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From the forest to the forge: charcoal production in northeastern France lowlands (XVII-XX centuries)


Wood was an essential source of energy in pre-industrial times for several activities ranging from domestic needs (e.g. cooking or heating) to production of goods such as glass or metal products. The exploitation of forest resources to produce charcoal, essential for high-temperature demands for metal smelting were widespread in forest areas all over Europe, leaving traces behind that can be studied today. These traces – charcoal kilns or charcoal production sites – contain the remnants of the use of wood for charcoal production and they can be analyzed to understand in which way the resources were used in the past. An interdisciplinary study is being conducted in Northeastern France lowlands in order to assess the extent of former charcoal production activities in the forest and the legacies left in the environment and in the landscape. The main goals of this study are: (1) quantification of the number of kilns in the area and their distribution, (2) taxonomic identification and dendrological evaluation of the taxa present in the charcoal assemblage, (3) pointing to a chronology of charcoal production, (4) propose a former structure and composition of the forest and (5) assess the legacies on the soil and forest massif resulting from the former resources’ exploitation. A forest area covering around 57km2 in Meuse (Grand Est, France) was investigated and more than 2600 kilns were detected through the analysis of LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) images. Along with the detection, more than 400 kilns were field-validated aiming to prove their correct detection in the images and, additionally, contribute to a robust dataset for automatic detection of charcoal kilns (Oliveira et al., submitted). Concerning the diversity of taxa used for charcoal production, a set of 48 kilns was analyzed. Small caliber Carpinus betulus (hornbeam) was the most frequent taxa observed, along with Fagus sylvatica (beech) and Corylus avellana (hazelnut tree). A set of radiocarbon dating was already performed and the results point to a large diachrony of charcoal production of over 300 years. The legacies on soils and forest structure and composition and vegetation dynamics connected to the presence of charcoal kilns are still being investigated where the impacts of these components within and outside of the charcoal kilns are being compared. The completion of the goals proposed for this study will allow a better understanding of the dynamics, changes and evolution of the resources’ exploitation, landscape and the legacies of charcoal production over space and time putting into perspective the sustainable use of wood in the era of energy transition.
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hal-03527738 , version 1 (18-01-2022)


  • HAL Id : hal-03527738 , version 1


Cláudia Oliveira, Jonathan Bouquerel, Xavier Rochel, Simon Devin, Vincent Robin. From the forest to the forge: charcoal production in northeastern France lowlands (XVII-XX centuries). DEEPSURF 2021 - Toward solutions for energy and ecological transition, Oct 2021, Nancy, France. ⟨hal-03527738⟩
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