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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)

Directors: Sheila Bonde (Brown University) and Clark Maines (Wesleyan University)

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.

Interacting or observing animals take up a surprisingly large chunk of a day working outside. Earthworms are our most common distraction, however the farm of Bourgfontaine offers us horses, donkeys, a mule, kestrels, grouses, and many sparrows. Having spent less than a month here I feel I have soaked up a comfortable crop of knowledge about the natural world. Stinging nettles are a real thing and cause painful, tender spots. Horses are able to lie down – and they can easily get up. On hot afternoons, the three foals of the farm will collapse and splay out in happy heaps. I have even seen a horse roll on its back to itch itself (presumably to itch itself). Once baby kestrels leave the nest they do not come back.
Learning these happy facts have made the excavation so much more than an academic pursuit. So has getting to know the five other excavators working on the project. We eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner together and have developed fast, but substantive, friendships. Work is usually done at 6:00 pm and we trek back to the hotel (by the same small Chevrolet) for showers and then dinner. By the end of the project I will have ordered everything on the Bonanite menu at least once. On the first night I ordered Beouf Tartare. I am not sure what I will get on the last night of the project.
During the few precious hours before sleep we hang out, catch up on emails, or read. I am struggling through Albert Camus’s “La Peste.” My favorite line from it is: “Le mal qui est dans le monde vient presque toujours de l’ignorance.” We work half-days on Saturday, but Sundays are ours. I have gone to Paris twice and have found it an incredible, moving, modern old city whose parks are as charming as the boulangeries. I will go back once more. Paris is like some dream that hovers outside the fringe of my existence in Villers-Cotterets; both times I have gone I have slept on the train and have woken or fallen asleep to the city.
Villers-Cotterets, the hotel Bonanite, and Bourgfontaine comprise a small, strange, wonderful bubble for me that I look forward to continuing to explore in this final week.

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, 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.

The facade of the church remains, as does the refectory building. Beneath the ground there are a network of pipes and tunnels that once carried water from springs in the hills around Soissons to act as a pressurized medieval garbage disposal, sewer and fountain system. It was quite an amazing place. One of the most striking things about Saint Jean des Vignes was the number of local people who took over the space to picnic, hang out, or cuddle. A large grassy lawn butts up against the remains of medieval buildings and hides foundations and circulation levels. Now, teenage couples walk their bikes over spaces that were once a kitchen and the Abbot’s Parlor in order to chat on top of what used to be the Latrine. I think this reuse of the space by local people – most of them young – is really wonderful. When I think about modern use of historical sites I often think critically: how does the way tourists access a site correspond to the original access that the builders intended? How can information in museum exhibits be presented most effectively? How much information and what kind should be provided on info placards? In recent years, however, I have come to realize that my most intense and lasting engagement with the past has not been in museums or tourist sites, but when it has offered a backdrop to imagination, play, or exploration. My grandparents live a block away from Sutro Park in San Francisco. It was once the estate of Mayor and magnate Adolph Sutro who built a castle-like mansion there, carving out the cliffs that overlook the seal rocks. The city demolished the house in the fifties but the large concrete parapet remained, as well as staircases cut into cliff face, a hidden canopied balcony, and an armless statue of the hunter Diana. It was a living ruin for my siblings and me as we made it a playground and backdrop for adventures. We never asked questions of historical accuracy, but instead invested the landscaped lawn and ruined castle with romance, passion, and glory. My grandfather used to criticize the city’s decision to demolish the old mansion with a cold seriousness that never I quite understood: I agreed with him on almost everything but this. How would we have ever explored the strange past of our little corner of San Francisco – sand dune, mansion, and Second World War gun emplacement -- if the grounds were a museum?
As I grew up, an interest in landscapes imbued with meaning did not fall away but, I think, became the backdrop for my current studies in Medieval Cultures and archaeology. In many ways, I saw such a landscape at Saint Jean des Vignes, in which local kids, teenagers, and adults made an ancient landscape relevant to their own experience by using such a space to nap, kiss, or chat. For more information (and presented very, very effectively!) on Saint Jean des Vignes check out:

Posted 17th June 2014 by Christopher Thompson 0

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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.

In the early fourteenth century the Valois family founded a new house of the Carthusian monastic order. A secular and monastic buildings were built on the property including chapels, a cloister, cells, a home farm, and a defensive wall. The Carthusians prized seclusion, and this monastery, an island in the forest, offered that. To this day, the tranquility of the farm is striking. Throughout the day, swallows fly in sharp twists, they visit their nests, and then fall out of them in jerky swoops. There is a kestrel and a family of grouses that live around the church where we are excavating. You can hear the grouses storming around in a bush next to my trench like some awkward animal. They jettison out of the bush, squawking and dipping across the fields. I sometimes think about how the farm would be different – how my perception of the farm would be different – if the forest came right up to the ruins of the defensive wall rather than just crowned the horizon. Descriptive words are the first to pop into my head -- the property would be darker, more somber; I would spend more time looking forward and through the trees rather than up and out over the fields. The color of the sky – blue with white bobs of cloud, stormy, or something in between – would be just as effective as it is now but in a different way. The awesome expanse of the sky that I see each day would be traded for the awesome claustrophobia of a tight window of sky.
The forest of Retz also surrounds the village of Villers-Côtterets. The Parc du Chateau, a large round lawn several hundred yards across, is not far from our hotel and is embedded into the side of the forest. The chateau of the park sits squarely in the centre ville of Villers-Cotteret, the Allée Royale follows out from the lawn of the chateau and cuts a long swath through the forest of Retz. Hiking paths criss-cross the forest and the Allée Royale. I often walk through them to find a quiet reading spot. It is not hard to imagine how the shifts in landscape from forest to allée were navigated in the medieval times. I do think not my own experience and context is comparable to that of someone who lived seven hundred years ago, but I think it is worthwhile to appreciate some things that may have held true. For the example, the Allée cuts a wide meadow through the trees and offers a sense of majesty and largesse to whomever made the Allée “royale”; he or she not only cut the road through the forest, but also maintained it. Now the French park service maintains it, but it still bears the modifier “royale.”
On a more humble note, I noticed the slope of a hill so much more while walking through the meadow of the Allée than the meandering trails of the forest on either side. This is probably due to the straighter and steeper path of the Allée as well as the visible slope – I can see the slope ahead and so I feel it more. I wonder how these feelings were shared or modified by the people who have visited this forest, not as hikers or tourists en chemin avec Dumas, but as peasants, merchants, guests, and royals over the last seven hundred years?
I think the movie City of God very effectively shows how landscape, specifically how we modify, build up, or teardown a landscape, can affect the human experience and milieu. The movie follows a group of kids who grow up in the suburb of Cidade de Deus in the late sixties. By the end of the film, the suburb has grown up with the kids – small cinder block houses with dusty yards and a large soccer field have been replaced with the urban concrete patchwork of a Rio favela. The experience of the characters profoundly shifts with the changes of their city. While it is tricky to make comparisons between a film and my own lived experience, or a film and fourteenth century France, I think it absolutely worthwhile to imagine how landscape has affected human experience in a diversity of contexts. At Bourgfontaine, during water breaks or the quiet hum of trowelling, I will consider how the landscape affected the experience of monastic life in the fourteenth century. How close were the trees to the defensive wall? How did this affect the monastery in not just in practical ways (cut trees allowed more farmland as well as better range of sight), but also in experiential ones: how did the landscape affect the Carthusian mission of seclusion? What was it like to walk up a hill in a meadow, a forest, or a town? What were the implications of this on way of life? I do not think this mode of imaginative thinking should replace academic writing, but for me, it fosters inspiration and creativity.
Posted 10th June 2014 by Christopher Thompson 0

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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. 

The Fôret de Retz offers a landscape of reflection surrounding Villers-Cotterets, criss-crossed with walking paths and studded with ruins. On my long explorations of the town and in awkward, rewarding, halting conversations with the locals I imagine what soundtrack accompanies me, the experience feels so cinematic and narratively focused.             Today in the forest, I finished the first book on my reading list, “Leaving the Atocha Station,” written by a former Brown student. It follows the narrator's wanders through a year-long fellowship in Madrid, funded for a year to carry out a hazy poetic project. He challenges our generation’s quest for “the acquisition of experience” while at the same time recognizing his own deep implication in such a mission. In similar ways I am creating and fulfilling a premeditated narrative of growth and enlightenment - dirty, with my boots resoled; tired, reading and thinking. This novel is an excellent introduction to the summer because in many ways I am guilty of a deliberate quest for experience. My reading list is the skeleton on which to hang relevant narratives, images, and friendships that suit a summer fit for a memoir.
            It is important for me to question why I am here. Beyond the institution of education, I feel obligated to ask, "why archaeology?" Why is the excavation of a Carthusian monastery on a horse farm in France, specifically, relevant to me and my own journey. In answer to this question my instinct is to offer big, universal ideas: to learn more about networks of power in 14th century France, the advancement of "our" pool of knowledge, the illumination of the unknown. The big ideas can be self-focused, as well: I'm interested in my own actualization through study in rural France; I find much-needed humility in the handling of moments long gone, succeeded only by their larger narratives.

           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.

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