archaeologists are trying to unravel the mystery of Europe’s oldest map

Engraved on a tablet 4,000 years ago, the map was rediscovered in 2014 after being lost for several decades.

The engraved plate of Saint-Bélec is considered to be the oldest cartographic representation of the territory in Europe.  Archives Finistère, April 7, 2021. (ANNEX / ARCHIVES OF THE DEPARTMENT OF FINISTERE)

How to decipher the Saint-Bélec plate? Archaeologists have launched new excavations in Finistère to try to unravel the mystery of this block of slate, engraved 4,000 years ago, believed to be the oldest map of the territory in Europe.

“We are trying to better contextualize the discovery, have dating elements and check if there are any fragments left”explains archaeologist Yvan Pailler, professor at the University of Western Brittany (UBO), at the Saint-Bélec mound excavation site in Leuhan (Finistère), in the Breton Black Mountains.

Compare with current maps

It was while excavating this tomb that Paul du Châtellier (1833-1911) discovered a slab engraved in 1900 before it fell into oblivion for more than a century. “Let us not be carried away by fancy, and leave it to Champollion, who may one day be found to read it to us.”The archaeologist then wrote in reference to Jean-François Champollion, famous for deciphering the hieroglyphs.

Yvan Pailler and Clément Nicolas (CNRS researcher) have already partially carried out this decipherment work since the tablet was found in 2014 in the cellar of the National Archaeological Museum (MAN) in Saint-Germain.-en-Laye (Yvelines).

From the beginning, “several symbols were engraved that immediately made sense”like the Odet valley, a coastal river, recalls Yvan Pailler.

To confirm their initial intuition, the two researchers had a 3D scan of this 2.20m x 1.53m block to compare it to current maps using a statistical method. The similarity of the plate with the current topography reaches 80%. “We have identified the hydrographic network, the relief of the Black Mountains”explains Clément Nicolas. “We still need to identify all the symbols of the geometric shapes, the legend attached to them, the paths…”continues.

“Treasure map”

The most mysterious symbols are these numerous small domes, circular depressions 1 to 10 mm in diameter, through which the slab is pierced, which could represent mounds, dwellings or even geological deposits. We will have to “explore territory” For “identify the pages that are shown on the map”, emphasizes Clément Nicolas. The work that will be “It will take us a good fifteen years”he said.

“Starting on a map and trying to find archaeological sites is a great approach. We never work like that.”smiles Yvan Pailler. “It’s a treasure map.

This step, taken from aerial views or on foot, will provide definitive evidence of the topographical character of the engravings. But also to date the map more precisely. “Dating these sites will give us a range for dating the carvings“, emphasizes Clément Nicolas.

During work carried out this fall, excavators discovered a flint arrowhead in the Saint-Bélec mound, “one of the largest Bronze Age tombs in Brittany”according to Yvan Pailler.

Broken fragments

They also excavated five new engraved fragments from a slab that had been broken before it was reused as a tomb wall. This reuse could be a sign of a change in power at the end of the Early Bronze Age in Brittany.

A cadastre of real estate and a sign of authority over the territory, the engraved plate would represent a territory 30 km long and 21 km wide and would be contemporary with these princes of Armorica, ruling over “Little Kingdoms Without Writing” very centralized, according to Clément Nicolas.

These “all powerful elites” have “maybe it was overturned” AND “the engraved map no longer had any meaning and was doomed by being broken up to serve as building material“, he suggests.

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