Europe’s Oldest Map: Discover the Saint-Bélec Slab (Circa 2150–1600 BCE)

Image by Paul du Châtel­li­er, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

In 1900, the French pre­his­to­ri­an Paul du Châtel­li­er dug up from a bur­ial ground a fair­ly siz­able stone, bro­ken but cov­ered with engraved mark­ings. Even after he put it back togeth­er, nei­ther he nor any­one else could work out what the mark­ings rep­re­sent­ed. “Some see a human form, oth­ers an ani­mal one,” he wrote in a report. “Let’s not let our imag­i­na­tion get the bet­ter of us and let us wait for a Cham­pol­lion to tell us what it says.” Cham­pol­lion, as Big Think’s Frank Jacobs explains, was “the Egyp­tol­o­gist who in 1822 deci­phered the hiero­glyph­ics” — which he did with the aid of a more famous inscrip­tion-bear­ing piece of rock, the Roset­ta Stone.

Still, the Saint-Bélec slab, as Châtel­lier’s dis­cov­ery is now known, has attained a great deal of recog­ni­tion in the more than 120 years since he unearthed it. But it did so rel­a­tive­ly recent­ly, after a long peri­od of rel­a­tive obscu­ri­ty.

“In 1994, researchers revis­it­ing du Châtellier’s orig­i­nal draw­ing found that the intri­cate mark­ings on the stone looked a lot like a map,” writes Jacobs. “The stone itself, how­ev­er, had gone miss­ing.” Only in 2014 was it redis­cov­ered in a cel­lar below the moat of the chateau in Saint-Ger­main-en-Laye once owned by du Châtel­li­er, by which time it could be sub­ject­ed to the kind of high-tech analy­sis unimag­ined in his life­time.

Oper­at­ing on the the­o­ry that the arti­fact was indeed cre­at­ed as a map, France’s INRAP (the Nation­al Insti­tute for Pre­ven­tive Archae­o­log­i­cal Research) “found that the mark­ings on the slab cor­re­spond­ed to the land­scape of the Odet Val­ley” in mod­ern-day Brit­tany. Then, “using geolo­ca­tion tech­nol­o­gy, the researchers estab­lished that the ter­ri­to­ry rep­re­sent­ed on the slab bears an 80 per­cent accu­rate resem­blance to an area around a 29-km (18-mi) stretch of the Odet riv­er,” which seems to have been a small king­dom or prin­ci­pal­i­ty back in the ear­ly Bronze Age, between 2150 BC and 1600 BC. This makes the Saint-Bélec slab Europe’s old­est map, and quite pos­si­bly the ear­li­est map of any known ter­ri­to­ry — and cer­tain­ly the ear­li­est known map of a pop­u­lar kayak­ing des­ti­na­tion.

Draw­ing by Paul du Chatel­li­er, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

via Big Think

Relat­ed con­tent:

The His­to­ry of Car­tog­ra­phy, “the Most Ambi­tious Overview of Map Mak­ing Ever Under­tak­en,” Is Free Online

Explore the Here­ford Map­pa Mun­di, the Largest Medieval Map Still in Exis­tence (Cir­ca 1300)

Down­load 67,000 His­toric Maps (in High Res­o­lu­tion) from the Won­der­ful David Rum­sey Map Col­lec­tion

Ancient Maps that Changed the World: See World Maps from Ancient Greece, Baby­lon, Rome, and the Islam­ic World

Bronze Age Britons Turned Bones of Dead Rel­a­tives into Musi­cal Instru­ments & Orna­ments

What the Roset­ta Stone Actu­al­ly Says

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.