Investigations into an engraved early Bronze Age stone slab unearthed in Brittany, and forgotten about for over a century, have revealed it to be the oldest 3D map in Europe.
Known as the Saint-Bélec Slab, it was discovered in 1900 during an excavation of a prehistoric burial ground in Saint-Bélec, western Brittany, by Paul du Chatellier, a local archaeologist. The slab had been broken and re-used to form the wall of a stone-cist burial dated to c. 1900-1640 BC.
The slab, though acquired by the Musée d’Archéologie Nationale in 1924, remained stored in du Chatellier’s chateau until 2014, when it was finally brought up from the cellar.
In 2017, researchers from the French National Institute for Preventive Archaeology Research (Inrap), Bournemouth University, the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CRNS), and the Université de Bretagne Occidentale carried out high resolution 3D surveys and photogrammetric analysis to study the surface topography of the stone, and the morphology of its markings.
The presence of repeated motifs linked together by a network of lines prompted researchers to recognise it as a cartographical documentation.
An examination of the surface of the stone revealed it was deliberately shaped to represent the valley of the River Odet. Geo-referencing techniques confirmed that the slab depicted an area situated along the nearby River Odet spanning 30km by 21km.
The study concluded the slab was likely a mind-map. These were essential for managing territory in prehistoric society.
According to Dr Clément Nicolas from Bournemouth University, one of the study’s authors, ‘The Saint-Bélec Slab highlights the cartographic knowledge of past societies that we tend to underestimate in the era of the GPS.’
He added: ‘Carving mind-maps in stone suggests that the purpose is not orientation in space but a media to claim the authority on a specific territory.’
The ‘Armorican tumulus’ culture was a hierarchical political entity that exercised tight control in the Saint-Bélec region during the early Bronze Age. It has been suggested that the destruction of the slab was an act of iconoclasm marking the rejection of the elites.