From the appeal uttered by Victor Hugo in 1825 to the scandals that broke out in the 1960s, the need to protect France’s archaeological heritage has gradually made its way into the collective conscience. Afan — the French Association pour les Fouilles Archéologiques Nationales — was created in 1973, and carried out “rescue” excavations until the adoption of the current system of preventive archaeology in 2001.

Updated on
18 February 2019

The need to protect archaeological heritage was recognised late in the day in France. In 1941, the Carcopino Law (validated in 1945) established the authorisation and supervision of excavations by the State, and made the declaration of any fortuitous discoveries obligatory. 

After the Second World War, when land development projects were numerous, the destruction of archaeological remains without prior study proliferated. A series of scandals followed, leading in 1973 to the creation of Afan, the association (part of the Ministry of Culture) responsible for conducting rescue archaeology work. In 1997, the so-called “Rodez affair” revealed the limits of the legislation and funding system for rescue archaeology, as well as Afan’s dominant position as the State’s favoured operator, and a reform became necessary. Drawing on the Demoule-Pêcheur-Poignant report, and based on the European Convention signed in Malta in 1992, the law on preventive archaeology was enacted on January 17, 2001. The law introduced a tax to fund preventive evaluations and excavations, and stipulated the creation of Inrap, a public administration body. The same system remains in force today, although it was modified in 2003 and, more recently, in 2016 by the law on Creative Freedom, Architecture and Heritage.

Archaeology and heritage protection

In 1825, Victor Hugo, scandalised by the demolition of several mediaeval monuments, called for change in a now famous article: “Guerre aux démolisseurs!” (“War on the demolishers!”). Hugo’s appeal led to the creation of a service for protecting historic monuments.

In 1835, Prosper Mérimée was named General Inspector of Historic Monuments. For the first time, French archaeology now benefited from the concerted attention of the public powers. However, the law of December 31, 1913 did not cover the protection of non-monumental prehistoric and historic remains. Archaeological excavations were conducted by mutual agreement between the landowner and the excavator. In 1941, the Vichy regime enacted the first law on archaeological excavations, which was validated in 1945. This law required State authorisation to conduct excavations and made it obligatory to declare fortuitous discoveries. Nevertheless, archaeological interventions were still infrequent.

At the end of the 1960s, two scandals set developers against heritage defenders over the Parvis Notre-Dame in Paris and the Place de la Bourse in Marseille. The scientific community, associations and municipalities were alerted, leading to significant citizen mobilisation.

1973: creation of the French Association pour les Fouilles Archéologiques Nationales (Afan)

Afan, created in 1973, had two main responsibilities: to manage the budget allocations received from the Ministry of Culture for research and rescue excavations; and to carry out prescribed archaeological operations. From the outset, Afan played the crucial role of an intermediary with the State.

The system was based on negotiating the cost of excavations between the State, Afan and developers.

A French archaeological map was drawn up in 1974, and a response fund earmarked for rescue archaeology (Fias) was introduced, managed by Afan from 1977. The same year saw a further major change: the adoption of Article R. 111-3-2 of the Urban Planning Code, which allows planning permission to be refused “if the constructions are such that… they could compromise the preservation or development of an archaeological site or remains”. It is on the basis of this regulatory instrument that the different departments of the State develop rescue archaeology operations.

Finally, in 1979 the Sub-Directorate of Archaeology was created as part of the new Heritage Directorate at the Ministry of Culture, where it was given responsibility for “studying, protecting, preserving and promoting France’s archaeological heritage”. This date marks the definitive recognition of archaeology as an integral part of France’s national heritage.

From the Grand Louvre to the reform of Afan

In 1982, the State mandated Afan to carry out the excavations at the Grand Louvre site (the Louvre Pyramid), which had long been considered as the first major preventive archaeology operation. Afan was also entrusted with the management of the research excavations at Mont Beuvray and the organisation of the year of archaeology in 1989.

In 1990, the Ministry of Culture revised Afan’s statutes, resulting in an agreement signed by all the trade unions in 1993.

The birth of Inrap

The Rodez affair broke out in January 1997, when a developer laid waste to three-quarters of a Gallo-Roman site in the heart of the southern French city, an event that highlighted the weakness of the legislative framework and funding conditions.

Catherine Trautmann, the Minister of Culture and Communication, commissioned a working group in 1999 to consider the arguments that could form the basis for a new law. The group consisted of Jean-Paul Demoule (university professor), Bernard Pêcheur (Councillor of State) and Bernard Poignant (mayor of Quimper). Following lengthy parliamentary debate, the law on preventive archaeology was promulgated on January 17, 2001. Its legal foundation was the European Convention on the Protection of the Archaeological Heritage, signed in Malta on January 16, 1992.

The law introduced a tax designed to fund preventive archaeology evaluations and excavations. It also foresaw the creation of a public administrative body that would inherit the rights and obligations of Afan, which was dissolved. The Institut National de Recherches Archéologiques Préventives was established on February 1, 2002. Its personnel became contractual agents in the public sector.

Current legislative framework for preventive archaeology

The law of August 1, 2003 modified the system set up by the 2001 law while reaffirming the legitimacy of preventive archaeology and the role of Inrap. The State continues to play a central role via the Regional Archaeology Services, which prescribe excavations and evaluations, define scientific objectives, designate scientific directors and supervise the proper conduct of research. The funding system now includes a tax (known as the Redevance d’Archéologie Préventive) required for all development projects over 3,000 m2. The Fonds National d'Archéologie Préventive (Fnap) subsidises developers whose projects risk being compromised by the cost of excavations.

Archaeological evaluations, which are a public prerogative, are undertaken either by Inrap or an accredited local government service. For excavations, the law provides for open competition (accredited public and private operators). This work, for which the developer is the contracting authority, is subject to a contract or agreement with the chosen operator.

In 2016 the law on Creative Freedom, Architecture and Heritage (LCAP) of July 7 modified Book V of the Heritage Code devoted to archaeology.

LCAP strengthens the role played by the State, which exercises scientific control over operations and provides real scientific, technical, administrative and financial supervision of the preventive archaeology system.

The law also establishes a new unified system of ownership for archaeological material discovered following archaeological work or fortuitous discoveries, which are presumed to be the property of the State.

Refer to the legal definition of preventive archaeology

Article L.521-1 of the Heritage Code provides the legal definition of preventive archaeology: "Preventive archaeology, which falls within the remit of a public service, is an integral part of archaeology. It is governed by the principles applicable to all scientific research. Its purpose is to ensure, within an appropriate timeframe, the detection, conservation and safeguarding (on land and under water) by scientific study of archaeological heritage affected or likely to be affected by public or private developments. Its purpose is also to interpret and disseminate the results so obtained."

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