Risk and Marginality at High Altitudes: New Interpretations from Fieldwork on the Faravel Plateau, Hautes-Alpes

Article excerpt


This paper summarises a sequence of settlement over nine millennia at high altitude in the French Alps. Such regions are often considered marginal and the possibilities of living there must have been determined by climate and the consequent local environment. It would be logical to suppose that as climate improved or deteriorated, so settlement waxed and waned. The sequence obtained in the study area considered here certainly fluctuated in intensity between the Mesolithic period and the later Middle Ages, but not in harmony with the climate. The variation in activity can be better explained by changes in the perception of the relative importance of the risks and hazards present in this milieu. Whilst we can identify a set of physical risks or hazards (extreme variation in weather, landslides, dangerous topography, long distances from centres of occupation and support), the relative importance attached to these risks differed for each generation. Consecutive peoples found that they could or could not cope with the altitude depending on a wide range of other factors. In brief, they were exercising a kind of risk management.


Despite the fact that research informed by archaeological fieldwork on specific periods or themes has taken place in a number of alpine landscapes (Bailly-Maitre 1996; Bailly-Maitre & Bruno Dupraz 1994; Barge-Mahieu et al. 1998; Bintz 1999a; Della Casa 1999, 2000; Fedele 1992), no one as yet has taken an explicitly diachronic approach to the investigation of a specific high-altitude landscape, where changes in activity in one clearly defined space over the Holocene can be assessed. The present results are based on five years' fieldwork (which included surface inspection, excavation and paleoecological sampling) on the plateau of Faravel situated between 2200 and 2400m above the upper Durance in the French Alps (Figure 1). The commune of Freissinieres in which it lies comprises a 20km long hanging valley, the entrance to which lies on the western side of the Durance River. The valley is delimited by a series of peaks, some of which reach an altitude of 3200m (Figure 2). Much of the commune's land comprises steep mountainsides, plateaux and lakes. The slopes are usually afforested up to about 2000m (the present tree line). Many of the lower south-facing slopes comprise grassland and are often employed as pasture. The decision to focus on the Faravel plateau, and the immediately adjacent areas, allowed us to build up a sequence in one place, discovering new sites each summer, and so produce a precise image of changing phases of human activity. The absence on the plateau of large-scale construction, or destructive agricultural practices, combined with a relatively stable flat land surface protected from erosion, has resulted in an island of archaeological survival. The area thus provides an almost pristine record of human activity since the departure of the glaciers.


Fieldwork began in 1998. A team of five professional archaeologists and five students covered a total area of about 30 [km.sup.2] over a period of three weeks, the extreme topography confining us to areas adjacent to footpaths and any open spaces within the valley. This survey was immediately followed by the sampling of three 'promising' sites at 2200m asl (Figures 3 and 4). During the following four years, eight other sites, ranging from a Mesolithic flint scatter, through to medieval stone-built structures, were sample-excavated on the plateau. Meanwhile, more surface scatters of lithic material were added to the inventory. Analysis of the artefacts and the charcoal found on the sites together with palynological evidence from the immediate region has provided a sequence of climatic and settlement data from the Mesolithic to the Middle Ages (Figure 4 and see below). The results also draw on the work of our 'sister' project in neighbouring Champsaur (an area directly to the southwest of Freissinieres) (Figure 1). …