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Has This Boulder’s Mysterious, Centuries-Old Inscription Finally Been Deciphered?

Two newly publicized translations suggest the message is a memorial to a man who died in the 1700s

Two winners split the Plougastel-Daoulas contest's grand prize of €2,000. (Mairie Plougastel / Plougastel City Hall)
smithsonianmag.com

Last spring, the French town of Plougastel-Daoulas hosted a puzzling competition. Whoever successfully translated the mysterious text inscribed on a three-foot-tall boulder found on the commune’s shores would win €2,000, or roughly $2,200 USD. Previous attempts to transcribe the rock’s message had yielded just one clear phrase: “Through these words, you will see the truth.”

Now, reports French daily Ouest-France, the jury has announced the contest’s winner—or, in this case, winners. Celtic language expert Noël René Toudic and a team made up of writer Roger Faligot and comic artist Alain Robet both submitted translations suggesting the boulder’s message is a memorial to a man who died there, inscribed by someone who cared about him. But the two interpretations differ regarding the details of how the individual died and how the inscription’s author knew him.

Toudic posits that a soldier named Grégoire Haloteau wrote the text in memory of one Serge Le Bris, who was sent out to sea during a storm. By Toudic’s translation, the stone reads, “Serge died when, with no skill at rowing, his boat was tipped over by the wind,” according to Zachary Kaiser of the Jerusalem Post. The message is signed by Haloteau and dated to May 8, 1786.

Faligot and Robet, meanwhile, think the inscription was written in anger as a response to foul play.

“He was the incarnation of courage and joie de vivre [or zest for life]. Somewhere on the island he was struck, and he is dead,” says the pair’s translation, per the Jerusalem Post.

The inscription proved challenging to translate because it appears to be written in a mix of multiple languages, most prominently Breton, a Celtic tongue that arrived in eastern France during the early medieval period. The message, which also incorporates Scandinavian-style Ø letters and reversed or upside-down French characters, would have been spelled out phonetically, Breton specialist François-Pol Castel tells RFI’s Mike Woods, as the language lacked standardized spelling during the 18th century.

The dates inscribed on the boulder correspond to the period when a nearby fort was being renovated, according to RFI.

“Maybe people working in the fort had free time to come here in the evening,” explains Michel Paugam, the town’s heritage and historical site manager. “It takes time to engrave like that, at least several days. Perhaps they set up a campfire over there, a picnic over there, and one of them worked on the inscription.”

The town’s seven-person jury received 61 submissions constituting more than 1,500 pages of material. Most submissions came from France, but contestants from the U.S., Belgium, the United Arab Emirates and Thailand also participated.

Plougastel-Daoulas may have selected two winners (the teams split the €2,000 prize), but the stone’s message isn’t completely solved yet. Mayor Dominique Cap tells Agence France-Presse that roughly one-fifth of the inscription remains undeciphered.

“There is still a way to go to solve the mystery completely,” he says, per a translation by Connexion France.

For now, the boulder remains embedded among other rocks at the base of a cliff near Plougastel-Daoulas’ shore. Only the inscriptions, which include a ship and a sacred heart, set it apart from the rest. Moving forward, locals plan to search historical records for signs of a Serge Le Bris and Grégoire Haloteau, in addition to making the boulder more accessible to visitors and experts alike.

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