“Exceptional” archaeological discoveries in the strikes of the Loire

They have not yet pierced all the secrets but are already judging their discoveries “exceptional”. Since August 16, around thirty archaeologists from the National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (Inrap) have invested the shores of the Loire, near Ancenis (Loire-Atlantique). Their mission: to carry out excavations to better understand life on the river in past centuries. “It’s a race against time before the floods return, confirms Denis Fillon, delegate to the management of Inrap in the Pays de la Loire and scientific manager of the sites. But the dry summer and the low flow of the river allowed us to work much longer than we would have hoped. »

These excavations are part of major works planned on a portion of 85 kilometers between Nantes and Les Ponts-de-Cé (Maine-et-Loire). “We are going to restore a more natural dynamic to the Loire, which was very developed and corseted in the last century”, says Séverine Gagnol, Loire manager at Voies navigables de France (VNF). After three years of diagnosis, three excavation sites have been identified by Inrap: the Poulas, Coton and aux Moines islands. “It’s quite extraordinary to discover remains of such quality in such a small space”, greets archaeologist Anne Hoyau-Berry, her skin tanned from weeks of work outside.

Well-preserved shipwrecks

With her team, she brought to light a dozen shipwrecks from the 17th and 18th centuries near Coton Island, in the town of Orée d’Anjou (Maine-et-Loire). These flat-bottomed boats were used to transport raw materials (wood, stones, slates, sand), salt or wine. Very worn, they were filled with stones and installed on the side to create solid riprap. “We don’t yet know if it was dykes or a port, but this mixture of stones and wood was particularly resistant to the current”, continues the archaeologist. Samples were taken to identify the origin of the wood and the shipyard where they were made.

Underwater excavations have uncovered a wreck that is even better preserved than the previous ones, as it is permanently submerged. “We have a somewhat carnal contact with the wood, admits Anne Hoyau-Berry, who dived more than two meters under the Loire to observe the wreck. It is a very soft material from which we want to get as much information as possible, out of respect for our ancestors. »

A “big step forward”

On Poulas Island, located this time in the commune of Mauges-sur-Loire (Maine-et-Loire), archaeologists have gone back even further in the past, revealing three fixed fisheries from the 12th century, made of stones and wooden stakes, to catch fish going upstream (salmons) and going down (eels). Properties of the local lords and ecclesiastics, they made it possible to respect the very many “lean days” then imposed by the Church. Then the archaeologists found two large dykes made of fagots, fascines (tangled branches) and stones, to accommodate mill-boats with large paddle wheels.

“We knew of their existence thanks to the archives, but this is the first time that we have had these constructions before our eyes, enthuses Denis Fillon, who has been surveying the shores of the Loire for thirty years. This is a big step forward in understanding the development of the Loire in the Middle Ages. » These vestiges confirm in any case that the river welcomed, at that time, many activities: fishing, milling, transport of goods. “We are far from the image of the wild river! », smiled the archaeologist. At the end of this excavation campaign, all the sites will be backfilled and left in their initial state. The swans and other birds of the Loire will then be able to take possession of the premises.


Inrap, at the service of preventive archeology

Preventive archeology aims to ensure, on land and under water, the detection and scientific study of remains likely to be destroyed by work related to land development.

Established in 2002, Inrap, headquartered in Paris, has eight regional and interregional directorates, as well as 43 archaeological research centres.

In 2021, it carried out 2,019 terrestrial and underwater diagnoses, 217 excavations and 452 scientific publications. It organized 345 site visits which brought together 18,000 visitors.

Inrap’s budget is 189 million euros.

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