Christopher Thompson, 2014 Fellow Dig Blog at Bourgfontaine Heart Chapel Excavation, France MonArch
Christopher is currently an undergraduate junior at Brown University. He is working toward a BA in Medieval Cultures with a focus on archaeology. He is interested in the history of early medieval France, and will be pursuing an honors thesis on the archaeology of the French conversion to Christianity. He has worked on an archaeological survey in Karystos, Greece, as well as an excavation on the grounds of Brown University.
Excavation: Bourgfontaine Heart Chapel Excavation, France
MonArch (Monastic Archaeology)
The Bourgfontaine project aims to shed light on Carthusian monasticism in 14th-century France. Through archaeological excavation and architectural analysis, the project examines the foundation and development of the Carthusian monastery and examines the network of patronage relationships that fostered and supported it. This season will focus on a chapel built to house the heart tomb of King Philip VI.
Right now I am on a train from Villers-Cotterets to Paris. We were able to do many of the registrarial tasks sooner than expected and so the team was let go two days early: the excavation is over! One student left Saturday night, another Sunday morning, and then one Saturday afternoon. At each meal this last weekend, our table at the Bonanite got smaller and smaller. This last week was not outside in the trenches, but in the empty chapel we use as a workspace. We drew finds, completed notebooks, and figured out Harris matrices. We put away our trowels and cleaned the hand shovels, basins, buckets, and brushes. The trenches were transformed from a workspace, a place that contained information that had to be wrestled out carefully each day with trowel, hand pick, and brush, into a place of reference. We visited the trenches to correct our notebooks or the site plan. It is strange how well I have gotten to know parts of Bourgfontaine and Villers-Cotterets in the last five weeks. It is doubly strange to think about spending a lifetime in either of these places. I am very fortunate to have been able to travel to France this summer, and to travel in the future for research, jobs, vacation, to see friends or family. Travel – whether it is a day trip to Boston from Providence or the Thanksgiving weekend trek home – has been very much a part of my experience in college and before. Before automobiles, asphalt, airplanes, and trains the understanding of travel – and its prevalence – was much different than it is today. In the medieval times, pilgrims crossed Europe and the Middle East to visit holy sites, but an understanding of travel as both popular and a means of cultural exposure did not exist as it does today. I think about the how the men and women who lived within or around the forest of Rets – at the monastery, on farms or small villages, or the medieval town of Villers-Cotterets. They must have known the area around their home or work very well – it’s paths, springs, roads, and trees. Animals would have made up this landscape too, as they grew, died, and reproduced year after year just like trees, gardens, or crops. For me, animals like kestrels, horses, donkeys and even sparrows, are awesome novelties to tied to strange and specific places. When I really think about living and working in a single landscape for a lifetime, I begin to realize how fundamentally different the medieval villagers of the forest of Rets must have known their landscape then how I do in my day-to-day. I can think of few places in my life that I have really profoundly known. I grew up in a suburban area in Kentucky, which meant that my weekend and summers were spent playing in and around our cul-de-sac. I got to know this small landscape well: the field and tree line behind Mr. Wilson’s house was the farthest we would go; it was a scary place. There were rusting dryers and washing machines coveted-in between the trees that we would be approach slowly. Balls kicked into his backyard were often left for his dogs. A wall separated my house and my neighbor’s and it became a warzone during capture the flag games. We got to know every handhold in the bricks, where the ground dipped down and where it rose up higher against the wall. I know the land of our small cul-de-sac better than I know any other.
I don’t mean to compare the experience of a child to his or her landscape with a medieval person’s relationship. But rather underline that in my life, there are very few places and times where and I have been able to get to know land so well. To that landscape I hold a special and powerful connection that I imagine people have felt to their home landscapes for a long, long time.Posted 4th July 2014 by Christopher Thompson 0
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For this post I would like to share a little bit about what my day-to-day has been like here in Villers-Cotterets.
I wake up at 7:30 am on Monday through Friday. Breakfast is buffet-style and provided by the hotel. I often eat a croissant with Nutella. Sometimes I also eat a chocolate croissant. I may or may not drink a cup a coffee and eat a small bowl of applesauce.
Waking up at 7:30 has gotten harder and harder as the project has progressed. My dreams are harder to escape. Last night the excavation followed me into my dreams. I dreamt that I was excavating, and I had to have a talk with one of the directors and the registrar of the project because the registrar was a small animal that I repeatedly disrespected by walking by without acknowledging. The problem, for me, was that she was an animal and I am not used to saying hi to animals.
Clark, one of the project directors, picks us at 8:30 and we pile into a small Chevrolet. One of us holds the daily bunch of fresh baguettes in our laps. Today those baguettes were hot – fresh from the oven!
For the last four weeks most of my day has been spent trowelling. I find working in the trenches very enjoyable. I am outside – the weather here has been very pleasant – and am able to zen out in the simple joy of simple, but significant, objectives.
I often take quiet breaks in the shade of the church or chat with the other excavators. I have developed a quiet camaraderie with them and silliness accompanies the hours in the trenches.
Posted 23rd June 2014 by Christopher Thompson 0
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Two weekends ago, the excavation team at Bourgfontaine visited the monastery of Saint Jean des Vignes in Soissons. It was the site of more than thirty years research by the MonArch (Monastic Archaeology, http://monarch.brown.edu/index.html) directors Sheila Bonde and Clark Maines. They gave us a great tour of the grounds, speaking on not only the practice and history behind various ruins, buildings, and monuments, but also the stories and experiences of having spent three decades excavating, surveying, and living at the site.
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The forest of Retz surrounds the horse farm of Bourgfontaine. To the east and west grassy fields extend and tuck over hills giving the farm the impression that it runs on and on. Each morning the sobs of a donkey bark across the farm and put the horses on guard, the mares tuck their foals under them and watch carefully. However, the far horizon of the farm in three directions – to the north, south, and west – is a swath of green canopy that gives the farm away. It is not one farm among a pastureland of many farms, one donkey in a whole region full of them. It is remarkable that there is a farm at all.
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I arrived in France a week ago and since then have been launched into fieldwork preparation and activity. We have cleared bird poop and feathers from the floor of a room in a medieval tower to make way for an office. Moving boxes became makeshift shelves; two wood sawhorses and a sheet of fiberboard became a drafting table. On the excavation site, right angles were figured, and string was strung. We began removing grass, and then dirt, last Thursday.
However, for this first blog I would like to focus on my attitude going into this month of research. Specifically I would like to use this space to comment on my reading list for the next four weeks. I am living at the hotel Bonanite in the outskirts of the town of Villers-Cotterêts in Picardy, France. It is a small hotel with a large neon sign that faces departmental road 81. At night the blue light of the sign glances off the large woodpile behind the building and my window is swathed with it, stenciling shades across my room.
Every morning I wake up at the same time, to the same two songs in succession. The first is designed to pull me gently from sleep, the second to scold me for not getting up faster. I wear the same thing everyday: a pair of LL Bean boots recently resoled, green khaki pants bought for thirteen euros at LeClerc, a gray undershirt, size medium and purchased at Gap, a collared denim long sleeve shirt that is left unbuttoned, and then a DC Nats baseball hat loaned to me for the summer by my girlfriend.
I record these details because they are important to me. These details offer the appearance of an ideal summer experience: archaeological research on a horse farm in rural France for five weeks. I appear on the walking path out front like a character in a Wes Anderson movie - forcefully literary, optimistic and carefully poised for a bildungsroman.
More importantly, I am here because of more specific truths: ancient objects and structures excite me and pull me into a world that is simultaneously profound and relevant, yet not my own; I wake up every morning at six exhausted but happy. My reading list is not just important to me because of the big ideas they discuss, but because of the quiet joy I get from reading in a strange and beautiful place. I noted my resoled boots, the DC cap, and denim collared long-sleeved shirt not just because of their style, but because each item serves such a specific purpose to make the small joys happen: the boots protect me from the mud and poop of a horse farm, the shirts from sun and wind, and the hat reminds me of home.