If Those Waves Could Talk: Treasure Hunting in the Léman

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May 19, 2021

The morning we met Jean MacDougall for a walk along the Lutry shoreline was one of those springtime false starts: the cherry blossoms had distributed their cotton candy confetti across the lush verdant lawns leading to the lakefront, and the snow line gently retreated up the mountains. But, in the same breath, rain threatened. The skies were heavy and gray, the wind whipped around us with a bite as if to remind us to stay on our guard – winter still hung over our heads in the peaks above.

The lake churned, choppy and agitated. This, we would come to learn, was ideal weather for treasure hunting.

Years ago, when we first happened on Jean, we were fresh-faced new arrivals in Lausanne with the ambition to know our city by recording its stories. Our small audience of readers had found our “blog” and, remarkably, weren’t turned off by the audacity and arrogance of two American transplants claiming to be “the” guide to Lausanne.

Jean had spent her entire adult life in the city and knew it better than just about anyone. The kind of expat who arrived as a young woman and built her life – work, marriage, divorce, family, and citizenship – on the shores of Lake Léman, it seemed to us that she knew everyone and had been involved in everything. She had been shaped by the place; and she’d done her fair share of shaping it along the way.

Through the years she’s managed or owned small stores, including All Access, a skate shop that mixed skate culture and hip-hop culture. At the time, it was decidedly innovative and one of the first storefronts in the Flon. From there, she’d put her artistic eye and creativity to work by decorating local shops and managing her own English school for children. Now, she helps run the after-school program at a local primary school.

But it’s Jean’s uncanny gift for finding beauty in everyday, often forgotten, objects that has always inspired us. A collector by nature and an artist by training, she has the ability to transform the banal into beauty, trinkets into treasure. She sees the world differently than most, perceiving the intrinsic potential in people and in things.

Over the last year, as the world held its breath, Jean turned her eyes to the lake and its shoreline. With flea markets and antique shops closed, her treasure hunting instincts found a playground among the subtly changing sands and stones and whatever forgotten relics the waters offered her there.

Like all of us, her world shrunk to a small radius around her home in Lutry. Rather than letting the confinement confine her perspective in addition to her movement, she decided look deeply at the same scenes each day, training her eye to see what was hiding in plain sight. The more she looked, the more she began to see how people used to live. The lake became a storyteller.

As we set off from the well-loved beach buvette and traced the shoreline eastward, Jean summarized the history of Lutry, reminding us of the Neolithic standing stones at the entrance of the town.

The Rhone glacier carved the crescent-shaped lake and its shores, and with its retreat in 15,000 B.C., left behind conditions favorable to human thriving, the beginning of the human story in this part of the world. In prehistoric times, homes were built on stilts that jutted out over the water’s edge. By the time that the Romans settled in the area, Lutry – or Lustriacum – was one of several fishing villages along the lake’s shores.

At each turn, people left their mark on the place with artifacts discarded, lost, or forgotten in and beside the lake. The same rocky shores where we enjoy our summer picnics and cast off on our stand-up paddle boards have been home to human beings since at least 12,000 B.C. Imagine the stories those waves could tell if only they could talk.

Of course, they do talk. Not with words but with offerings: a musket ball, bits of pottery, broken glass, old saucepans, tops of antique perfume bottles sanded slightly misshapen by the waves. As I turned half of a porcelain doll’s face over in my hands, I thought of my sons and all the children who have grown up with the scent of this lake as a constant in their lives, its stickiness in their hair. What child had loved this doll? And how was it lost? I may never know the details, but this fragment serves as a testament, a reminder of a past that the lake has not forgotten.

Jean led our intrepid group out along the shore, stooping to collect objects as they caught her eye. I scanned the stones, eager to lock on something out of sync with its environment. Nothing. It seems that the rushed hustle of modern life does not predispose you to this kind of work. Looking carefully takes a practiced patience and a steady unwavering determination. “Since I’ve been doing this,” Jean explains, “it really trains your eye so that you see things differently. The more I walked, the more aware of tiny details I became.” I let this metaphor for living sink into my bones.

Scouring the shores for historic artifacts and valuables has been a practice in London since at least the 18th century. Mudlarking, as it’s called, is still in full force today and even requires an official license from the city. Using Instagram, Jean has relied on this community in the UK to help name and date some of the specific patterns of pottery or offer clues about the origins of some of the more ambiguous objects she’s discovered.

As for Neolithic or Roman artifacts, she dreams of uncovering traces of these civilizations’ stories. For now, she’s amassed a collection of pieces to eventually share with an expert in local archeology. The bits of glass, broken pottery, and driftwood are recirculated into our current story – she uses them with the children in the after-school program where she works for arts and crafts projects. Inspiring and training young eyes to see beauty and potential in broken, discarded things is her high calling.

The storm held off long enough for us to finish our walk, and eventually the clouds thinned, revealing the blue sky above. Though we didn’t return carrying Neolithic tools or Roman jewelry, the Léman did indeed speak to us. 

We live with this lake as though it’s the backdrop, a mere witness, to the unfolding dramas of our lives. It figures conveniently in our Instagram feeds and gives us pause on those particularly sweet evenings in summer when it glistens in the golden hour. But by and large, it is simply there.

Our morning with Jean shifted our thinking, producing, as an awareness of history often does, profound humility. The lake is not a witness to our lives; we are the witnesses – to something beautiful, magnificent, and terrifying.

Looking out across the gray and bothered waters, I felt very small. And very, very grateful.

Follow Jean’s lakeside adventures at @nostones.unturned on Instagram. If you’re interested in understanding the archeological history of our area, be sure to visit the Musée Cantonal d’Achéologie et d’Histoire in the Palais de Rumine. Enthusiasts may also want to consider joining the Société Vaudois d’Histoire et d’Archéologie.

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