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Excavation in Southern France Reveals 19th-Century Convent with Innovative Architecture to Combat Frequent Flooding

An excavation team in southern France has uncovered the remains of a 19th-century Romanesque convent beside the modern Sainte-Marie abbey church, a finding that helps illuminate the region’s history of natural disasters, according to a report in the French newspaper Le Figaro

The digging operation began last November in the Cruas, a commune near the Rhône River in France’s Ardèche region, as part of a project to transform a cluster of homes into a public space. But the team soon discovered buried in the ground evidence of innovative medieval masonry for a convent complex, the foundations of which had been reused for the now demolished homes. The newly founded convent structure is marked by architectural strategies intended to mitigate the impact of the frequent flooding of the area’s nearby streams, whose inevitable volatility necessitated regular reconstruction and clearing until around 1875 when mass efforts in Cruas were undertaken to regulate the streams’ flow and course.

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An investigation upstream by the French National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (Inrap) found in the cellars of dwellings stonework designed to elevate the foundation of a structure that, most likely, served as an access point to the abbey. The development of flood levels was evidently integrated into most buildings. Archaeologists from Inrap are in the process of carbon-14 dating the site, a process which determines the age of objects that contain organic materials. 

Even barring the architectural discoveries, the site is a rich repository of  history. The monastic Sainte-Marie complex was built in the 11th century, on the site of an older early Christian structure, which was itself constructed atop the ruins of an ancient Roman domus, or a type of upper-class townhouse. The abbey eventually fell into ruin amid the Crusades, a series of religious wars that spanned nearly 500 years. 

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