What is it?
This engraved stone dating to the early Bronze Age (c.1900-1650 BC) is known as the Saint-Bélec Slab. Made of grey-blue coloured schist, the slab is c.2.2m long, 1.53m wide, and 0.16m thick. New research suggests that the patterns engraved on the stone are in fact a map of an area in western Brittany, France, indicating that it may have been an object created to demonstrate the territory belonging to an elite, and affirm their power over the region represented. Created 4,000 years ago, it is believed to be the oldest 3D map known in Europe.
Where was it found and when?
The slab was found by Paul du Châtellier in 1900 during excavations of a prehistoric burial mound in Finistère, France, where the broken stone had been reused as part of a cist in a burial at the end of the early Bronze Age.
In 1924, Châtellier’s collection was bought by the Musée des Antiquités Nationales, and the Saint-Bélec slab was forgotten for nearly a century, stored in the moat of the Château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye, where the museum is housed. The stone was then moved to a cellar, where it was rediscovered in 2014, and has recently undergone analysis that has led to its new interpretation as a map.
Why does it matter?
Research, recently published in the Bulletin de la Société Préhistorique Française (www.prehistoire.org/515_p_56631/bulletin-de-la-spf-2021-tome-118.html), examining the slab in more detail – through high-resolution 3D surveys and photogrammetry – has determined that the motifs and lines on its surface were intended to represent an area of c.30km by 21km in Finistère, along the course of the River Odet.
The area shown on the slab has an 80% similarity to the local river network, and the stone’s surface appears to have been deliberately topographically shaped to represent the valley of the River Odet. As well as lines representing the rivers, there are motifs that might represent other features in the landscape and structures identified in the archaeological record.
Although other maps carved in stones have been discovered around the world, this is the first from this period to depict an area on a scale that can be defined, and may represent the earliest cartographical representation of a known territory in Europe. It has been suggested that the motif in the middle of the slab could represent an enclosure: it is perhaps the centre of the territory belonging to those who controlled the area that is depicted here.
The suggestion that the slab acted as a symbol of control over the region also indicates that the breaking and burial of the stone later in the early Bronze Age was symbolically significant, perhaps reflecting the end of the power belonging to the slab’s creators and a rejection of their ownership of the territory.
SEE FOR YOURSELF
The Saint-Bélec Slab is currently being restored by the Musée d’Archéologie Nationale so that it can be presented to the public in the future.
Text: A Brunskill.