A new analysis of a Bronze Age stone slab found in France more than a century ago suggests that the roughly 4,000-year-old artifact is Europe’s oldest known map.
BBC News reports that the elaborately carved Saint-Bélec Slab, discovered at an ancient burial ground in 1900, is a three-dimensional representation of the River Odet valley in Finistère, on Brittany’s northwestern tip. Several lines appear to show a local river network.
The study, published in the Bulletin of the French Prehistoric Society, shows that the map represents an area around an 18-mile stretch of the river with 80 percent accuracy.
“This is probably the oldest map of a territory that has been identified,” co-author Clément Nicolas, an archaeologist at Bournemouth University in the United Kingdom, tells BBC News. “There are several such maps carved in stone all over the world. Generally, they are just interpretations. But this is the first time a map has depicted an area on a specific scale.”
In addition to the rivers and hills, the slab also contains motifs that may represent the locations of settlements, barrow sites and field systems, reports Peter Dockrill for Science Alert. The markings could be related to the organization of land use and ownership.
Study co-author Yvan Pailler, an archaeologist at the University of Western Brittany, tells France’s National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP) that Bronze Age people probably didn’t use the stone map for navigation.
“If we consider the example of mental maps, there is no need to set them in stone,” Pailler says, per Google Translate. “Generally, the maps are transmitted in the form of a story: ‘To go from such and such a point, you have to go through such and such a river.’”
Instead, the slab’s markings may have served as an expression of political power, showing the extent of a local ruler’s domain.
“It was probably a way to affirm the ownership of the territory by a small prince or king at the time,” Nicholas tells BBC News.
According to a statement, the slab was likely repurposed as the side of a burial vault toward the end of the early Bronze Age, between 1900 and 1640 B.C. This may have been a symbolically meaningful choice, marking the end of a ruler’s political power during a period of great social reorganization in the region.
“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,” Nicolas tells CNN’s Amy Woodyatt.
Archaeologist Paul du Chatellier discovered the slab in 1900. After his death, his children donated his archaeological collection to the National Archaeological Museum of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, where it remained in storage for decades.
In the meantime, several scholars, including Pailler and Nicholas, read du Chatellier’s reports of his finds and independently came to the conclusion that the slab’s markings could represent a map. In 2014, they located the artifact in the museum’s cellar and examined it using 3-D surveying techniques. The pair found that, in addition to etching lines in the rock, the creators of the map modified its surface to create a topography matching the landscape.
“We tend to underestimate the geographical knowledge of past societies,” Nicholas tells BBC News. “This slab is important as it highlights this cartographical knowledge.”