The incredible story of a geography map engraved in the Bronze Age in Finistère

The decorated slab of Saint-Bélec forms a homogeneous composition with covering engravings, identical in technique and style, forming an inseparable whole.  There is a repetition of patterns (cups, geometric shapes), linked together by a network of lines.  These elements allow, according to researchers, to recognize a cartographic document.

The history of science counts many Sleeping Beauty, stars seized on the photographic plate of an observatory but spotted decades later, or specimens waiting patiently, in the more or less dusty reserves of some museum, to be identified as representatives of a new species. Archeology also has its share of delayed discoveries, as evidenced by a study published Tuesday, April 6 in the Bulletin of the French Prehistoric Society. According to its authors, an engraved slab dating from the Bronze Age, unearthed more than a century ago, fallen into oblivion, lost and then found, could well be the oldest cartographic representation made in Europe.

“Let us not be led astray by fantasy, leaving it to a Champollion, who may one day find himself, to read it to us” Paul du Chatellier

Let’s go back in the labyrinth of time, in the year 1900 when the Breton prehistorian Paul du Chatellier (1833-1911) excavated, in the Finistère countryside, in the town of Leuhan, the tumulus known as Saint-Bélec. Dating back to the Old Bronze Age (between 1900 and 1650 BC), this vast burial mound 40 meters in diameter and 2 meters high had remained inviolate. At its heart, the tomb takes the form of an imposing stone chest of which a strange engraved slab forms one of the walls without this probably being its primary destination. This block of schist 2.20 meters long, 1.53 meters wide and 16 centimeters thick weighs a ton and a half but Paul du Chatellier has it extracted from the tumulus with prehistoric methods – ramp, logs and about fifteen pairs of arms to tow it – and install it in his mansion at Pont-l’Abbé in August 1900.

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Engraved slab of Saint-Bélec in Leuhan, in Finistère.  General view of the slab after restoration in 1901. Engraved slab of Saint-Bélec in Leuhan, in Finistère.  General view of the slab after restoration in 1901.


The following year, he evokes his discovery in two publications and does not hide his perplexity in front of the curious engravings of the slab of Saint-Bélec, its straight lines and its curves, its circles, its pear or potato-shaped patterns. as well as its multiple cups, small circular or oval depressions carved into the stone. He ends his description as follows: “Let us not be led astray by fantasy, leaving it to a Champollion, who will perhaps find himself one day, to read it to us. “

As archeology today is essentially multidisciplinary, there will not be one Champollion, but several, in this case the team that Yvan Pailler and Clément Nicolas have gathered around them. The first holds the chair in Maritime Archeology and Interdisciplinary Environmental Research (University of Western Brittany / National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research) and the second, postdoctoral fellow at the University of Bournemouth (United Kingdom). “We did our theses ten years apart, says Yvan Pailler. We we both saw the reproduction of the slab of Saint-Bélec and we had the same thought: it seems to be a map. “

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