Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Time Travel: A Visit to the Archives in The Palais des Papes at Avignon

The Vaucluse here in Provence is an area, like many others I suppose, with a rich history when it comes to industry and agriculture.

When I first bought my home near L'Isle sur Sorgue, I realised there was a long history of olive cultivation on the land around the property. Everywhere in the surrounding pine forest there were young, untended olive trees that had struggled out of the roots and mattes of olive trees ruined by frost in the hard winter of 1956. The ruined olive trees are at even distances from each other and there are often straggly lavender plants nearby which, like the oliviers, have been wild for years. Presumably at some point after '56 the people growing olives and making olive oil left this hillside forest and abandoned their olive tree and lavender cultivation. But the story wasn't, and still isn't, clear to me.

The other part of the puzzle is that this is also an area which was quarried by Provencal people for centuries, for gypsum, to make plaster.

Near my house is an old gypse quarry which, like the olive groves, has been reclaimed by nature. Where local men once burned logs against the rocky quarry walls before scratching at powdered gypse to collect it, there are now just trees, song birds, wild flowers and mushrooms. And near the quarry is a small hamlet, the Hameau de la Parisienne, which once belonged to the quarry company or its workers and was rebuilt with incredible energy, and no formal knowledge of construction, by my (then-hippy) neighbours in the late 70s after it had fallen into ruin.

Now - I've tried to investigate this puzzle before without much success. It seems Provencal families have grown olive trees here for over 2000 years. The vast pine forest around my home, mixed with oak and other trees, grew up in recent decades. The land was once studded with healthy olive trees and pretty lavender bushes tended by people who - I assume - lived here rather than in the village and - I guess - kept sheep and goats and cats and dogs around them and carefully pruned their olive trees under the blue spring skies and collected their olives in winter just as I do with neighbours today. The wonderful exhibition at Arles in 2010 - Cesar - Le Rhone Pour Memoire had a map of ancient Provence which showed that people around here were busy growing olives and grapes 2000 years ago. (Not much change there then). A wonderful thrill ran down my spine when I saw that map in the Musée des Antiquités. It was in the room just next to the 2000 year old bust of a majestic Caesar (despite a chipped nose) which archaeologists had recovered from the Rhone riverbed along with hundreds of other Romans' possessions. On a spot more or less where my home is, there were quirky little drawings of grapes and olives, bringing home the sturdy continuity in human activity here since and before Roman times.

But. I've also read, in a book on the history of industry in the Vaucluse, that local people have 'quarried' gypse here for 9000 years, individual hands scraping it painstakingly out of the land to use in building.

So I wonder how, in recent times, in the 19th and 20th century, did the olive growers interact with the gypse quarriers? Were the olive growers put out of business by the killing frost in 1956? Did they just leave the area when irrigation made agriculture easier down on the plain by Isle sur Sorgue? Were olive growers families simultaneously involved in olive oil and gypse production? Or did the quarry company that eventually turned individual gypse and plaster production into a business in the 19th century somehow force the agricultural families out?

This week I went to the Archives at the Palais des Papes in Avignon to see if old documents would shed any light. It was an experience fairly typical of Provence - part charm, part beauty, part eccentricity.

If you know the Palais des Papes you may have seen the discreet little entrance to the Archives. You go up the stone steps towards the park and almost pass the door before you notice it. Inside, I climbed more steps and entered the ante-room to the Salle de Lecture. Apart from a couple of computer screens it was more or less Name of the Rose territory. A first-floor balcony runs round the room, packed with bookshelves and dusty books. Access is by a spiral staircase. The ceiling is made of huge old wooden beams. I was immediately conscious of my boots clicking loudly on the old traditional floor tiles. An ancient-looking archivist greeted me and asked what documents I was after. We had a long discussion about my topic... She then got me to fill out a long form, writing down most of what I'd already told her. Then she asked me to check the archive indexes and note the documents I wanted to read and gave me a crayon. "Thankyou" I said, pushing it back at her. "I've got a pen. I don't need a crayon". Gently, she pushed the crayon back at me. With a sweet smile she said: "It would be terrible if a pen leaked ink onto a unique historical record, don't you think?" I took the crayon.

I sat at the only table with the only other researcher. He was a very old man with wildly straggly white hair and a neatly clipped white beard. He sat in a wheelchair, gravely regarding a vast medieval book supported on one of those wooden book stands. It was hand-written, with dense writing and symbols and the pages were crumbling at the edges. I felt a bit envious - his book looked fascinating and I wanted to ask it was. Instead, I noted the documents I wanted to see and noticed he was glancing across at me. Then he leant forward and spoke in a calm voice: "You know it's nearly lunchtime?" he said. "You'll have to wait 2 hours for those."

Later, after lunch, I was ushered into the reading room. Here, you look down into one of the Palais's medieval courtyards, framed by buttery-yellow stone arches and columns. Another archivist took the note I'd made and brought my documents. He deposited them one after another - thumping great piles of paper tied up with string. I started to read.

In front of me at another table there was a couple leafing through old documents. The woman was silent but every so often the man, who looked like an old paysan, thumped the table or cursed - putain!
in a booming voice. The reading room 'invigilator' went over after a while and said politely: "Monsieur, I would just remind you that we are always quiet in the reading room. Silence aids concentration wonderfully. You have a marvellous voice but it carries!"

The old chap beamed at him and said proudly: "This voice is the result of wine, tobacco and a life spent in the open air with my goats." He promised to shut up.

I read offical and personal letters and legal documents from the 19th century which didn't contain the answers I was looking for. I found out that the old quarry close to home had been functioning as a business since at least 1850. There was no information on the buildings in the hamlet. Were they built when a plaster factory was added to the quarry? Were they originally farm buildings, bought by the quarry company to house workers?

An elderly archivist tried to guide me to an ancient map of the area. Scanned into the archive database, she was unable to find it. "I do hate this new technology" she said. "How does it work?" How it worked was immaterial really - when I displayed the image it was so faded that it could just as easily have been a diagram of someone's heart and lungs as a map of an old olive grove and quarry.

I learned a frustrating amount about the history of gypse and olive production in the Vaucluse that afternoon - enough to make me more curious but not enough to solve the puzzle. I'll now try the Isle sur Sorgue archives and possibly talk to Lafarge, the big French company which gradually swallowed up Provencal quarries in the 20th century.

As I left the fabulous archive at the Palais des Papes, the old goatherd looked up at me. I was struggling to re-tie the string round my fat bundles of paper. Somehow the string seemed shorter than when I'd un-tied it. I cursed quietly under my breath. The old chap beamed and nodded. Then he put a finger to his lips and whispered: 'Sssh!'

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