Centuries-old mystery inscription yields tragic tale of death at sea
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Winners of a contest to decode a mysterious eighteenth-century rock engraving on the western tip of France have pieced together a tale of tragic death at sea.
Since its rediscovery in the late 1970s, no one in the town of Plougastel-Daoulas had been able to decipher the message on a rock that sits on one of its shores, across from the city of Brest in France’s western region of Brittany.
In hopes of shedding new light on the message’s meaning and origin, town officials launched a contest last year that drew thousands of queries from around the world and, as of Monday, two winning entries, both from Brittany-based researchers.
They determined for the first time that whoever was behind the inscription made it in tribute to a friend who died in the nearby waters, and that the dates of 1786 and 1787 correspond to the times of the death and inscription.
While one believes the language is Breton, a Celtic language used in Brittany for centuries, the other argues for the closely related Welsh language. Both rule out hypotheses of a ciphered or multilingual message.
Both winners identified references to violent storms, an island and the will of the engraver to honour a lost friend, but they also propose very different interpretations of exact phrases, the context and the identities of the protagonists.
Story of a shipwrecked sailor
Noël René Toudic, a specialist in Celtic studies and retired English language teacher in the Breton city of Rennes, based one of the winning entries on careful linguistic analysis.
His translation relates the tale of Serge Le Bris, a “son of the royal army” who “died when, untrained as a rower”, saw his ship overturned by “a raging wind”. The engraver, working “to pay tribute” to his friend, identifies himself as Grégoire Haloteau.
“I was interested in the linguistic elements of the text,” Toudic explains, saying he did not refer to any historical material. “I had no idea when I started what it was about. The meaning emerged from what I read.”
Toudic interpreted the language as eighteenth-century Breton and gives little credence to the text having multilingual or coded elements.
“The only word I found in another language is a Latin word, ‘obiit’, a word used to registered deaths of people, like an obituary,” he explains. “There may be a French word related to navigation, ‘abord’, which means ‘aboard’, but there I’m not sure.”
This approach did not lead to a complete translation of the text, however: “There are still uncertainties. I felt sure of having deciphered about 80 percent of the writings, but there are still 20 percent that are not very clear.”
Testimony of a Welsh prisoner
The other winning entry, prepared by local author Roger Faligot and illustrator Alain Robet, approached the text from a historical perspective and found a story marked with the tumultuous events of the period.
Their translation does not contain names, but speaks of a somebody who was “struck and died” while “at sea at the heart of this violent storm” at a place “near the fortified beach”. The engraver also speaks of having “come to this country” and being taken prisoner.
“Because of the war situation between Britain and France over to the independence struggle in America, there were lots of naval battles just outside the bay,” explains Faligot, author of 50 books, including a history of Brest published in 2016.
“You had lots of prisoners from Wales, Cornwall and England. Not necessarily English-speakers, but also speking Celtic languages.”
Faligot believes the engraving may be the work of a Welsh prisoner who spoke a language very similar to Breton in order to honour a companion.
“He wanted to do something to say that his friend had drowned that way, and it was extremely sad. He’s also furious with the navy or the army, because he thinks they’re responsible for what happened.”
Celtic languages had no standard spelling
The researchers explain that the message appears to be fragmented and incomplete because eighteenth-century Breton or Welsh had no standardised spellings and so the engraver would have written words as he heard them.
“What he’s saying is very simple, but at times very mysterious,” says Faligot, who believes research into prisoner records may provide more details.
Toudic argues the names he identified are the basis for further research.
“The next step is for the historians to ascertain whether there was a shipwreck in this area at that time, whether there are any written testimonies or something in the archives that could confirm the existence of these people or the circumstances of the shipwreck.”
Contest draws worldwide interest
While the rock still holds many secrets, that fact that the two winning entries found so much in common despite such different approaches has certainly shed new light on the 230-year-old mystery, which was the goal of the challenge.
After it was announced last May, the contest drew 2,000 queries and 600 requests for submission forms from around the world.
A total of 61 entries from 13 countries on four continents arrived by the deadline in November, leaving a jury of officials, historians and professors with 1,500 pages of analysis to consider.
The contest also helped to broaden awareness of Breton language, history and culture, and Plougastel officials are planning to create a replica of the rock to display in the town’s heritage museum.
The winners split a 2,000-euro prize. Faligot said he was donating his part to a local Breton language school.
Visit the rock in Plougastel-Daoulas on the Spotlight on France podcast.
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