A piece of rock with mysterious markings that has lain largely unstudied for 4,000 years is now being hailed as a “treasure map” for archaeologists who are using it to hunt for ancient sites around northwestern France.
The so-called Saint-Belec slab was found at the site of a tomb and claimed to be Europe’s oldest known map by researchers in 2021, and they have been working ever since to understand its etchings – both to help them date the plate and to rediscover lost monuments.
Ancient sites are more commonly revealed by sophisticated radar equipment or aerial photography, or by accident in cities when foundations for new buildings are dug.
“It’s a treasure map,” Pailler said.
But the team has only just begun their treasure hunt.
The old map marks an area of approximately 30 by 21 kilometers and Pailler’s colleague, Clement Nicolas from CNRS research institute, said they would have to monitor the entire territory and cross-reference the markings on the plate. That job could take 15 years, he said.
“Symbols that made sense immediately”
Nicolas and Pailler were part of the team that rediscovered the plaque in 2014 – it was originally uncovered in 1900 by a local historian who did not understand its significance.
At the time, more than a dozen workers were needed to move the heavy slab out of the mound, where it had been used to form a wall of a large coffin, according to National Archaeological Museum. It has been stored in the museum’s collections since 1924.
A broken ceramic vessel, characteristic of Early Bronze Age pottery, was also found with the plate, according to French Prehistoric Society.
The French experts were joined by colleagues from other institutions in France and abroad as they began to decipher its mysteries.
“There were a few engraved symbols that made sense right away,” Pailler said.
In the rough bumps and lines on the plate, they could see the rivers and mountains of Roudouallec, part of the Brittany region about 500 kilometers west of Paris. The researchers scanned the plate and compared it to current maps and found a match of about 80%.
“We still need to identify all the geometric symbols, the legend that goes with them,” Nicolas said.
The slab is filled with tiny depressions that researchers believe may point to burial mounds, dwellings or geological deposits. Discovering their significance can lead to a whole stream of new discoveries.
But first, the archaeologists have spent the last few weeks digging at the site where the slab was originally uncovered, which Pailler said was one of the largest Bronze Age burial sites in Brittany.
“We’re trying to contextualize the discovery better, to have a way to date the plate,” Pailler said.
Their latest dig has already turned up a handful of previously undiscovered fragments from the slab.
The pieces had apparently been broken off and used as a burial wall in what Nicolas suggests could signify the changing power dynamics of Bronze Age settlements.
The area covered by the map probably corresponds to an ancient kingdom, perhaps one that collapsed in rebellion and rebellion.
“The engraved plate no longer made sense and was doomed to be broken up and used as building material,” Nicolas said.