Tic-tac, le compte à rebours a démarré : la perte du patrimoine archéologique côtier des Petites Antilles françaises, entre urgence et stratégie - Université de Rennes Access content directly
Conference Papers Year : 2024

Tick tock, the countdown has started: the loss of the coastal archaeological heritage of the French West Indies, between emergency and strategy

Tic-tac, le compte à rebours a démarré : la perte du patrimoine archéologique côtier des Petites Antilles françaises, entre urgence et stratégie


The coastline regression process linked with coastal erosion is an active phenomenon of great magnitude in the French West Indies where recent studies based on the analysis of historical aerial photographs indicate a decrease of the beaches that can reach 0.5 to 2 m per year. The impact is even more pronounced because of the insular context where the coastal line is over-represented: 250 m of coastline per km² of territory in Guadeloupe against 11 m per km² in mainland France. Moreover, the archaeological sites are particularly concerned in the West Indies as past occupations are distributed for the most part on the coastal fringe. This is shown by the 5000 years of Amerindian chronology, during which open-air camps, villages and specialized sites have always been associated with the exploitation of marine resources: thus 47 % of the pre-Columbian occupations are located at less than 100 m of the coastline. During the colonial period, even if the affinity with the coastline seems less definite in (18% of the sites are less than 100 m from the coastline), mainly because of the development of intensive farming, the coastline remains a privileged location for the settlement of populations. Given the commercial exchanges and a confrontational situation between the colonial countries, cities, ports, industrial and military facilities were in development. In addition, these spaces received many slave cemeteries which today have a memorial value that strongly resonates with the feelings of the populations. A recent evaluation conducted in Guadeloupe shows that about 160 sites out of the 779 identified on the coasts, i.e. 20%, are affected, to varying degrees, by erosive risks. At least 14 of them are in a critical situation with a strong risk of destruction in the short term. The article highlights the multifactorial nature of coastal erosion, which depends not only on the nature of the exposed substrate, with sandy soils common in the West Indies being the most sensitive, but also the diversity of phenomena at work. The effects of some of them are increasing in the context of global climate change: global rise in sea level, currently estimated by the IPCC to be at least 3 mm per year; frequency of hurricanes; weakening of coral reefs’ protections due to the bleaching of corals as a result of the warming of marine waters. Land and coastal development, aggravated by tourism, also contributes to the destabilization of coastal sedimentary masses. This is generated by a weakening of the stabilizing role of vegetation due to soil artificialization; by disturbances associated with harbors and river workings, and sometimes even with structures created to fight against erosion; and by an excessive use of beaches leading to the disappearance of protective coastal vegetation. Some factors of erosion, previously predominant, fortunately recently disappeared such as the extraction of sand for construction purposes, the extraction of coral for the manufacture of lime and the deforestation of mangroves for the manufacture of charcoal. The threat of loosing this heritage, makes the challenge not an easy one. Two main solutions have already been implemented by the French State services in charge of the management of archaeology: on the one hand, the physical protection of sites by measures which help limiting or slowing down erosion; and on the other hand, the deep study of the sites before their destruction by erosion, notably through archaeological excavations. The need to preserve the archaeological heritage of the West Indies coastlines has led us to carry out several kinds of actions, which should all be reinforced: 1. monitoring and evaluation of coastal erosion and its impact on archaeological sites, in order to anticipate threats and prioritize specific interventions. This approach is based on three types of actions: systematic surveys, collection of testimonies, in particular with the ALOA project requesting public participation, and monitoring techniques by satellite imagery or other advanced methods 2. surveys and test pits allowing to characterize the scientific and cultural relevance of the threatened sites 3. archaeological excavation, that means safeguarding by studying, of the most exposed sites 4. as a last solution: physical protection of the sites by in situ consolidation engineering The preservation of coastal archaeological sites is actually difficult to manage because of sometimes not well adapted regulatory and financial procedures . Indeed, French laws, in application of the heritage code, provide for the financing of preventive archaeology by the developers (according to a "destroyer-payer" principle), but do not offer similar dispositions in cases where the sites are destroyed by natural agents (no specific developer). In this case, the setting up of financial solutions in order to put up emergency interventions is currently a case-by-case process, under the responsibility of the French State and the local authorities. A more regular way of financing - i.e. through a tax-supported fund - will probably be necessary to be able to respond to this challenge of preserving the coastal archaeological heritage.
La remontée en cours du niveau marin, l’augmentation de la fréquence d’évènements cycloniques majeurs, la destruction des barrières coralliennes, l’aménagement du littoral corrélé à l'augmentation du tourisme, sont autant de facteurs qui aggravent l’érosion littorale et menacent dramatiquement le patrimoine archéologique côtier des Petites Antilles, notamment dans les territoires français d’Amérique qui nous intéressent ici. L’impact est d’autant plus conséquent dans ce contexte insulaire que l’occupation du territoire y est répartie de façon majoritaire sur la frange littorale comme en témoignent les 5000 ans de la chronologie amérindienne, où campements de plein air, villages et sites spécialisés ont été de tout temps associés à l’exploitation des ressources marines. Les quelques siècles du développement tardif de la période coloniale ont quant à eux généré sur le littoral des installations portuaires, industrielles, militaires et de l’habitat, mais aussi de nombreux cimetières à forte valeur mémorielle. Face à cette menace deux principales solutions ont d’ores et déjà été mise en œuvre par les services de l’État en charge de la gestion de l’archéologie : d’une part la protection physique des sites par des aménagements limitant ou ralentissant l’érosion, et d’autre part leur étude, notamment par la fouille archéologique. Il s’avère en outre qu’une réflexion sur une stratégie globale de sauvegarde devient incontournable car les interventions d’urgence sont bien souvent difficiles à mettre en œuvre dans des délais et des coûts optimaux.
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Dates and versions

hal-04253149 , version 1 (22-10-2023)


  • HAL Id : hal-04253149 , version 1


Christian Stouvenot, Dominique Bonnissent, Marie-Yvane Daire, Elias Lopez-Romero, Nathalie Serrand. Tic-tac, le compte à rebours a démarré : la perte du patrimoine archéologique côtier des Petites Antilles françaises, entre urgence et stratégie. Archaeology of coastal settlements and human/environment interactions in the Atlantic north of the Equator / Archéologie des peuplements littoraux et des interactions Homme/Milieu en Atlantique nord équateur, HOMER 2021, Catherine Dupont; Anna Baudry; Marie-Yvane Daire, Sep 2021, Oléron, France. ⟨hal-04253149⟩
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