Public Engagement Abroad: Peyre Blanque Archaeological Project

The last few posts for MAPA, I’ve been discussing different aspects of public engagement. As part of that I wanted to talk about public engagement in a non-american context, how its different, and why those differences create a whole different type of archaeological heritage.


A ridiculously gorgeous view from Peyre Blanque

In an earlier blog post, I discussed the ways in which we engage with the pubic as archaeologist, and how it can be technically more difficult than it first seems. In many ways these are site or project specific. I went to talk with BU faculty members Dr. Sébastien Lacombe (Director) and Dr. Kathleen Sterling (Co-Director) who together run a project in southwestern France called the Peyre Blanque Archaeological Project.  The project has been running for the last 9 years, and aside from having amazing archaeology, it has a pretty amazing relationship with the public too. I sat down with both Dr. Sterling and Dr. Lacombe to get their perspectives on public engagement at Peyre Blanque and how it differs from American archaeology.

Amazing structure in situ at Peyre Blanque

Amazing structure recovered at PB

First some background on Peyre Blanque. The project is a very rare Upper Paleolithic “open-air” settlement (more precisely a Middle Magdalenian, about 16,000 BP) located on top a ridge. Not surprisingly a modern hiking trail runs along side it. In many cases, a good way to cross land tens of thousands of years ago is still a good way now. The site was found in 2006 as part of a survey project aimed at finding open-air paleolithic sites run by Dr. Margaret Conkey out of UC-Berkeley. Peyre Blanque is contemporaneous with famous cave sites like Lascaux, Niaux, and Peh Merle in France and Altamira in Spain.

The site during the open season, ready for visitors to drop in.

The site during the open season, ready for visitors to drop in.

It is remarkable for several reasons; its very existence sitting on top of a ridge that has been traveled for at least the last 16,000 years being one of them. But another is the relationship that the people working at Peyre Blanque and the actual site itself has with the local community, and with the entire surrounding region. While I was talking to Dr. Sterling, I asked how difficult it was for them to connect a time so distant to the folks that come and visit the site. As someone who has worked a lot in public engagement in archaeology I know how hard it can be to forge a connection with a visitor to the past. But Dr. Sterling seemed undaunted. “They feel connected to it, they come every year to check on the progress. We have locals who even watch the site for us while we’re not there”. Dr. Lacombe’s response was much the same, “For them, this is their past. This is their people. They come from that region, and I do think that some of the people living here may have been here for thousands of years so it’s not hard to imagine a connection to Peyre Blanque. It is not so distant for them, because it is their own history. And that is how we get the site to work.”

Early excavations at Peyre Blanque

Early excavations at Peyre Blanque

Thinking back to my last post, this is quite different. I said I thought many folks treated public engagement as a moral add-on, something tacked on at the end. At Peyre Blanque, public engagement is so ingrained its more of an operational basis than a specific part of the plan. Comparatively speaking, the site is in a risky position. Open-air, only occupied by archaeologists for a few months a year (whom mostly reside abroad), and is located along a walking path. As I was learning these details, my first thought was how at risk the site might be. I’m used to having to protect archaeology from all sorts of threats. But because the site belongs to the community around it, they keep it safe, intact, protected.

Fundamentally this place is obviously very different than prehistoric sites in the US. The relatively tiny amount of Native folks (1.7 % of the total population) that are related to prehistoric American archaeology means that most folks living around sites can’t directly connect with those places in the same way folks living in southwestern France can connect with Peyre Blanque. But the archaeologists have also done a lot of leg work to foster connectivity with such distant past. Before the site is opened for the season, Dr. Lacombe (who is also from southwestern France himself) travels to the region and gives several talks in the immediate area, in Toulouse, and at local universities about the site. For many this has become more of a yearly update for them, as they have attended the talks before. The site then opens up for the season, and remains open for the public to stop by for the duration. Many visitors return year after year to learn more, and check on the progress. They have also spent time training the tour guides and docents of other sites in the region in basic archaeological techniques to help them better understand how archaeology is conducted. These are all inter-connected efforts to create a culture of sharing and connectivity with past so distant, it is often hard to imagine.

This extends beyond the excavation to the data and artifacts gathered at the site. As dissemination is such a large part of their work, it has become ingrained in the everyday running of Peyre Blanque. Furthermore Drs. Sterling and Lacombe both spoke specifically about keeping the artifacts recovered in the region. They firmly believe that when an artifact is removed from where it was created/found, it loses its context and meaning. Dr. Lacombe said they must “keep things where they are created” of they lose their connection rendering them meaningless. He’s not speaking about data, but about the mental and emotional connection evoked when experiencing ancient places or artifacts intact. Much like the cave paintings near Peyre Blanque, seeing them out of context, out of their home does not foster the same connection as observing them in situ. This is why he feels that the artifacts recovered at PB must stay in the region they come from. The have to stay connected. This is inherently about nurturing the relationship between the public and their site. It is the same kind of relationship I wrote about last week, a long term, deeply rooted in the community, and requiring real efforts to maintain. But for the archaeologists at Peyre Blanque, that has always been part of the plan.

UntitledfweIt is interesting to me that the more I learned about this project, the more I understood it to be deeply rooted in public archaeology, public engagement, and outreach. Every aspect of the site from excavations, to dissemination, to artifact storage is working from the standpoint that Peyre Blanque does not belong to the archaeologists, but to the public. It is about how the archaeology is connected to the local community around them, to the region its in, and how it connects to the broader story of humanity. But Peyre Blanque isn’t marketing itself as a public outreach program. I am quite sure I was the only person in the room talking about “public archaeology” happening at the site. I think this is because everyone working at that site sees it as part of public domain, and as belonging to someone else besides themselves. It’s just always been integrated as part of the plan.

More amazing views of the not so distant Pyrenees

More amazing views of the not so distant Pyrenees

There are many ways in which European prehistoric archaeology is starting from a different place that cannot be replicated in the US. But the Peyre Blanque approach to ownership and connection can speak to a wider movement about public engagement and heritage management.

Though I did not go into deep details about Peyre Blanque’s amazing archaeology, please visit their website and FB page to keep up with their work, check out this gorgeous video about the site, and stay tuned in for our next guest editor in the series!

1 Comment

  • Taryn Kilbert says:

    This is extremely Interesting. As a person who lived and studied in France, there certainly is a cultural pride that seems palpable in some small communities. This article aligns with what I perceived and can now identify as commitment to preserving heritage.

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