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La géoarchéologie française au xxie siècle

Nathalie Carcaud
Gilles Arnaud-Fassetta


History, epistemology and concepts

Joëlle Burnouf

Texte intégral

1This book, as the reader will discover, brings together 24 contributions from 98 authors, including 33 women (almost a third), and 24 researchers from INRAP, half of whom are also women: together they form a formidable community! It is also a unique community, a product of France and its history, with some elements linking back as far as the 18th c., and witness to the long and slow development of scientific endeavours dealing with relations between “nature” and “culture”, or as more frequently described today – “societies and environments”. Some authors appear in several chapters of the book, but this is just the logic or the “unwritten law” of contemporary scientific networks.

2We can also identify “families” or “schools” (intellectual, generational, educational), training establishments, family trees, and the “incubators institutions” of research.

3Looking back on the history and the development of geoarchaeology, and despite the “smoothing” effect of history, one can still see the old divide between the two main schools of thought – the Earth and life sciences (ELS) and the human and social sciences (HSS), triggered by the French academic structures and aggravated by the recent development of the “Institutes” of national research. The reader might wonder how to recognise these “schools”. Academic courses have a history that forged their epistemology and their paradigms and so it is quite easy to identify them, if one makes the effort to try to understand why a school uses a particular method based on specific scientific deliverables, speaks with an “identified” vocabulary, or produces coded interpretations. Geoarchaeology was therefore intellectually positioned from the outset, and this was its strength, and by changing the scientific practices of data acquisition, processing and incorporating social practices within research groups, this gradually led to a new “habitus” sensu Bourdieu.

4We can also recognise poor practices and, professional mannerisms that developed as part of the sub-discipline but it is better not to dwell on these! Perhaps one of these defining habits is worth mentioning, that of the relentless research on chronometric markers, that has blocked interdisciplinary dialogue. This question is huge and deserves a book to itself because what raises is the issue of “time”, “periods”, “chronology” and “dating” and the techniques used to achieve this demand for chronological improvement. Besides the question of the scale of information – what is appropriate for a particular scale can be inappropriate at another scale – it also raises the issue of scientific “language”, which can still be unclear and ambiguous.

5The chapters of the book are grouped into five sections that survey the scope and “great projects” in French geoarchaeology over the last thirty years: “palaeoenvironments, biogeography and landscapes”; “links between fluvial hydrosystems, climate and anthropogenic activities”; “alluviation, settlement, strategies and forms of human adaptation”; “water resources, risk, and management”; “from coastline mobility to port constraint”.

The history of geoarchaeology

6The beginnings and premises of geoarchaeology in France were dependent on the social composition of the academic group and the disciplinary background of the researchers. It is interesting to observe that “the story of origins” and the development of geoarchaeology are not exactly the same. Geoarchaeology is an interdisciplinary crossroads unifying researchers who adhere to a way of working (professions and practices) with a starting point and bespoke methods. Geoarchaeology is also an “identifier” in the scientific community, with the common material for both archaeologists and geoarchaeologists being the sediment. This “identity” was claimed early by researchers themselves.

7The “militant” phase of the development of French geoarchaeology was concomitant with the increasing role of rescue archaeology: it seems indisputable that rescue archaeology in the early 1980s was, in France, the key factor in the development of geoarchaeology, even if the word was not used at the time and although occasional academic occurrence of the word “geoarchaeology” is known from the 1970s. Some of these excavations were long-lived such as the construction of the metro line D in Lyons, the site of the Louvre or the railways of the Mediterranean and East European LGV. Now, the presence of a geoarchaeologist is a common occurrence on rescue archaeology sites, even though it took a proactive policy by INRAP from its establishment in 2002 to recruit geoarchaeologists and “experts in palaeoenvironments” in particular – one of the battles of the 2000s. In this book, there are 24 researchers of INRAP (including 12 women) among the authors, as noted in the introduction to this text. In the field of elective or research archaeology, geoarchaeology, whether metropolitan or rural, did not develop as early or in the same way.

8The milestones for geoarchaeology are to be found in academic structures, for example with the creation of an optional course called Geoarchaeology in the Master’s Programme entitled Archaeology and Environment (DEA) that trained some geoarchaeologists still practicing today. Specific lessons have been proposed from the so-called “Bayrou” reform (1995) in the Bachelor’s degree around the framework of a “palaeoenvironment” training course in archaeology. From 2000, the “LMD” reform (i.e., Bachelor’s degree – Master’s degree – Doctoral degree) has accelerated the development of masters courses devoted to environment in which research on past periods was taught, as was the case with the Federal Master “Geomorphology” (i.e., the current master DYNARISK, Environmental Dynamics and Risks in the universities of Paris 1, 7 and 12), which created an optional course in Geoarchaeology in the early 2000s.

9The precise term “geoarchaeology”, or “geoarchaeology”, is not obvious and appears in both forms. The word itself was not used in the years 1980-1990 in the French research community, and it has given rise to serious discussions, which were both discursive and tackled the issue of research strategies in laboratories and universities. Considered in retrospect these controversies can raise a smile but a new generation has acceded to the responsibilities: the pioneers are always key researchers, but the managers of scientific projects and laboratories, the Ph. D and professorial (HDR) theses and supervisors are researchers of the generation born during the formation of geoarchaeology, whose work has shaped the scientific frameworks, practices and thinking, and who have infused a new spirit in this research. Those researchers who are resistant to dogmas have let their guard down even if, their ideological background and training, are still detectable by the vocabulary they use in oral communications and publications. A vocabulary that remains different between the Earth and life sciences and human social sciences such as the use of the word “anthropisation” (anthropogenic; discussed later in this text), which is an undeniable “cultural” signature and incidentally has no exact synonym currently used in Anglo-American English.

10The 2000s witnessed the consolidation of the place of geoarchaeology by groups, networks, training and research centres. As with all creative innovations, the dynamics was born of (i) “elective affinities” between researchers who share the same interdisciplinary practices appertaining to their common objects of study, in this case sediment, and (ii) the transfer of the societal and political demand as the researcher is not independent of the spirit of the times. This dynamics has also benefited from major interdisciplinary research programmes that were offered to the community, such as the PIREN then PEVS, which lasted more than twenty years between the late 1970s and 2002, or the development of ZA (CNRS workshop areas) in 2000, which still exists. Here, research teams supported by laboratories and research and teaching institutions were the core of these networks, the results of which we can see today in the number of Ph.D and HDR theses produced. Workshops, conferences, colloquiums and seminars were in those years breaking new ground and testing new interpretations and concepts, as well as undertaking methodological experimentation. Examples include the workshops of Beuvray and that of Lyons “Entretiens de géoarchéologie”, both colloquiums of Antibes in the late 1990s, the two colloquiums on rivers in Motz and Aix-en-Provence.

Epistemological positions

11During these “twenty glorious years of the geoarchaeology”, the subject has interrogated the place of man in nature and societies. The birth of archaeology was coincident with that of geology within the framework of the 18th c. natural history and the birth of the “secular sciences” in the 19th c. Before 1800, the earliest human past was subjected to three interpretive schemes but from 1820, the boom of geology and the invention of deep time in Earth Sciences allowed the birth of prehistory within the long geological timescale. Since then, Earth and life sciences and prehistoric archaeology have evolved together and a strong scientific solidarity links them. This is not the place to detail the history of the geosciences, however, it is useful to understand the culture of the community of archaeologists that derived from the school of thought referred to as “Quaternarists”. Before, in the 17th c., the idea was born of complementarity between history and geography, both disciplines considered as “the eye of history”. At the time of the French Consulate, the teaching of history and geography was associated with an ideological goal, i.e. to build and strengthen a national idea that transcended political boundaries, leading to “civic over-determination” with the establishment of the Third Republic in 1880 and the development of educational programmes developed in 1890 by E. Lavisse (history) and R. Jalliffier (geography). The vicissitudes of the educational story, sometimes turbulent, however, produced a new school of thought. Still some-what separate, archaeologists and historians also developed dominant paradigms in their disciplines such as the “methodical” paradigm then the “Braudel” school of the 19th and the first half of the 20th c. In the field of archaeology, the practices of prehistoric archaeologists largo sensu – became universal across the discipline in part linked with Earth and life sciences. In contrast, the study of the historical periods (antiquity, Middle Ages, modern period) was associated with the development of modern archaeology in the second half of the 20th c., modern stratigraphic practices and the environmental study of the structures, sediment and artifacts became standard. This modernisation occurred more rapidly in the academic family derived from history-geography than in the academic family that had come from the history of art. Although, as beautifully written by Prost, the story of relations between archaeology and history “is that of an old couple of lovers inseparable but striving for a long time to make room apart”; at the same time, Fossier explained that “history without archaeology is rhetoric, and archaeology without history is earthwork”. In short, it was not easy especially as the underlying themes of archaeology and history remained largely separate.

12The chapters of this book show, in addition to the rude health and vitality of this young community, that the world has changed. The state of “normal science” inherited from the 19th c. disappeared in the last twenty years of the 20th c. and, after a period of turbulence, and as this book demonstrates, we have entered a new state of normal science after drastic changes in the scientific fields, and geoarchaeology as a new paradigm is part of this change. Geoarchaeology is a new system of production of scientific “truth” collectively accepted by the interdisciplinary community of scholars regardless of their academic course and disciplinary background.

13It would be nice to attribute these changes to the ‘leadership’ of historical periods sensu lato (i.e., since the Iron Age) and the militant dynamics of a generation of researchers mostly in the field of human and social sciences. The history of the crisis affecting the paradigm shiftis yet to be written, but it includes the acts of men and women of conviction whose leadership, both in their work and in their imagination and training, was crucial to this emerging new field. Starting from humanity (as a category) with its corollary of “anthropogenic processes”, we come to the explanation of the role of societies (and/or groups) in the coevolution of their relations with the environment. Before that, the palaeoenvironmentalists sought to understand when humans had passed from the natural to anthropic and how so-called external forcing interacted. Then, they willingly accepted that “it became too complicated because of the actions of societies” (sic). Actually, for the study of societies-environments, the local scale (even micro-local) should be preferred before generalisation to higher levels. The plural here is essential. This statement is the major epistemological position that (i) creates the scientific dynamics of research practices, (ii) requires an interdisciplinary approach demanding and respectful of the documentation of each discipline, and (iii) allows us to know the limits of this documentation for interpretation. In doing so, it also allows us to avoid the determinism that still weigh down interpretations far too often, especially when the scale of the documentation is not respected, as is highlighted in one of the chapters of this book (Section 3, Lespez et al.). Admittedly, the political orientations of the time (environment, sustainable development, etc.) and the agenda have contributed to the reversal of positions since the late 1980s, as revealed by the Bruntland Report of 1987 and later reports. There is no ‘opportunistic’ or ‘possibilist’ bandwagon because geoarchaeological research provides some surprising results, as shown by some chapters of this book.


14The buzzing and vibrant activity in geoarchaeology, in the late 1980s and 1990s, helped to provide, in the early 2000s, a few key words, which summarise some concepts that reveal a new way of thinking about the relations between societies and environments, such as “anthropo-system” and more recently the “Anthropocene”. This concept has grown from concepts of the geosystem, hydrosystem and ecosystem, along with the strong desire to create an intellectual space for society. The concept of “heritage” likewise was part of realising the dynamic resilience of systems and the long term coevolution of environments and societies as well as the cross-set of temporalities, far indeed very far from the three Braudelian time periods and the deterministic forms of Vidalian geography.

15From archaeology has emerged in the early 2000s the term “Environmental Archaeologies” that aims to ask from sediment, artifacts and ecofacts (visible and invisible) archaeological questions from an interdisciplinary and diachronic perspective. From the outset, this concept has led to new practices as methods must be determined well in advance of fieldwork, which is itself only the tip of the iceberg that is research. Environmental archaeology determines ahead the procedures from which research protocols can be developed for the acquisition or relevant and robust data.

16Is gearchaeology an identity concept, a new paradigm or new “bloated collector” in the words of G. Chouquer? It is clear that we can eliminate the third proposition, although, like Mr Jourdain with prose one can easily imagine that some have only joined the movement so as not to risk missing the boat of modernity. Credibility was granted earlier in this text to the value and novelty of the geoarchaeology label: if it was valid in the militant phase of the 1990s, this is no longer the case today as it is now a recognised discipline that a new generation is consolidating. It is therefore necessary to consider whether, and how, geoarchaeology is a novel paradigm of research on the relationship between societies and their environments. We are used to the definition of paradigm (a Greek word used by Plato and part of the French language since the 16th c. meaning “model” or “example”) and that of epistemology (of sciences in particular), which refers to a consistent model over a defined theoretical basis, a representation of the world, which is installed on mainstream thinking and forms a consensus in the community of scholars. Although we do not need to debate the terms we can ask what are the fundamentals of geoarchaeology that has created a consensus in the research community? I argue here that they are based on (i) the “long term”, which measures not only inheritance in the past but also the weight of the past on the present, (ii) the “interdisciplinary approach”, which allows us to escape naturalistic or societal determinism without invoking an argument simply from from authority, promotes multiple interpretation scenarios, and allows us to choose the one that is the most plausible, because archaeology is the discipline of “plausible”, and (iii) the “multiple scales”, which also avoids determinism, by showing that the local is never a narrowed image of the global, and it avoids the trap of teleological interpretations where, the conclusions have already been introduced as part of the premises, and which inevitably leads to comfortable but erroneous results. From these deliverables patiently developed in the twenty year construction geoarchaeology, and after release from the shackles of the paradigms of their mother disciplines, volunteers have built a new state of normal science the results of which are presented in this book.

17There are still issues to be discussed and clarified in the community, such as the previously mentioned “temporalities”. In archaeology, this was well underway by researchers such as L. Oliver and P. Boissinot with their questions about “the dark abyss of time” and “archaeology as a discipline” that have reformulated epistemological positions within archaeology. This remains a new interdisciplinary project for geoarchaeology in the forthcoming years.


Professor Emeritus, University Panthéon-Sorbonne (Paris 1) & Paris 10/Ministry of Culture and Communication, (Archaeologies and Sciences of Antiquity – ARSCAN) UMR 7041 CNRS, Nanterre, France (

© CNRS Éditions, 2015

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