A stone slab which dates from the early Bronze Age around 2150-1600 BC is Europe’s oldest known map.
The slab was first discovered during excavations of a prehistoric burial ground in 1900 in Finistère, western Brittany, France.
The broken slab was re-used in the burial of the Saint-Bélec, where it formed one of the walls of a stone-cist tomb.
The slab was acquired by the Musée des Antiquités nationales (MAN – Museum of National Antiquities) in 1924 and placed in storage until it was rediscovered in 2014.
A multi-national research team consisting of specialists from the French National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (Inrap), Bournemouth University, the CNRS, and the Université de Bretagne Occidentale (UBO – University of Western Brittany) have conducted studies of the slab using high-resolution 3D surveys and photogrammetry.
They found that the slab bears many of the elements expected in a prehistoric map – including repeated motifs joined by lines to give the layout of a map.
An examination of the engraved surface shows that the slab’s topography was purposely 3D-shaped to represent the valley of the River Odet, whilst several lines appear to depict the river network.
The team also analysed the similarities between the engravings on the slab and elements of the landscape.
This work showed that the territory represented on the slab appears to relate to an area of about 30 km by 21 km, along the course of the River Odet. The central motif, interpreted as a symbol of an enclosure, suggests that the centre of a territory might have existed within three river springs (the Odet, the Isole, and the Stêr Laër).
The Saint-Bélec Slab is contemporaneous with the famous Nebra sky disk found in Germany, the oldest known concrete depiction of the cosmos, and highlights the cartographic knowledge of prehistoric societies.
The Saint-Bélec Slab depicts the territory of a strongly hierarchical political entity that tightly controlled a territory in the early Bronze Age, and breaking it may have indicated condemnation and deconsecration.
Its burial and an iconoclastic act may have marked the end or the rejection of the elites who exercised their power over the society for several centuries during the early Bronze Age.
Header Image Credit : Denis Glicksman