The Saint-Bélec Slab: The Oldest Map in Europe | History Hit

The Saint-Bélec Slab: The Oldest Map in Europe

Dan Snow

13 Oct 2021
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The Saint-Bélec slab viewed from the bottom right corner.
Image Credit: Denis Glicksman, Inrap

A large slab of stone covered in some random markings has been revealed to be far more than just another old rock. At some 4,000 years old, it might just be the oldest map ever discovered in Europe. Almost two metres square, one side of the slab is rough, whilst the other is covered in what had seemed to be an unusual collection of drawings and lines carved into the surface.

But archaeologists have analysed the stone and discovered that its carvings are far from arbitrary. The etchings depict the route of the Odet river and its many tributaries, making it the oldest cartographical representation of a known territory in Europe.

Overlooked

When the slab of rock was discovered in 1900, during an archaeological excavation of a prehistoric burial ground in Finistère, western Brittany, it was largely overlooked.

The rock formed one of the walls of a little stone coffin-like box used to hold the corpses of the dead. The engraved surface was facing the inside of the tomb. The team who recovered it, led by local archaeologist Paul du Chatellier, must have been unimpressed. The slab with some scratches on it didn’t make the grade. It was put into storage in the cellars of Mr Chatellier’s castle, the Château de Kernuz.

Lifting and positioning the Saint-Belec slab in the cellar of the Château de Saint-Germain-en Laye.

Image Credit: Clément Nicolas, Yvan Pailler

Rediscovery

Recently, the slab was re-found, and re-examined by a team that included Dr Clément Nicolas from Bournemouth University. Clément explained to History Hit that they used high-resolution 3D surveys and photogrammetry to try and get a sense of what the engravings depicted.

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When the results came back, it was clear that there were repeated symbols engraved in the slab, joined by lines. To Clément and his team, it looked strangely like a map.

But that would surely be impossible? A Bronze Age map, on a 4,000-year-old stone, would pre-date Europe’s oldest known maps by thousands of years. They rushed to get a contemporary map to act as an overlay. To their amazement, it matched.

Finding meaning

Dominant on the map is about 18 miles of the river we call the Odet. Its tributaries are also shown. Clément told History Hit it was stunningly accurate, perhaps even 80% so.

The Saint-Belec slab

Image Credit: Musée Archéologie Nationale

As a result of all their work, the team are able to say that this is the earliest known European map. It is a stunning indication of our ancestors’ geographical knowledge and sophistication. The map’s creators were people with a far more advanced understanding of topography than we had ever given them credit for.

What was it for? Was it of practical use? Was it decorative, used by a chief or king to show off the extent of his territory? It is impossible to know.

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Onwards

What is exciting is that, according to Clément, there are symbols on the map that make no sense in the modern landscape. These could be the site of burial grounds or settlements which are lost to the modern eye. Clément is going to use the next year to explore that part of Brittany to see if the map can lead us to any Bronze Age sites, nearly four millennia after it was created.

Photographing the Saint-Bélec slab.

Image Credit: P. Stephan, Clément Nicolas, Yvan Pailler

Dan Snow

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