An ornate slab, found in 1900 in French Brittany in the north-west of the country, has just become a new source of cartographic knowledge with the discovery of the oldest relief map in Europe, dating from the early Bronze Age ( 2150-1600 BC).
The study published this Tuesday in the Bulletin of the French Prehistoric Society confirms that the Saint-Bélec slab, found in the town of Leuhan by the prehistorian Paul du Chatellier (1833-1911), has a graphic composition in four quadrants.
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The slab was part of a tomb, until in 1900 it was transferred to the castle of Kernuz, home and private museum of Du Chatellier, where it was kept in the moat and finally in 2014 it was found in a basement of the same.
Starting in 2017, the authors of the research recorded the topography of its surface and analyzed the morphology, technology and chronology of the engravings using photographic techniques and high-resolution 3D tools.
For scientists at the National Institute for Archaeological Research (Inrap), the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) and the Universities of Bournemouth and Western Britain, the presence of motifs linked by lines would give the composition the appearance of a cartographic layout.
Three Elements of Prehistoric Mapping
This slab presents the three most probative elements of prehistoric cartographic representation, that is, homogeneous composition with engravings identical in technique and style, repetition of motifs (straight or curved lines, squares, circles, ovals and pear-shaped motifs) and relationship space between the signs.
To test their hypothesis, the experts compared other similar representations drawn from European prehistory and from Tuareg ethnography or Australian aborigines, among others.
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The uncovered shale block is bluish-gray in color and measures 2.20 meters long, 1.53 meters wide and 0.16 meters thick.
The French scientists examined the etched surface and concluded that the topography of the slab was modeled to represent in three dimensions the valley of the river Odet , which runs through the Brittany region until it empties into the Atlantic Ocean.
Likewise, to verify the similarity between the engravings and the landscape elements, statistical analyzes of networks and shapes were carried out, the result of which shows that the represented territory would be an area of about 30 by 21 kilometers, oriented in an East-West direction along of the course of that river.
As it is probably a mentally reconstructed map, some elements represented may be oversized , while their positions are not necessarily proportional to the distance that separates them, the study warns.
The researchers deduced that the Saint-Bélec slab represents the territory of a strongly hierarchical political entity that closely controlled a territory in the early Bronze Age.