Tour de France

Reminiscing about archaeology and the Tour de France

You know what? My day of archaeology will be archaeology, but it will also be a very normal summer’s day. I am a Dutch archaeologist. I don’t live or work in the Netherlands, I’m in Switzerland, but there are certain things that I still enjoy doing the Dutch way. Let me explain. My day will consist of writing a few longer emails to colleagues who have asked for information. I will also be gathering and checking my use wear lab equipment for next week. Have I still have enough forms, are the photos and sketches that I need ready, where are my – plastic! – callipers? (Don’t ever let me see you use metal callipers on chipped stone artefacts!) Such things. Oh, and I promised my wife to get some ice-cream: There are ripe raspberries in the garden.

Nothing terribly exciting, but that’s okay because the Tour de France is in its final week and cycling is an important sport in Belgium and the Netherlands. The Dutch public radio has been doing a 4 hour life commentary of each stage since 1970. There is French music and interviews, returning features about France and the history of le Tour and life commentary from the finish-line and the motorcycle.

For many Dutch is it the sound of summer. Of course, on the radio you do not get to see the stunning pictures of the beautiful French landscapes and the castles and the quiet little villages, brought to life for one day by the passing of the Tour. But with good commentators you still see the pain on the riders faces in your minds eyes, you can hear the crowds and the whole circus driving through France and you can feel the excitement of yet another chasse patate. And there is much more space for the imagination, the romance and the heroics that may be killed by reality of television.

So, you are wondering, what does that have to do with archaeology? Well, for me the Tour de France and the radio commentary are strongly related to archaeology. The Tour takes place in July, the most summery of summer months. I was a field archaeologist for over a decade before I started this use wear PhD on Mesolithic chipped stone tools and archaeological fieldwork is strongly connected to the seasons in so many ways. The riders in the Tour are also experiencing something that reminds me of some of the harder summer excavations I took part in. And especially it reminds me of those research field projects abroad, where a group of – often young – people, who often never met before and come from various countries themselves, are thrown together to face a strange foreign culture, a harsh climate(why, oh why does anyone go digging in the Jordanian Death Sea valley in July?), physically hard work that also mentally takes its toll and where a special bond of intimacy and comradery is forced.

Erinnerung an Assuan -  Paul Klee. 1930. Albertina, Wien. Via Europeana.

Erinnerung an Assuan – Paul Klee. 1930. Albertina, Wien. Via Europeana.

But for me, the Tour de France and Radio Tour de France will now always remind me of a special archaeological project just over a decade ago. My then soon-to-be-wife and I supervised excavations in the city of Assuan, Egypt and lived on the beautiful island of Elephantine. After an early start and a long morning’s work in the field together with the fabulous workmen from Kuft and before doing some more documentation in the late afternoon and evening, we would have a lie down during the hot afternoon hours. I would then often listen to Radio Tour on my world receiver, lying under the mosquito net while the Nile and river-life slowly went by outside the window of our cool room on the island. So later today, I can get on with the more mundane tasks of an archaeological PhD and listen to Radio Tour de France and reminisce a bit about the past.

An uneventful day of archaeology seems to lie ahead of me, but sometimes that’s perfectly alright. And besides, in archaeology you never know what may come still!