Since moving to France, our lives seem to swing wildly from very quiet home days (& often weeks!) to lively periods of visiting & touring around. We try to experience at least one festival a month. Considering that there are probably 4 or 5 EVERY weekend all year ‘round, it is sometimes hard to choose!
This summer we certainly made a good choice when we visited the 4th Annual
Pierres en Fête
Roughly translated, the festival is called Party of the Stones, which might not sound too thrilling until you realize that it takes place at the archaeological dig of an ancient Roman-Gallic Villa which was built before 100 AD!
This year’s theme was “Betes, Hommes et Dieux” (Beasts, Men & Gods) & as with every French festival which we’ve attended, it was beautifully conceived & organized. One thing that I consistently notice is that the French aren’t afraid to delve into the subject at hand & really teach you a few things while you wander about (there’s no “disneyfication” – if you know what I mean!).
The site was discovered in 1989 after a particularly dry summer. A man flying over the property noticed strange markings on the ground, et voilá – a major archaeological discovery!
The villa is one of the biggest found in north-west France. The Roman’s had occupied France (Gaul) for only a few decades when the first stones were laid for this grand estate near the beginning of the 1st century A.D. While Caesar Augustus was on the throne in Rome, a wealthy, noble family was planning a luxurious summer home here in Bretagne.
The estate covered more than 1.5 hectares (approx. 2.5 acres or 10,000 m²) & included a sumptuous residence, orchard, vast spa which included heated pools & massive agricultural warehouses.
The Pierres en Fête festival was unlike anything I’ve ever attended simply because it focused on a period that just didn’t exist in Canada. I’ve always known about Roman Gaul but now I can actually picture what it was like to live then (& so can my kids!)
It’s not everyday that you get a chance to get this up-close & personal with a few birds of prey! (Note the looks on my babes faces!) Since the festival’s theme focused on man & beast there were quite a few around – a mule, some geese, sheep & these beautiful birds. My son wasn’t about to volunteer to have one on his arm, although if my daughter was older, I’m sure she would have.
The day included a children’s play area complete with Roman games & a mini archaeological dig (with REAL tidbits from the site hidden in a mound of dirt…), Roman food (the desserts were amazing), re-enactors, period artisans & even a theatrical presentation based on fables written by Roman authors.
Being the historian that I am, I really want to give you a good feel for the day. However, that would make ONE long post! So I’m going to break it up & post over the next few days.
I’ll begin with the children’s games & daily life today.
GAMES ROMAN KIDS PLAYED
These games were a LOT harder than they looked – for this one you had to throw a stone onto the burlap & you added up your score with the highest scorer winning. The most points were gained by getting your stone to stop in the top of the triangle (which was almost impossible!) The other game with the holes looks so familiar – for this one you had to throw chestnuts through the holes (those roman kids must have practised long & hard to play that one…)
This one wasn’t much easier – the stones just bounced right off!
Here’s a book I’m going to put on my wishlist for when we study Ancient Rome (but I may be tempted to get it sooner as it features so many easy to make, simple toys).
A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A GALLIC-ROMAN
These boys & their families belong to a group called “Vita Gallica“. I’m sure that they spend much of their summer travelling around to various period events, dressed in their authentic costumes (wool! - it was close to 30ºC in the sun). The children were very good at making tools & helping out. The boy on the left is carving a wooden spoon (we now have to create the support he’s using as my son is keen on starting a collection of wooden utensils).
The boy on the right wears the traditional Gallo costume (note how different it is from the other boy who is from the Roman upper class). Aren’t his authentic shoes amazing? Although the two cultures intermingled, there still were obvious class distinctions drawn between the families of the Roman soldiers & the locals.
This area depicted the peasant life of a Gallo family. The family cooked tasty little cakes on a griddle over an open fire for us, made their own lunch in a big cauldron & even gave their little boy a bath in a barrel! The table was laden with spices, grains & dried fruits of the period. Everything in the vignette was handmade & if it weren’t for the people with their dog in the background, you’d really feel like you’d travelled back through time!
Another area was set up to give a taste of the upper-class lifestyle. Here are a few “lesson” supplies being carefully guarded by a tutor. We tried writing on the wax tablets with a stylus & checked out the ink wells & pens. Note the alphabet chart written on linen hanging behind him. It’s amazing to think that we still use the same letters.
This part of the tent represented the women’s domains – children & homemaking. The “walls” were cleverly painted to look like frescoes, there were period appropriate pieces of furniture as well many toys & games for the children to try.
These are floor looms upon which the young girls learned to weave. Note the swaddled baby tied into the cradle. I’ve read many references to babies being swaddled in the middle ages, I had no idea that the practice stretched back so far! The roman “matron” explained to me that the baby would have pieces of wool wedged between her arms & body as well as between her legs to protect them from chafing. Then, wearing only the wool bits, she would be wound tightly in strips of linen & the whole “package” would be tied up with the bright ribbons.
Now came the shocking part – the entire set up was changed ONLY once a day !!!!! Talk about low maintenance… But wait, that’s not all – apparently they often hung the baby from a hook on a wall or a branch on a tree to keep her “safe”. These facts were probably some of the most memorable things I learned at the festival.
Here are some things a noble Roman woman would have had at home. A small shrine for a fertility goddess, clay lamps, long glass-headed pins to style their hair. The blue glass jar with 2 handles was a perfume jar – they used so much that they didn’t even bother putting a stopper in! The matron told me that most women spent upwards of 3 or 4 hours a day preparing to go out to the baths – must have been nice!
The most surprising thing on the table was the baby bottle – can you spot it ? It is the light green jug in front of the shrine with the handle & spout. Yes, they fed their babies from fine, blown glass jugs. The amazing part of the bottle was that it also doubled as a breast-milk expresser, in case the mother wanted someone else to feed her baby.
That’s it for now – next time I’ll focus on the arts & artisans (including a weaver who reproduces ancient textiles). Lastly, we’ll see some soldiers & tradesmen.
See you soon!