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La géoarchéologie française au xxie siècle

Nathalie Carcaud
Gilles Arnaud-Fassetta

Partie III. Alluvionnement, peuplement, stratégies et formes d'adaptation/Section 3. Alluviation, settlement strategies and adaptation

Chapter 10. Thirty years of geomorphological studies in the service of Lyon rescue archaeology (France)

Results and methods of geoarchaeological approach

Odile Franc et Agnès Vérot-Bourrély

Texte intégral

We wish to thank particularly Jean-Paul Bravard, initiator of geoarchaelogy in Lyon, permanent collaborator, and reviewer of this paper. Our thanks also go to the book’s editors, Nathalie Carcaud and Gilles Arnaud-Fassetta, for their critical reviewing, and to Alan MacCarthy (INRAP) for initial English editing.


1The development of large-scale engineering works in rural and urban areas implies soil destruction. Since the 1970s, society has been building deep into the soil. Highly destructive, these structures also permit, access to the deep archives of the soil, all the more so when there is an archaeological excavation. With economic and social transformations, a collective awareness of patrimonial destruction emerged at the beginning of the 1970s. The city of Lyon site was one of the first of these arenas (Demoule and Landes, 2009).

2Digging into the subsoil of the alluvial floodplain of the rivers Rhône and the Saône, the professional archaeologists were confronted with non-anthropogenic sedimentary units, difficult to analyse. Greater comprehension came as early as 1982 by geomorphological studies associated with palaeobiological sciences (palynology, malacology…). An interdisciplinary dialogue for the historical periods began to allow us to understand the environmental context of the urban conquest of the floodplain. This conquest had already been asserted since the Roman period. Little by little, the results were pieced together like a jigsaw and this has helped us to theorise and problematize our understanding concerning the interactions between humans and the environment. In return, archaeology provided well-dated stratigraphic models and allowed the Quaternary scientist to discover new climate fluctuations and to identify periods of profuse (or deficient) water supply in the recent past. Thus geoarchaeology was born (Butzer 1982). This discipline opened up the Human-Environment relation, and later the processes of site formation/destruction, and anthropogenic stratigraphy (Berger et al., 2000; Goldberg and Macphail, 2007).

3These last thirty years of geoarchaeology in the service of Lyon archaeology have revealed human occupation relating to the evolution of alluvial units from the end of the Ice Ages up to Modern times. A chronological presentation of the discoveries is presented here in order to shed light on the methodological evolution and the progress of the human-environment debate. The sites are located in the Saône and Rhône floodplains, from 1 to 5 km-wide, between the primary formations on the West (the Lyon plateau belonging to the Massif Central), and the Tertiary formations on the North (the Dombes plateau), and the Pleistocene terraces to the east (Fig. 1).

1982: The first geo-archaeological interventions at the Rhône and Saône confluence

A geographer-hydromorphologist working with archaeologists

4The first intervention of Jean-Paul Bravard, at the time Assistant Professor at Lyon 3 University, occurred on avenue A. Max, on the right bank of the Saône River. His observations revealed an antique topography, very different from today. A Saône palaeochannel was identified further to the west with a Rhodanian bar on the left bank. Filled by significant flooding at the beginning of the 3rd c. AD, it was blocked by waste disposal backfills. A wall was found near the left bank, similar to an embankment due to alluvia deposited against it. These results were completed by a study of cladocera: fresh-water crustacea, which, according to their species, can be used to define the flood height (Bravard et al., 1986; Villedieu, 1990). This discovery updated the “Marsaux channel” known from the early 1960s from research by P. Audin, who had already associated with a geographer (Russo and Audin, 1961). In 1984, J.-P. Bravard observed a new embankment on the “Îlot 24” site on “Rue de la Monnaie”. Positioned N-S, this wall/dyke cut off the left bank of the Saône River. It had silted up due to flooding, from a protected and uninhabited space at the beginning of the 1st c. AD. The demand for geomorphological studies of archaeological sites is increasing the proliferation of data concerning landscape evolution, which naturally benefited students who become involved in this research.

Fig. 1. Location of study areas and physical context.

Near-systematic and systemic geomorphological study of the archaeological sites of Lyon: A contribution to a multi-parameters method

5In an alluvial environment, where the variety of landscape units is important, determining the context of discoveries (palaeochannel, riverbank, bar, channel pattern…) is essential in order to understand the site and its taphonomy (burying processes). Apart from ancient maps and aerial photographs, which permit an approach to recent landscape evolution, study by off-site geoarchaeology is limited because of the imposed areas of excavation. With stratigraphic sections showing the deposit geometry and with sediment samples from the different stratigraphic layers, it is now possible to restore the ancient landscape forms. Textural analysis of sediments helps us characterise the settling dynamics of deposits. With the help of two parameters (D50 and D99) from the grain-size analysis, situated on a bi-logarithmic graph, it is possible to create a cloud of points, whose shape gives the deposit environment and the type of transport for each sample. This is the CM pattern (Bravard, 1983; Bravard et al., 1986; Bravard and Peiry, 1999). It was adapted from the work of Passega (1957). The objective is to define morphological units before, or contemporary to, human occupation or engineering and to reconstruct palaeohydrology evolution of the river environment (Fig. 2). Other analysis from soil sciences (micromorphology and geochemistry) can be undertaken in order to identify pedogenesis.

Fig. 2. The CM pattern and associated terrestrial and aquatic bed forms (Bravard and Peiry, 1999).

The underground railway sites of the D-line (1982-1988)

6These excavations concerned only three future underground stations (Fig. 1): “Bellecour” on the peninsula, “Vieux Lyon” on the right bank of the Saône River in the Saint-Jean district, and “Gorge de Loup” in the south of the Vaise plain. The “Guillotière” site was added after a fortuitous discovery on the nearest let bank of the Rhône River.

A braided plain during the Little Ice Age on the left bank of the Rhône River

7The Guillotière Bridge, dating from the 14th c. but perhaps from as early as the 12th c. according to some tenuous traces, remains the first Rhône bridge revealed by archaeology. Because of the vigorous low and the large width of the Rhône river, crossing it has always appeared rather difficult. During the Little Ice Age, particularly during the 17th and 18th c., the Rhône River adopted a braided-channel pattern because of the difficulty of transporting its high inputs of bed load. The evolution of the bridge and its tribulations are known by an archival study and by the dendrochronological dating of timber stakes (Burnouf et al., 1991).

An early Iron Age floodplain between the Rhône River and the Lyon plateau

8The floodplain, created by the peninsula between the Rhône River and the Saône River and by the right bank of the Saône River at the foot of Fourvière plateau, is relatively recent. These two units were dated to the end of the early Iron Age by two fossil trunks discovered within the pebbled alluvial sheet (Macé et al., 1991; Fig. 5). The Rhône was then a braided river, a morphology relating to a major hydromorphological crisis known not only in this region but also on a European scale (Bravard et al., 1992). Under the “Bellecour” underground station, a palaeochannel of the Rhône River was found (Vérot et al., 1989). It dated from the previous braided-channel dynamics. Its natural ill included a central sandy bar with an additional backfill of amphorae from the 1st c. AD. The high waters continued to sweep over the district, which seemed to have prevented a human occupation, known only on the south bank. The previous antique Saône palaeochannel (cf. supra) was found in 1986 under the “Vieux Lyon” station (Arlaud et al., 1994). Its geometry as well as the chronology of its fill were clarified.

Fig. 3. Diachronic landscapes reconstruction in Gorge-de-Loup underground station (Vérot-Bourrély et al., 1995).

The Vaise plain on the right bank of the Saône River, occupied from the prehistory became “urbanised” during antiquity: Diachronic palaeoenvironmental study (1985-1987)

9The Vaise plain, on the right bank of the Saône River in the north-west of Lyon, is not exclusively a floodplain, as it is set on the Lyon plateau, and is dominated by slopes, which influence its deposits. Due to the profuse small streams and colluvial processes, a new method was necessary to study the excavation under “Gorge de Loup” station in the south of the plain where a small valley, nowadays dry, opens out. The study of sediments and of different malacological samples and vegetational remains (pollens, charcoals, seeds) within deposits, led to the reconstruction of 4000 years of landscape evolution at the foot of Trion valley (Vérot-Bourrély et al., 1995; Figs. 3 and 5). This was the site of the first pre-and protohistoric discoveries in Lyon (Burnouf et al., 1989).

The excavations on the peninsula between the Saône and the Rhône rivers (1990-1994)

10Many of the underground parking lots have been prospected by development of preventive archaeology and brought up a harvest of palaeoenvironmental data.

Rhodanian palaeochannels

11During the Early Iron Age, the very powerful Rhône River adopted a braided pattern and laid down an important pebbled bed. Many channels crossed the peninsula with pebble-dominated bars (Fig. 4A): Bellecour channel, 60 m wide, Bourse channel, 15 m wide, and the République channel, 100 m wide. The Rhodanian lows constrained the Saône River, with a weak regime and lower slope, to flow in a single channel at the foot of the Fourvière hill. The observation of laminated alluvia from the Rhône and the Saône rivers at the same place on the present right bank of the Saône River, corroborate the hypothesis of an antique confluence on the west. It proves that the Saône palaeochannel against the Fourvière hill is the primitive, single and unique channel of the river until 0 AD. This active morphogenesis explains the lack of archaeological remains not only during the Early Iron Age on an unstable peninsula, but also during the Later Iron Age. This was a period of fluvial incision during which flood lows laid down sands and loams, from 1 m to more than 2 m thick. The Romans, then principally established on the Fourvière plateau (the historical site of the colonies’ foundation), could then settle on these new low grounds, progressively safe above the stream low. They contributed to the natural infilling of the ancient channels banking them up with amphorae and other fragments, or infilling them with an obvious will to control and exploit the riverine environment (Vérot-Bourrély and Franc, 2008).

A strengthened hydrology at the beginning of the 1st c. AD

12From the start of the Christian era to the first half of the 1st c. AD, the floods again overran the peninsula in the course of stabilisation. The occupation layers were stratified with alluvia whose coarser texture defined a increased capacity of the Rhône River in this period (Bravard et al., 1992; Salvador et al., 2002). Pebble-rich anthropogenic backfills, from 30 to 50 cm thick, protected sites from flooding. During the second half of the 1st c. AD, only the non-artificially infilled areas recorded some flooding deposits. In the primitive channel of the Saône River, the flood events followed one another from the second half of the 1st c. AD until the middle of the 3rd c. AD.

Fig. 4. Topography of the Peninsula during the Iron Ages and the 1st c. AD (Vérot-Bourrély and Franc, 2008).

Fig. 5. Results of hydrosedimentary fluctuations in Lyon.

Some data on the alluvial dynamics during the Middle Ages and the Modern Times

13For these periods, the results are few and poorly dated because of, the tenuous archaeological traces on the peninsula (Arlaud et al., 1996). Since the Lower Empire, the town was concentrated on the Saône riverbanks and mostly on the right bank. The rest of the peninsula was deserted from the end of the 2nd c. AD after a phase of major demolitions and salvage of materials. On the south of the peninsula, only some rich houses remained, whose mosaics were dated from the beginning of the 3rd c. AD. The few indications of alluvial dynamics (flood deposits, incision of a rapidly disused channel) seem to connect with the already known climate degradation of the 6th-8th c. AD (Berger et al. 2008), which includes the catastrophic flood of AD 580 and the years thereafter, described by Grégoire de Tours (Champion, 1856). This near-absence of data is due to the difficulty of dating deposits without chronological indicators such as artefacts. Regarding Modern times, whilst the disasterous flood stories are numerous, apart from the pebbly braided sheet on the left bank of the Rhône river (cf. supra), only rare alluvia and colluvia date back to this period.

Geoarchaeological interventions in the Rhône floodplain (upstream to Lyon and left bank) since 1987

14In order to understand the floodplain, which today is characterised by low differentiated (maximum: 1 m) terraces on the left bank of the Rhône River and at the foot of the late fluvio-glacial (Würmian) complex in the East (Fig. 1), and to appreciate Rhône palaeohydrology and the constraints imposed on human settlements, prospections were initiated by Bravard in the Lyon urban area. From public works and archaeological excavations, sub-fossil trunks or organic material trapped in the abandoned branches of the river were sampled and dated using radiocarbon. These prospections also concerned the left bank of the Rhône River in Lyon, at its upper part on 15 km, where the floodplain is widest (Bravard and Evin, 1989; Bravard et al., 1991, 1997).

15This research shows that in the Pre-Boreal Period, the Rhône River reached its highest level in Lyon, never to be reached again: that of the low terrace of Villeurbanne, 1 m to 2 m higher than the present Rhône River level. This gravel sheet was reached again by Boreal floods. Some important fluctuations of the alluvial floor, not normally seen in Lyon, were observed at least for the second part of the early Atlantic Period and again during the recent Atlantic Period. High hydro-sedimentary activity with deposition of a new alluvial sheet (without a difference in altitude in relation to the previous terrace) was identified (Fig. 5). In the Sub-Boreal times (Late Neolithic Period to Early Bronze Age) a new terrace, with a 1 m difference in altitude, was defined by three braided channels (Blaizot et al., 2010). The last two gravel sheets are from the Early Iron Age situated on the peninsula, and the from the Little Ice Age, located on the left bank of the Rhône River. Both sheets are 1 m lower than the previous sheet, which is pre-protohistoric.

Sites connected to the economic reconversion of the Vaise plain on the right bank of the Saône River (since 1987)

16An industrial district in the 19th c., the Vaise plain was the object of an urban renovation from the end of the 1990s, of, giving rise to numerous archaeological excavations. During the recent Late Glacial (Würmian) Period, a pseudo-lake, due to a dam built by the Rhône River important deposits downstream, occupied the plain. Its bedded sandy-silt deposits now make up a fluvio-lacustrine terrace with centripetal slope around the plain. This happened because in the Bölling Period a channel of the Saône River cut the terrace and meandered into the plain. It was later cut off in the Alleröd Period. Its infilling, essentially from settling processes occurred until the early Atlantic Period. Since then, the deposition of loamy alluvio-colluviation has been very slow. Consequently an oxbow lake remained for a long period in the heart of the plain (Fig. 5). Azilians took advantage of the new spaces to settle above the oxbow lake. Later, in the Early and Middle Mesolithic Periods, short occupations were possible in the marsh created by the abandoned channel in the process of silting up.

17On the slopes, loess deposits were buried under a loamy colluvium on which a luvisol formed (Bertran et al., 1998). Remains from pre-and protohistory periods are included in this soil. Despite the increase of slopes processes (including alluvial fans from the little streams), the Vaise unit was lightly occupied during the Campaniform period, the Early and Late Bronze Age, and in the Middle and Late Neolithic Period but only in depressions (preserved from erosion). The occupation spread to the south of the Vaise plain at the end of the Early Iron Age, close to a new and little studied dead branch of the Saône River. During the Roman period, Vaise was a densely populated area with a very organised landscape. The intermittent, little streams, as revealed by stratified remains in alluvia, allow us to propose dynamic fluctuations due to local environmental conditions. Indeed, Strahler order 1 or 2 streams are poor indicators of important climate fluctuations. The stream dating to the Early Iron Age is nearly absent contrary to those of the Late Empire period. These responses can be linked with local occupation, after the resistance threshold had been overstepped. During the Middle Ages, the landscape became essentially rural, the plain being already mostly deserted after the Lower Empire: the settlement restricted to the area around its church. The observed sediments from the Middle Ages and the Modern times are generally colluvial, rarely torrential, and essentially a dark earth. This reflects a long period of stability with a brownish pedogenesis developed during the Little Mediaeval Optimum (8th-12th c.), and preserved until the Modern times due to a lack of anthropogenic impacts. However, the 19th c. industrialisation probably removed part of the information with, amongst others, 3 m thick backfills in the heart of the plain.

18Finally, questions arose as the excavations progressed, and have led us to define indicator-units, and to search for them in the future, for example: (i) the Würmian fluvio-lacustrine terrace; (ii) the Younger Dryas chalky deposits filling the Bölling-Alleröd dead channel arm; (iii) the Bt argillic horizon from the luvisol with Neolithic and Early Bronze Age settlements. Relatively well dated, these known deposits simplify future archaeological research.

The Parc Saint-Georges site, key to the Rhône-Saône confluence at the end of the Protohistoric Period (2003-2005)

19This underground parking lot is located in the right bank of the present Saône River, at the south of the Saint-Jean district, where the protohistoric confluence between the Rhône and Saône rivers is thought to be. The geoarchaeological study allowed us to examine twenty years of research whilst refining the results (Vérot-Bourrély et al., 2010).

20At the deepest level of the excavation, the presence of alluvia dated by radiocarbon supports the Bölling-Alleröd incision and reveals another layer at the beginning of the Pre-Boreal Period (Fig. 5). Later, pebble-bedded alluvia from the rivers Rhône and Saône indicate that the site was under water at the confluence with alluvial floors rising until the 2nd c. BC. In the north part of the site, the fine-alluvial cover deposited by flooding, from the two streams at the end of the Later Iron Age, shows the confluence moving downstream. The area became terrestrial and bordered with the left bank of the early Saône River (found in the south part of the site) and with the Rhône River in the process of migration to the east. Around the 0 AD, the Saône River opened a more direct channel in the plain, revealed by a 7 m high bank in the north part of the site. This new channel and the old one flowed together in the south part of the site, isolating the Saint-Jean Island (Fig. 4B). The palaeoenvironmental study (palynology, malacology, fruits and seeds) of the fine alluvia reveals the clearing and cultivation of the new emerged lands (cereals, ruderal and messicole plants). The two confluence channels of the Saône River persisted for almost three centuries despite the progressive infilling of the older channel (cf. supra). This channel, which was not very deep, was used to anchor big tonnage boats until a violent flood, at the beginning of the 3rd c. AD, sank them with sand being deposited over them. The site was then partially abandoned between the 5th and the 10th c. AD. The riverside residents kept throwing their rubbish onto the slope of the right bank in order to make easier progress on to the river bank. The first constructions on the bank were made between the 12th and the 13th c., then embankments were constructed in the middle of the 19th c. Deposits texture and geometry in both channels reveals the hydrological impact of the Little Ice Age, on the 15th-16th c. levels and again in the mid-18th c.

Conclusion and prospects

21Geoarchaeology is one of the essential keys to the reading of archaeological sites. The importance of the interdisciplinary dialogue between environmental and human sciences made the conceptualisation and consideration of Human-Environment interactions progress, with results being continually reviewed. The dating of morphological units reveals not only the archaeological potential of discovery, but also archaeological data that can be in accordance with morphosedimentary dynamics and evolution (erosion or aggradation), in the floodplain or slope context. Each environment brings information, which fit together in time and space, and which allow us to propose a coherent hydrological reconstruction of fluctuations from the end of the Würm Period until today, even if some questions remain obscure (Fig. 5).

22For the end of the prehistory and for the protohistory period, the hydromorphological conditions of the Lyon site only permitted occupations and the preservation of this occupation on the Saône floodplain upstream, on its riverbanks, and theoretically on the old morphological units of the left bank of the Rhône River. Downstream, the Rhône and Saône confluence, with stream mobility until the 1st c. AD, do not allow pre-and protohistoric human occupation nor the optimal preservation of remains from the La Tene-antiquity transition. Furthermore, the palaeoenvironmental study shows that agro-pastoral activity emerged on the alluvial lands during this period. From the 1st c. AD, more and more emerged lands offered the new colony some spaces to utilise although the settlement had developed its suburbium on the Fourvière hill and in the Vaise plain. The new inhabitants adapted to the Saône River avulsion (changing course) around 0 AD or in the first half of the 1st c. AD, and then to the later 1st c. AD hydrological peaks, which affected both Rhône and Saône rivers. Furthermore, at the beginning of 3rd c. AD, the hydrological activity of the Saône River, recorded in Saint-Jean district, was not detected in the Vaise upstream plain. However it is recorded in all the upper Rhône river catchments (Berger et al., 2008), on the left-bank tributaries of its middle valley (Berger and Brochier, 2006), and downstream to the delta (Arnaud-Fassetta, 2000). For this period, the Lyon sites on the right bank of the Rhône River record backfills dated from the end of the 2nd, beginning of the 3rd c. AD, then a desertion until the 13th c. AD at the earliest, and no hydrological activity traces were clearly demonstrated between these two periods. A post-anthropogenic levelling is another hypothesis for this lack of data (Arlaud et al., 2000; Vérot-Bourrély and Franc, 2008).

23The natural or archaeological preservation of layers, and the timeliness in their discovery are both uncertain: only some key-sites trigger a sufficient understanding of previous observations, which can act as an interpretive model. In their absence, it is difficult to be definitive that one or another event took place. The absence of sedimentary record for the Rhône River in Lyon in the 3rd c. AD still poses questions, as the Mediaeval hydrology for which data are available is again too brief to compensate. So, we can only hope for continuation of the interdisciplinary dialogue and continued geoarchaeological researches.



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Table des illustrations

Légende Fig. 1. Location of study areas and physical context.
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Légende Fig. 2. The CM pattern and associated terrestrial and aquatic bed forms (Bravard and Peiry, 1999).
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Légende Fig. 3. Diachronic landscapes reconstruction in Gorge-de-Loup underground station (Vérot-Bourrély et al., 1995).
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Légende Fig. 4. Topography of the Peninsula during the Iron Ages and the 1st c. AD (Vérot-Bourrély and Franc, 2008).
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Légende Fig. 5. Results of hydrosedimentary fluctuations in Lyon.
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