Before the construction of the Seine-North of Europe waterway under the technical direction of the Voies navigables de France, and curated by the State (Drac), the French National Institute of Archaeological Research (Inrap) is carrying out a programme of archaeological evaluations, the most extensive at present in Europe.

Last modified
23 January 2017

This research operation is exceptional for the number of people involved and the means employed. It has already provided remarkable results from the first 900 hectares that have been probed.

The Seine-North Europe waterway

Le canal Seine-Nord Europe
The construction of this waterway between Compiègne and Aubencheul-au-Bac,  will open the route for large barges from the River Seine to the River Scheldt crossing 66 communes of the Oise, Somme, Pas-de-Calais and Nord departments. 
106 kilometres long, the waterway and its installations will cover about 2 500 hectares, an average of 25 hectares per kilometre, allowing the identification of archaeological sites in a complete way. The waterway will include 7 locks, three canal viaducts and 59 road and rail bridges. 

Archaeological Evaluations of 2500 hectares

Archaeological evaluations are being carried out before the construction of this waterway to identify any traces of human occupation. The identification and dating of any archaeological sites will be made possible through the use of mechanical probes covering about 10% of the surface involved.  
The archaeological operation on the Seine-North Europe waterway is exceptionally important, and includes the main route of the canal, the water storage reservoirs the multimodal platforms for connecting with other means of transport and depot zones. 

Exceptional means

At the moment 7 teams of archaeologists are working on the 1 350 hectares of the present section and have already probed 900 hectares. The site will mobilize more than 50 archaeologists during 28 months, until the end of 2010, totalling 15 000 work days and a provisional budget estimated at 10 million  €, financed principally by the preventive archaeology dues paid by the Voies navigables de France. This site will employ important financial operational means (4.1 million €, of which 3.1 million  € for the mechanical means).

A specific methodology

To reach archaeological remains just below the surface (30 to 50 centimetres deep) 180 horse power hydraulic shovels with non-dented buckets 3 metres wide are used to dig long trenches, under the control of the site director, and helped by technicians. The progression rhythm is about a hectare a day for each machine. The probes are filled in again as soon as the findings have been recorded.

To reach more ancient deposits buried as deep as 14 metres in lœss accumulations, those windblown deposits that characterise the plains of northern France, probes in wells are made.  Put into operation on the Seine-Nord Europe waterway, this method resorted to the use of "giraffe power shovels” with long arms to reach Palaeolithic sites.  For this project Inrap created a security system constituted of a walkway-balcony, enabling observation and a secure stratographic summary,  and of a triptych cover protecting the well opening at the end of the day.  Their combined use is a methodological innovation considerably facilitating and accelerating the  evaluations.  

Lastly the deposits of the small valleys and the main bed of the River Oise will also be expertised by geomorphologists, archaeologists using mechanical shovels. This type of substratum containing organic elements well kept in these humid environments. 

An archaeological research centre has been installed in an ancient farm building at Croix-Moligneaux (Somme). Situated midway on the route of the waterway, it accommodates personnel of coordination and the archaeological field teams. 

First results

Previous observations and ancient research established that the archaeological potential was considerable.  Now that a third of the plots have been evaluated, more than a hundred sites have been discovered, covering periods from the Middle Palaeolithic period to the Middle Ages. 
For example, over the 150 hectares of the future harbour zone of Marquion, Inrap archaeologists have identified several very well preserved settlements from the end of the Neolithic period (3rd millennium BC). 
The Bronze Age is present in Marquion through several funerary monuments, circular tumulus enclosures, the largest of which has a diameter of more than 40 metres. There also, remains of contemporary dwellings of this period have been registered in many places.  
Several agricultural buildings, an aristocratic funerary monument, cemeteries and roads have been dated from the Iron Age.  
A Gallo-Roman villa, more than 200m long and 100m large, with its baths has been brought to light. 

In several instances the project traverses First World War battlefields. Faced with such dangers and risks, special security measures have been put in place with the help of the SÈcuritÈ Civile. At the end of August, over the 850 hectares that have been evaluated, 45 interventions have been carried out by the mine clearance unit of the SÈcuritÈ Civile, following the discovery of 385 mortars, 1 landmine, 3 rockets, 47 hand-grenades, a 1 crate of cartridges, representing a total of 6 tonnes of munitions. 

Scientific expectations

In a second phase the excavations will be curated by the Prefect of the Region so that the first results may be examined in more detail. These excavations will be financed by the VNF. There where no excavations have been curated, the data of the evaluations will be the only information collected on the sites.  
Researches over these large surfaces bring fundamental discoveries and as yet unpublished data  concerning human occupation and the evolutions of the landscape and could well reveal the presence of settlements of  Neanderthal Man. 
Developer : Voies navigables de France
Scientific control : Regional Archaeological  Services  (DRAC Picardie et DRAC Nord-Pas-de-Calais)
Site director : Marc Talon, Inrap
Contact(s) :

Mahaut Tyrrell
Media communication 
Inrap, media partnerships and relations department 
+33 (0)1 40 08 80 24 
mahaut.tyrrell [at]

Elisabeth Justome
chargée du développement culturel et de la communication
Inrap, Nord-Picardie
03 22 33 40 54
elisabeth.justome [at]">elisabeth.justome [at]