The Piette time machine


I’m a huge Harry Potter fan and so I am sharing the above photo because it reminds me of the beach where Shell Cottage (that’s Bill and Fleur Weasley’s house for all you Muggles) was located. In reality, I took this picture from the top of the Château d’Amboise in the Loire Valley. It’s amazing to me how looking down upon the city of Amboise from the height of a castle had the ability to transport me to a world of magic.

The picture below shows another photo I took from the same lofty château. This photo shows the rooftops of the many buildings below and it transports me back in time to the 16th century. I have had little experience with the type of architecture and communities such as those in the Loire Valley and so I love this picture. The small villages that house these huge chateaus are so cozy. Cars are sparse and streets are winding.


The Piette trip promised to take us back in time so we could experience a bit of what life was like for those in centuries past. Not only has the Piette trip done this but it has also transported me to the places of my imagination.

In color

Seated in our bright red and half-empty coach bus (actually more than half-empty because its max occupancy is 50!), we traveled to the Mémorial de Caen on Wednesday.The museum covers the time span from the end of WWI through WWII and the Shoah (the wall text in the museum used this term instead of Holocaust) and then through the Cold War. Rather than brushing over these topics lightly or in a dry manner, the museum utilized engaging medias such as music and videos and primary source photos, text, and artifacts.

The earliest memory I have of learning about WWII and the Shoah was in fifth grade when my class read Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars. I have studied the events or read literature about them in almost every school year since then but I have never seen any color photos. And so when I was walking through the museum and saw a whole wall covered with a photograph showing a faint blue sky and a woman in a burgundy coat, I stopped. In the photo, this short and elderly woman walked down a sidewalk in the same direction as a taller and younger woman. They moved in such close proximity to each other that they could be mistaken for walking and talking together but a small yellow star on burgundy coat-woman’s chest informed me that these women were actually miles apart. For on her chest was the Star of David, a symbol of her religion but also of her perceived inferiority to those in power at the time. I stopped and stared at this image for a few minutes. The black and white photos and paintings and sketches that permeate my education make the past seem even more distant than it is. Therefore, it escapes my memory that in the near past and on the same Earth where I go to a school full of resources and opportunity and live with my loving family, atrocities fueled by hate and ignorance have occurred. It is even easier to forget that these events are occurring today, at the moment that I write this and at the same moment that you read this because they often happen silently or in distant places. Viewing photos and reading letters and diary entries like those in the museum offers a (re-)awareness about these injustices.

And while these tangible objects set off a chain of knowing about the past so does visiting actual historical sites… The Mémorial de Caen was partly built on top of a bunker where a German Nazi plotted during WWII and visitors could walk through the bunker to examine artifacts from D-Day. The dark, tubular, and subterranean hallway sent shivers up my spine. I walked through with my arms crossed, swiftly moving towards the exit. On the last wall of the long hallway were projected images of Anne Frank and excerpts from her infamous diary. Her placement at the end of the hallway was quite poignant as the plotting that occurred in the dark hallway contributed to the end of her life. At the same time, moving towards her felt hopeful. Full of light and optimism, Anne Frank was one of the many lives lost during the Shoah. Walking towards her felt like moving from darkness towards hope and resolution, two things that should there should be more of in this world.

Photo or real thing: Which is better?

Our new blog assignment is to talk about whether reading about something or looking at a photo is better or worse than being at the actual place or object. I can personally say, first hand, that seeing the actual object is even better than seeing the photo. My second night at the Hôtel Victoria was spent in the lobby with Dr. Blunt, Ashley, Jacob, Camille, Indy, and JT discussing various things in or about the Louvre. Somehow we began discussing the statue of Cupid and Psyche. This is a well known statue, by Antonio Canova,  where Cupid is embracing Psyche from behind.   I immediatley was attracted to the statue because it was quite delicate looking and had a lot of movement within the two people despite it being stone. Mind you this is all from one single photograph on the Louvre website.

Cupid and psyche sculpture
Cupid and psyche sculpture

When we got to the museum the following morning Indy and I took off in our own direction, having been to the Louvre before. We decided to skip The Mona Lisa and go straight to the Roman, etruscan, Greek, and Italian sculptures. We began walking through the many rooms when we got to one of the big halls. Indy and I began walking through. We saw tall sculptures of people, gods, pillars etc. but when we got to the end of the room we saw The Sculpture. At this point in the day I had forgotten the piece was in the museum, but when I saw it I had a bit of a freak out. It was a lot bigger than it had looked in the photo. I thought it was going to be small and delicate, but it was large and strong. However despite the size difference, the people had a lot of delicate features. Cupid’s wings were long and beautiful. Psyche and cupid’s arms and legs were smooth and lithe. They looked like they were alive. I enjoyed seeing the sculpture in person much more than looking at a photograph. If I could, I would take the sculpture home with me, but at least I can look at photos and still get some of the thrill of seeing it.

Piette takes Paris

The first three days of our trip have been a whirlwind. Immediately after landing in France, we whizzed over to Notre Dame and visited their archaeological crypt. I learned about the founding of Paris and it set an educational and informative tone for this expedition. The next day we went to the Musee d’Archéologie Nationale where we returned the famous Piette pebble. In that museum we viewed artifact after artifact, the oldest of which were about 400,000 years ago.

Today we took a bus tour of monuments in Paris and went to Versailles. With this being my second trip to Paris I was not as astounded by all the monuments except for the Eiffel Tower, which managed to still amaze me. The Eiffel Tower is an iconic image of Paris and I saw it used to represent France in various medias throughout my childhood so standing on it and driving around it in person is so surreal. After our van tour we left the heart of the city and headed to Versailles. I LOVE Sofia Coppola’s 2006 film Marie Antoinette and so I had a very-Hollywood moment while strolling through the VAST, VAST, VAST gardens of Versailles.

Also, our Parisian hotel is located in the 9th Arrondisement and is on the same block as Amorino, a charming gelato shop. Michaela and I decided to take a trip over on our second evening here and I ordered a focaccine. I thought I was ordering a cream puff but it turned out to be two pieces of brioche bread with strawberry and vanilla gelato stuffed inside. The bread was lightly toasted and drizzled with powdered sugar and chocolate. Needless to say, it was a near-religious experience and I went back tonight for another.