Tag Archives: Piette

It’s been how many weeks since the trip?!

Now that it has been over a month since I left my Piette group at the airport, I have finally built up the stamina to write this blog post. When I first got back from the trip I told my mom that I do not remember any of the trip. But of course she begins interrogating me “what did you do the first day?, the second? What happened next?”. I think I managed to get to day four before I got confused as to where we were when.

But now over a month later I now can remember the chronology of the trip and all of the individual stories for each destination. For the past week I have been visiting family in California, they each wanted to know about the trip and I was able to give them a concise review of Piette. Hallelujah! I was able to tell them about the infamous Piette pebble, the beaches in Normandy, the castles and the caves. I told them about some of the jokes we have and how the whole group became really close.

For me personally I have been able to think about and remember the trip and all its glory. I will never forget the bus rides on our massive red coach bus with Christian, the gap yah video after which we all chundahed everywhere or how the faculty and students gelled into one group. Even writing this post now, I am remembering more stories and highlights of the trip. The trip was fabulous.

It has been fun, but I have to work on my food project. See you in the fall…


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!

To be involved

“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” – Benjamin Franklin

One of the many reasons why I was excited to embark on this journey throughout France even before the trip began was the ability for me to interact with the history and culture of the country.   Quite a bit of the information that I have been engaging with during this trip is information that I have either learned and later forgotten or learned and remembered in classes or through reading and researching.  However, the experience of being taught a topic on a PowerPoint or in a book pales in comparison to the possibilities that self – learning allows.  For example, I was aware of the fact that 50,000,000 million people were casualties of World War II.  However, being able to encounter a piece of that history by looking out at the burial sites in Caen made it all the more powerful.  The fact that I could walk over to a grave and see the name, hometown, and date of birth and death, gave each of those soldiers a personal story that I’ll always keep in mind when talking about WWII now.

Another example is when we visited the Louvre.  I had never seen the Mona Lisa in person though of course I had known about its marvelous prestige.  When we reached the Louvre, I made a relative beeline to the Mona Lisa and after taking a few pictures of the famous painting, I just stared at it, attempting to take in each and every detail in my mind’s eye.  From that experience, I was able to understand why the Mona Lisa is considered an impressive work of art while the rest of my visit to the Louvre made me ponder what made one work of art so significantly better than another.  Questions such as, how do certain pieces of art reach higher levels of prestige than others, when all of the pieces of art are considered to be in the upper echelon and if the current method of viewing art is conducive to truly appreciating these works of art reverberated with me not only when I was in the Louvre, but in my quiet moments afterwards.

The point of this is to say when one is physically, intellectually, and emotionally engaged in learning, the ideas and concepts stick with you more effectively and the best way for one to engage in learning in all of these ways is to actively interact with the topics at hand.   I wouldn’t be able to look at World War II from the eyes of a young soldier who is scared and just wants to come home or debate the merits of the current art viewing methods nearly as effectively as I can now because I have these memories to lean on.  When you actively engage with what you’re learning, you care about it.  Instead of just trying to remember statistics, dates, and details, I now care about what I have been learning on a deeper, more emotional level, which allows me to think about these topics on a deeper, more questioning level.  I want to learn and being involved in the learning personally ensures that I will never forget it.

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.

A moveable feast

“If you are lucky enough to [go to] Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” – Ernest Hemingway

After only a couple of days to appreciate the beauty of Paris and all that it has to offer, I must concur with Ernest Hemingway.  Even though his recollection of memories of Paris was derived from his time living in the city from 1921 to 1926, his description of the experience remains timeless.  From the moment that we arrived in Paris, I was immediately enthralled by the different pace of the people of Paris and the classic design of the city.  In comparison, American cities seemed much too fast and significantly younger.  When we began visiting the numerous landmarks in Paris, I grew to love Paris even more.  For example, I will never forget the experience of seeing the Eiffel Tower in person for the first time


or visiting the Piette Room and studying the prehistoric artifacts in the Musèe des Antiquities (Museum of Antiques).  Only in Paris can I silently take in the wonder of the cathedral of Notre Dame


and look out on the rest of Paris from the rooftop of a castle.


Here, every smell and sight evokes emotion and allows me to learn from both our planned visits to museums and landmarks and from the casualness of walking down the sidewalk.  We won’t be in Paris for much longer, so my time in this wondrous city is definitely marked.  So when we are forced to leave Paris to continue our journey throughout the rest of France, I will take the lessons that I have learned from Paris and take it with me, as Hemingway would have wanted.  Paris is indeed a moveable feast and I hope to take a small part of it with me wherever I go now.


Today we went to Le MAN and, for me, the highlights were the Piette room and our trip to the roof. After a slightly winding trek up to the private Piette room, we were all excited to finally go inside. It was a small room, but completely filled with glass cases of artifacts. The cases were tightly packed with artifacts such as La Dame de Brassempouy, bone and ivory spear heads and needles, and animal carvings. It wasn’t until walking around a little that I found the three separate cases of the painted pebbles lining the walls of the room. It was cool to know that the pebble we had at the Peabody at P.A. for so long would be going in one of these cases, back with the rest of the collection20140614-204633-74793010.jpg. We weren’t allowed to take pictures inside the room, but I took a picture of the cast of the La Dame de Brassempouy from earlier in the museum.

Later, we were taken to the roof of Le MAN, and it was absolutely beautiful. The view from the roof was incredible and French garden was stunning. The lines of perfectly shaped trees shading pathways next to the forest area looked calm, quiet and peaceful. I wish we had the opportunity to walk around it a little bit, but we had already seen so much and were on a tight schedule. The sight alone was amazing. The castle itself was beautiful as well. Through the intricate carvings and small details such as the locks on some of the doors, you could feel how special it was.

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.