The purpose of preventive archaeology is to detect and undertake the scientific study of archaeological remains (on land and under water) that might otherwise be destroyed by land development work. Following a decision made by the State, archaeologists from Inrap intervene on a site in order to safeguard its archaeological heritage.

Updated on
23 May 2017

Every year, hundreds of square kilometres are affected by land development projects (such as quarries, earthmoving, roads and railways, and private and public buildings) that may result in the destruction of the deposits hidden in the subsoil. Preventive archaeology, which analyses around 20% of this total area, preserves the soil archives by means of scientific study.


Vues générales du chantier.

© Philippe Haut, Inrap

Over the past thirty or so years, thousands of sites have been excavated, investigated and compared in urban and rural areas across France. The sum of the information gleaned from these excavations has profoundly enriched our knowledge of the past.

These archaeological activities, known as “rescue archaeology” since they lacked a legal basis until 2001, are now defined as “preventive archaeology”. The law on preventive archaeology of January 17, 2001 provides for advanced archaeological interventions on development sites for the purpose of evaluation and (if necessary) excavation. In other words, development work is no longer undertaken at the expense of the remains from the past; on the contrary, such work enables these vestiges to be studied in depth.

New knowledge

Traces of the past can be found across Europe. On the proposed route of a TGV line, for example, there is an average of one site per kilometre. Preventive archaeology studies the soil archives, thereby promoting joined-up economic development that avoids destroying historical remains and the knowledge they provide.

Our approach to the Palaeolithic and Neolithic periods, as well as the Metal Ages, has been revised as a result of the extent of the studied areas and the importance of the archaeological remains uncovered. The large amount of data now available, especially on the Romanisation of Gaul and the early Middle Ages, often serves as an invaluable complement to written records.

A holistic approach to societies and regions

Archaeology is not about looking for masterpieces or remarkable monuments; its aim is to understand historical regions and societies using the signs preserved in the ground, from the earliest traces of human activity in the Palaeolithic age — at least 500,000 years ago — to the present day.

This holistic approach is based on studying the technologies, lifestyles, and social and political relations of yesteryear as well as the settlement process. It also helps us to understand changes in climate, vegetation and landscape.

Preventive archaeology: on behalf of the general public

Preventive archaeology, which is closely related to regional planning, affects every developer, every elected representative and every citizen. It contextualises both the particular and the general, together with local history and wider history, endeavouring to answer fundamental questions about humankind and our origins, history and values.

Preventive archaeology, which is both a human and social science, discloses the heterogeneity of the human groups that have populated France, the way they have shaped our landscape, and their ability to integrate and innovate. It also lays bare the common cultural substratum that is formed and transformed over time.

In addition, preventive archaeology sheds light on how space is managed, the evolution of town planning and the environment, as well as ethnic, cultural and religious differences.

Preventive or research archaeology?

Unlike preventive archaeology, which only intervenes upstream of development schemes, research archaeology is a scientific project that is independent of such work.

The archaeologists at Inrap collaborate in research programmes run by other institutions, such as universities or CNRS.