The Saint-Bélec Slab: Europe’s oldest map unearthed in France

An old map carved in stone and dating back to the Bronze Age is now proven to be Europe’s oldest map. The map is a stone slab engraved with lines and intricate motifs. Researchers re-examined the stone slab using high-resolution 3D surveys and photogrammetry, including other broken stones discovered in the 1900s and forgotten for a century. 

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Researchers at Inrap (the French National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research), CNRS (French National Center for Scientific Research), Bournemouth University (UK), and the University at Western Brittany. The study shows that the stone is the oldest cartographic representation of known territorial Europe. 

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The slab was unearthed from burial mounds in western Brittany and comprises intricate carvings with scattered mosaics. It was used in ancient burial rites towards the end of the Early Bronze Age. This is between 1900 and 1640 BCE where it formed the wall of a coffin-like box with human remains. At the point of excavation, this 12.7-foot-long slab was broken and missed its upper part. 

In 1900 it was moved to the private museum then stored in one of the castle moat niches of Saint-Germain-en-Laye. The slab was then acquired by France's Museum of National Antiquities back in 1924. In 2014, it was again rediscovered in one of the museum’s cellars.   

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An examination of engravings on the slab using 3D surveying and photogrammetry was done in 2017 by a group of European researchers. The process involved analyzing objects using detailed photographs. The map possessed line carvings resembling a map with repeated motifs joined by lines. Its surface was deliberately 3D shaped to represent a valley with lines on the stone depicting a river network. The team observed similarities between the engravings and elements of this landscape in Western Brittany. The territory on the slab represented an actual region of 19 miles by 13 miles along the Odet river.    

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The age Bronze age dates between 2150-1600 BCE. It also indicates some signs of reuse at the Saint-Belec burial site in 1900-1640 BCE. The central motif was interpreted as an enclosure symbol suggesting that the center of the territory existed within the three river springs, the Isole, the Odet, and the Stêr Laër. 

According to Clément Nicolas a study author from Bournemouth University, the map was likely used by a Bronze Age prince or King to mark its ownership over a certain area. It is believed that the area most likely marks a political entity controlled by strong hierarchical political entities that control some part during the early Bronze Age. Given it was buried, this could have marked the end of their reign or rejection of the elites by the masses at that time.  

The findings of the study on the stone map were published in a French journal

Source: LiveScience

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