Tag Archives: post-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.




So it has been four weeks since our trip ended. The trip exceeded what I expected in almost every way. I didn’t really know what the trip would be like before we left. I wasn’t that interested in history/archaeology/foreign language before, but I saw the trip as a great interdisciplinary opportunity to try out these fields in a way that I learn best: experiencing it hands-on. I’m very glad I did this because I now know more about French history than I would have learned otherwise. I think it is harder to think about European history where we live across the Atlantic in a nation whose beginning was all about gaining freedom from European rule. Napoleon never walked on American soil. Being in France and seeing the places where historical figures lived, like Versailles, and died, like Place de la Concorde, made the history much more relatable. In the words of Professor Lancombe who lead the archaeology site, “Context!”

And being on a real archaeology dig? That was amazing. Where would I ever get that experience except on the Piette trip? I’ll admit it, the dig was uncomfortable and slow, but it wasn’t boring. It was great to see how the site operated and to actually work in the units.
I had never had French cuisine before, so eating in France was great. I was excited to try out a different type of food. In Paris, the dishes weren’t anything too unusual, although I hadn’t had those particular recipes before. They included meals such as veal, perch in white sauce, and turkey in wine sauce. When we got down to Sarlat though, the food changed drastically to goose and duck products, such as fois gras, duck confit, goose gizzard salad, and pâté. I was happy that I tried a few of these dishes, but I didn’t really care for them.
One thing I wish we did more of was speaking French. Mostly, we just ordered food in French. In Paris on a few occasions, when I ordered in French, the cashier would reply in English. I would keep talking French and they would keep talking English. It was somewhat humorous, but I imagine them all thinking “hey kid, it’s gonna be better for both of us if we just speak in English.” All of our tour guides spoke English to us, which was necessary because not all of the students on the trip take French. When we went to the cave at Mas D’Azil, the guide spoke in French. I was surprised how much I understood of what the guide said, and was very happy about it.

In my mind, the trip was very successful and I had a great time. Special thank you to the teachers and the friends I 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.