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La géoarchéologie française au xxie siècle

Nathalie Carcaud
Gilles Arnaud-Fassetta


Environment, society and the future of geoarchaeology

Anthony Brown

Texte intégral

The present past

1In this concluding chapter it seems appropriate and desirable to take an overview of the current methodologies, temporal and geographical ranges, and most of all academic and practical aims of geoarchaeology as represented in this volume. I will use this brief analysis to point to likely future trends taking into consideration not only the ‘geo’ components of geoarchaeology but also the ‘archaeo’ components.

2In many respects this volume reflects both the common themes in modern geoarchaeology but also has a flavour added by the history of French archaeology and to a lesser extent French Earth sciences. In terms of their geographical location the volume is almost equally split between France and the non-French parts of the Mediterranean with two papers relating to Africa (Mali and Morocco). This reflects both the fact that geoarchaeology must start at home–in that not to use the nearest environment as a testing ground for new ideas and techniques would be inefficient but also because it maximises contextual archaeological and even historical data sources. It is also not surprising that research in the Mediterranean remains strong as it is clearly a function of both high levels of archaeological activity particularly in certain archaeological periods, but also the high visibility of both archaeology and geology in this environment, and its importance as a hotspot of biodiversity, with high climatic sensitivity and many would argue globally-important cultural history. This also reflects the major contribution that geoarchaeology has and can make to mainstream Mediterranean archaeology as witnessed by two recent volumes on Mediterranean archaeology that are both focussed on human-environment interactions and which lean heavily on geoarchaeological studies (Broodbank, 2013; Walsh, 2013).

3The principal environment of study in the chapters is also revealing with alluvial and fluvial environments making up the largest category followed by deltaic/coastal, wetland, island and urban environments. However, this is a little misleading as many chapters especially those dealing with rescue archaeology deal with a combination of environments such as both alluvial and urban. As the introduction points out we can relate these biases back to certain ‘schools’ within French geoarchaeology but what is interesting, and new, is to see the amount of overlap there is between environments as so often studies dealing with coastal change or even ports cannot ignore fluvial processes in addition to coastal processes as is also the case with deltaic settlements and wetlands. Greater environmental scope will be further necessitated by the increasing publication of the results of development-led or rescue archaeology as reflected in this volume. Indeed given that the overwhelming majority of archaeological excavation in France and many other developed countries from Japan to the USA, is driven by development it is essential that this be published in collections of research such as this volume. In this regard the high involvement of staff from INRAP is to be applauded and is a distinctive element in a research volume. Lastly it is worth looking at the period-focus of the studies; whilst the largest category is unexpectedly multi-period (at least 5 chapters) most of the rest with a single exception deal with the Neolithic to Mediaeval Periods with an emphasis on the Bronze and Classical Ages. This partly reflects geographical factors but it also reflects sources of funding and again ‘schools’ of research. However, several of the multi-period chapters do include elements of the Palaeolithic, Mesolithic and even Post-Mediaeval periods and point the way in which geoarchaeology can break-down some of these period-fences that can present an obstacle to diachronic thinking and studies of combined social and environmental change. In France as well as other some countries Archaeology Departments are often sub-divided into chronological sub-departments making diachronic studies so much harder to organise. Likewise the relatively high number of papers, which consider the Mediaeval period points to the advantages of greater integration of geoarchaeology with historical sources, which can enrich both disciplines.

4In methodological terms the volume illustrates the huge advances that have been made in the area of dating particularly as not only is radiocarbon AMS used here but also dendrochronology and optically stimulated luminescence amongst others. Sedimentological analyses are also far more sophisticated and better illustrated than was the case in most past studies with a far more objective and analytical approach, which only ascribes a genetic interpretation after both description and informative analyses, such as grain-size analysis, environmental magnetics or geochemistry including carbonates and stable isotopes. The range of palaeoenvironmental indicators has similarly widened to include ostracods, foramenifera, phytoliths and insects as well as the traditional pollen and spore analyses. There will of course be further development in analytical tools but as these chapters illustrate their use will only be truly worthwhile in relation to the questions, which can be formulated concerning human relationships to past environmental change–in other words conceptual advance is required in order to avoid the trap of ‘techniques looking for applications’.

Future directions

5There are two directions that the chapters in this volume point to, one is to 3D, 4D and dynamic modelling of environmental change, including the human element, and the other direction is increasingly sophisticated conceptualisation of human-environment relationships.

6Taking the first direction, many if not most, of the chapters in this volume include one or more maps or palaeogeographical reconstructions of the environment around archaeological sites, indeed it is a major part of the output of many geoarchaeological projects. Although generally 2D (i.e., maps) they can in effect be 3D with the addition of time if diachronic through multiplication or animation. It is also possible for them to be pseudo-4D if we animated 3D or diachronic volumetric models. Whilst this has been undertaken in sedimentology and geomorphology (e.g., Brown et al., 2013), it is as yet uncommon in geoarchaeology. For most archaeological studies it is either unnecessary or would just constitute attractive visualisation, however, when the nature of the substrate changes during or after site occupation then it becomes integral to the dynamics of the site and its interpretation. This is particularly the case on alluvial and deltaic environments where the changing dynamics in the form of channel switching, crevassing and alluviation all influence not only site location but on-site conditions and almost certainly on-site activities. To this could be coupled drivers of change such as climate-driven changes in flood frequency and modelling of human response using agent-based modelling. This is leading towards quasi-real time geoarchaeological modelling, which could be applied to archaeological structures, which undergo real-time environmental fluctuations. The obvious example of this, which relates to several chapters in this book is the functioning of harbours both through the tidal cycle (even in the Mediterranean) but also in coastal storms and surges. This is in principal possible through the integration of volumetric sediment and structure models with dynamic process models within a GIS and/or CAD framework. A powerful reason for attempting this is to add the human and technological component allowing robust testing of port capabilities, and also to test theories of archaeological change rooted in changes in the physical environment and which also may have stimulated local technical or societal innovation.

7The second direction, conceptualisation of human-environment relationships, this is very much playing to the strengths of the French tradition and indeed one might argue French ‘mentalité’. As discussed in several chapters thinking by French scholars such as Vidal de la Blache, Braudel, Lévi-Strauss and Bourdieu to which we should add Bloch, have immeasurably contributed to our conceptualisation of the human environment dynamics from the concept of the distinctive regional landscape or pays (Brown et al., 2014), to the longue durée of the Annales School and structural analyses of human food systems. Bloch has as yet been less influential but his arguments concerning environmental possibilism coupled with historical and economic contingency (Bloch, 1966) have much to offer Prehistoric and Classical studies. Rather ironically, given that many of the intellectual roots of post-processual archaeology lie in French philosophy and critical theory (e.g., Foucault, Derrida, Cixiou, Latour) post-processualism has probably had less of an impact in France and America than in the UK and Northern Europe (Scarre, 1999). This has advantages and disadvantages, the advantage being that what threatened to become a chasm separating science and environmental archaeology (including geoarchaeology) from the rest of archaeology has not happened in France, however, the disadvantage stems from the fact that some of the demands to go beyond purely functionalist arguments have stimulated novel creative thinking. Apart from a re-evaluation of the legacy of Bloch there are several other areas signalled in this volume that we can see future conceptualisation emerging. One is the nature and sociology of decision making at different levels within ancient societies. This is mentioned in relation to the construction of inner harbours but is implied in many other chapters that discuss the establishment of sites on newly created land areas, such as deltas. In order to go down this road geoarchaeology will have to be integrated more with studies of social structure, power and recent theoretical areas such as actor-network theory (cf. Latour), although whether this approach has any explanatory power is rather open to question. An alternative is a deeper engagement with environment and cognition. Whilst this might make most geoarchaeologists nervous it should not since it clearly does not have that effect on landscape archaeologists who are not a breed apart. There are ways into cognition of the environment in the past through artifacts, which imply environmental relationships from rock art to the first maps. Potentially this allows us to confront what otherwise forms the catch-all category of ritual, which is clearly of relevance to many, some might argue most, geoarchaeological sites. Prior to the Classical period we know that most societies were broadly speaking animistic, which means in essence that the environment, its spatial and temporal characteristics, particularly what we would call ‘events’ were central to their belief systems and therefore how they acted. This imparts cultural meaning to all natural events observed by humans in the past thus linking environmental change, cultural transformations, and cognition (Brown et al., in press b). One example will suffice–the construction of wooden habitations on piles over water, which make up the famous Swiss lake villages, created an ever-present fire hazard far greater than that on dry ground due to the requirement to suspend the hearth on a wooden structure. It is not surprising therefore that geoarchaeological studies have revealed high fire frequencies associated with these structures (Bleicher, 2013). Given the frequency and the fact that the houses were rebuilt often with structural or plan-form modification we can infer that what to us might appear to be a catastrophe probably to them was a part of life accepted and indeed taken advantage of. What further cultural significance fire might have had remains of course for us to discover. In this respect the artefact or in this case structure imposes certain behaviours on the user and in so doing has an effect on mind, body and emotions. This is of what some have labelled ‘thing theory’ (Hodder, 2011) but can also be regarded as part of the plasticity of the human mind stimulated by its engagement with the material world and particularly natural events (Gosden, 2013). Geoarchaeologists need to be less timid in this phenomenological world where environment and mind are not a simple dualism if only to engage and stimulate wider environmental debate in archaeology. In this way functionality can be deconstructed to reveal its subjective and cultural elements the engagement with which makes up material reality.

8Given its unique and rich cultural heritage and intellectual lineage French geoarchaeology has the capabilities to make major advances in these areas continuing to combine strong and innovative science that is stimulated by creative questioning of the archaeological record and which most importantly of all feeds back into a richer more nuanced and profounder narrative of the past and articulation of the place of humanity in its nature.



Bleicher N., «On the concept of ‘in-situ’ in Lake Settlements», Journal of Wetland Archaeology, vol. 13, 2013, p. 59-70.

Bloch M., French Rural History, tr. Janet Sondheimer, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1966.

Broodbank C., The Making of the Middle Sea, London, Thames and Hudson, 2013.

Brown A.G., Carey C.J., Howard A., Toms P.S., Challis K., «Late Pleistocene–Holocene river dynamics at the Trent-Soar confluence, England, UK»; Earth Surface Processes and Landforms, vol. 38, 2013, p. 237-249.

Brown A.G., Hawkins C., Ryder L., Hawken S., Griffith F.M., Hatton J., «Vegetation history and the making of Devon landscapes. I. The Blackdown Hills», Boreas, in press a.

Brown A.G., Bailey G., Passmore D., «Environments and landscape change» in Fowler C., Harding J., Hofmann D. (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Neolithic Europe, Oxford, Oxford University Press, in press b.

Gosden C., «Humanized environments» in Davies M., Nkirote M’Mbogori F. (eds.), Humans and the Environment: New Archaeological Perspectives for the Twenty-First Century, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2013, p. 277-283.

Hodder I., «’Human-thing entanglement: towards an integrated archaeological perspective», Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, vol. 17, 2011, 154-177.

Scarre C., «Archaeological theory in France and Britain», Antiquity, vol. 73, 1999, p. 155-61.

Walsh K., The archaeology of Mediterranean landscapes, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2013.


Professor, Palaeoenvironmental Laboratories University of Southampton (PLUS), Geography and Environment, University of Southampton, Southampton, UK (

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