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Archaeologists Race To Save History From Channel Tunnel Bulldozers

March 28, 1988

FRETHUN, France (AP) _ A dozen French archaeologists are racing against a swarm of bulldozers in this coastal village, trying to save precious history before it is churned to pieces by construction of the tunnel under the English Channel.

In reality, the race already is lost. According to the building schedule, only six months remain for the historians to save what they can from sites containing vestiges of paleolithic, neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Gallo- Roman, Merovingian and Medieval cultures.

Sites that normally would take years to excavate are being dug and studied in two months. The meticulous preparation through library and archives research is being put off until later. The focus is entirely on the ground, soon to be churned and destroyed.

″We know what we can’t do,″ said Jean-Claude Routier, chief of one crew working at a site on a chalk hill containing the remains of an 11th century church and an earlier burial ground. ″We select. We are starting to get used to the pressure.″

A colleague, Jean-Pierre Jorrand, uncovering a nearby Gallo-Roman site, said ″we stress recovering knowledge over artifacts.″

President Francois Mitterrand of France and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Britain signed an accord in January 1986 for the construction of a rail tunnel for trains to carry freight, motor vehicles and passengers in both directions. It is scheduled for completion by 1993 at an estimated cost of about $8 billion, making it the largest privately financed building project ever attempted.

Though completion is still five years away, by September the earthmovers will have torn into the entire 2,200-acre area that will be the train terminal on the French side.

The $442,000 budget for the archaeological excavations is provided jointly by the French Culture Ministry, the Anglo-French Eurotunnel building consortium, the state-run French railroad and local and regional governments.

″It’s difficult for an archaeologist to work so fast,″ says Luc Vallin, conservator of antiquities and prehistory in the Nord-Pas de Calais region of northern France as well as field director here. ″It’s really rescue archaeology.″

The historians started working on an archaeological report in the autumn of 1985, before the tunnel accord was signed. The report was completed in March 1986, but archaeological work was delayed while a financing agreement was worked out.

Prospecting for potential digging sites began, with money advanced by Eurotunnel, in September 1986, even before the budget agreement was reached. Aerial surveys were made. Mechanical shovels dug swaths across the ground in areas of potential archaeological value.

Twenty sites were selected.

Some excavation began in June 1987, but work really didn’t get moving strongly until December.

″At one site, if we could have excavated it completely, we could have reconstructed entire Gaullish houses,″ said Vallin. ″As it was, we had to content ourselves with what could be saved.″

Archaeologists know very little about the Gallo-Roman era in this region, roughly from Boulogne to the Belgian border. Rural life in the medieval period also is a subject of great interest.

″Perhaps it’s in the medieval period that we are finding the most exciting material, and in protohistory,″ the Bronze and Iron ages, Vallin said.

The biggest problem, apart from time, is personnel.

″At some sites, we could have used 20 people for a year instead of three for two months,″ Vallin said.

Relations with the tunnel builders have been fairly good, even if they sometimes push a little hard. The archaeologists and the construction men meet once a week to discuss schedules.

The vast range of history covered by the digs requires a wide range of talent. Most of the archaeologists are contract workers hired for a limited time, usually according to their speciality.

″From an educational point of view, I am a prehistorian,″ Vallin said. ″But I have learned a lot about the Roman and medieval periods.″

Sitting on the chalk hill surveying the remains of a medieval church and nearby structures, crew chief Routier was preparing to move on after 2 1/2 months at the site.

″It would be interesting to dig up all the graves to study the methods of the period,″ he said. ″It’s all going to disappear with the bulldozers.″

Even so, Vallin and the others said, without the tunnel project, it’s likely the sites would not have been tapped at all because of lack of funding.

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