Nicolas Bilot: finding meaning in old stones

Photography : Photokiff - Text : Lucas Delattre

He is not 30 yet but already has a robust field experience as an archaeologist and historian of medieval cities. For the past three years, Nicolas Bilot has been coordinating the excavations of the castle of Montépilloy, which was built around 1150 by Gui IV Le Bouteiller de Senlis and overlooked, at the time, the earldom of Senlis from the height of its fearsome dungeon.

Born in the northern district of Pas-de-Calais, educated in Arras, Poitiers and Amiens, Nicolas admits to having “quite a chaotic curriculum”. He first started a bachelor’s degree in history but gave up before graduating, then worked for a while as a bookseller before resuming studies in archaeology upon the encouragement of a university professor who had spotted in him signs of a true attraction to this field.

Nicolas is passionate about the “history of history”, that is to say analysing the remains of our past and, more specifically, comparing the different approaches that have been adopted over time to make sense of them. Early on, while doing research for his master’s degree, he got fascinated by the Valois region, and especially by the area around Senlis, which offers a “remarkable example of conservation of the material traces of history, only 40 kilometres away from Paris.” This territory, he explains, is both culturally homogeneous and historically diverse. All historical eras are represented, notably those dating from before the industrial revolution. Some buildings, like the amphitheatre in Senlis, date back from the period of the Roman conquests under Julius Caesar, when the “civitas” of the ‘Sulbanecte’ people was founded to then later give its name to the city of Senlis.

Nicolas Bilot enjoys exploring the grounds of what used to be historically the original “Ile de France” region (even if the area is no longer part of the modern administrative district called “Ile de France”). He particularly enjoys having access here to “parcels of land that have been barely modified over the centuries” and to “an authentic rural heritage, which is often not included in the legal protection of historical monuments.” The southern part of the Picardie region, he says, had been rather abandoned by archaeologists for years.

Being in charge of planned excavations, Nicolas mostly works during summer, notably in August, when it is easier to gather teams of volunteers. He then coordinates a field team made of university student interns, coming from all over France, and a team of specialists who are able to analyse the data that is collected on site (archaeo-zoologists, archaeo-anthropologists, archaeo-geologists, numismatists, specialists in glass, etc …). “By confronting the findings of field research and the expertise of specialists, we produce sets of hypotheses and conclusions.”

Everybody on site, including experts, works for free. Nicolas spends a fair share of his time “solving problems” that have no direct connection with the science of archaeology: renting a mechanical digger to shovel up earth at the beginning and at the end of an excavation operation, finding shelter and food for the team members, etc. Subsidies from the state administration, from the district government, from the municipality or from the local historical society help meet the logistical costs. Resourcefulness and do-it-yourself apply for everyday issues. Scientific investigations however must be carried out with the utmost professional rigour and recorded in a detailed account of excavations that Nicolas compiles after each operation and submits to the review of a controlling committee.

As a way of earning his own living and paying for his expenses, Nicolas Bilot has founded a small company that aims at helping private owners of historical heritage buildings research the history and archaeology of their properties and open them up to the public. He enjoys above all bringing scientific knowledge to a broader audience. He loves to share history, give visitors tools and methods to read the remains of the past beyond being only given “a list of dates or the size of windows which you will never remember.”

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