In the beautiful Brittany region of France, there’s a small town called Plougastel-Daoulas. You’ve almost certainly never heard of it, and we wouldn’t blame you. It’s a tiny, not particularly celebrated part of the country – hardly Paris or Nice. But in 2019 a remarkable mystery finally put Plougastel-Daoulas on the map. Suddenly every puzzle expert worth their salt knew where it was – and, crucially, of the strange riddle that lies in a cove there.
Plougastel-Daoulas is a pretty nice place to spend a summer’s day. It’s on the coast, so visitors get to enjoy not one but several stunning beaches nearby. Tourists can relax on the sand, if they like, or partake in water sports if they’re feeling active. But until a few years ago, those vacationers would probably have been completely unaware of the bizarre and baffling rock that had captivated the town for years.
If those folks had known about that special slab of stone, the spot where it stood may have become a site of historical interest – just like many others in Plougastel-Daoulas. But in some respects, the whole town is a dream for history lovers already. You can stop by the ancient abbey of Daoulas, which dates back to the Dark Ages, and marvel at how well it’s been preserved.
Age-old churches, graveyards and fountains also dot the area. It’s even been said that some of the water here can cure sick children. And whether you believe this legend or not, it should give you an idea of the kind of reverence people once had for the town.
Plougastel-Daoulas is also noted for its strawberries, as, long ago, farmers discovered that the slopes in the region were absolutely perfect for growing large quantities of the fruit. So, if you do decide to vacation there, don’t be surprised to see plenty of strawberry-based food and drink on the menus of the cozy neighborhood restaurants.
You should know, too, that so far the town has endured through the French Revolution and two World Wars – all conflicts that obviously saw great loss of life. But something else has survived all that historical turmoil. If you go to a particular cove in the area at low tide, you’ll find a boulder that baffled experts for years. In fact, its secret has only recently been uncovered.
The mysterious rock in question was discovered at some point during the 1970s, according to French media. At the time, it didn’t pick up much international interest, although the folks who actually lived in the town were understandably intrigued. Then, decades on, French-language news website Ouest-France decided to delve further.
Ouest-France reported of the curious phenomenon, “Some time ago, walkers discovered a block of granite at the bottom of a cliff on the peninsula. So far, nothing abnormal. The erosion had done its job, the cliff had receded and the stone had fallen. Except that on this block of stone weighing several hundred kilograms, there were some very strange inscriptions.”
Apparently, the folk who first discovered the rock had worked for the mayor’s office in Plougastel-Daoulas. They had come across the stone by sheer accident, it’s said, and not long afterward got to work highlighting the odd lettering on its surface. First, the group removed the lichen that had built up over the rock for years, then they used chalk to make the inscriptions clear enough to see.
But even after this process had been completed, no one could work out what was written on the boulder. Making the whole thing even harder to decipher, the inscription contained both letters and symbols. It read, “ROC AR B … DRE AR GRIO SE EVELOH AR VIRIONES BAOAVEL” and “OBBIIE: BRISBVILAR … FROIK … AL.” There was also a drawing of a ship and a sacred heart with a cross as well as two dates – 1786 and 1787.
The dates were perhaps the place to start, as a lot had been happening in the area between 1786 and 1787. At that time, several naval defenses were erected along the coast of the Bay of Brest, as Britain and France had not long since been at war. And pne of the most notable of these was the Fort du Corbeau. Did this somehow explain the symbol of a ship on the rock?
Perhaps, but what about the rest? Well, at the time of the 2017 Ouest-France article, little else was known about the message. In fact, the website reported, “The town hall’s heritage department is looking in vain for a new Champollion to find the key to this mystery.” Jean-François Champollion was, in case you weren’t familiar, a famous French linguist who helped decipher the Rosetta Stone.
In 2019 this quest prompted Plougastel-Daoulas officials to finally announce a competition, open to linguists and puzzle experts from all over the world. And, rather appropriately, the contest was given the name “The Champollion Mystery at Plougastel-Daoulas” after the aforementioned message-cracker.
To take part, all aspiring Champollions had to do was register with the Plougastel-Daoulas mayor’s office. Then they’d be sent photographs of the rock and its mysterious inscription. And, yes, there was a reward for whoever cracked it, although it wasn’t a large sum. In total, the winner of the contest stood to receive €2,000, which roughly comes to $2,240. Still, at least they’d have the honor of having gotten to the bottom of the mystery.
And there were perhaps a few clues to be had as the contest was announced. The town’s mayor Dominique Cap spoke to AFP about the writing on the rock, saying, “There are people who tell us that [the language is] Basque and others who say it’s Old Breton… But we still have not managed to decipher the text.”
As for the competition itself, Cap told the BBC at the time, “We’ve asked historians and archaeologists from around here, but no-one has been able to work out the story behind the rock. So we thought, maybe, out there in the world, there are people who’ve got the kind of expert knowledge that we need. Rather than stay in ignorance, we said, ‘Let’s launch a competition.’”
And yet some people were quite convinced that the rock was a hoax or a publicity stunt. One individual even claimed to the French media that the whole thing was a charade only carried out for the purpose of increasing tourism to the area. So, users of codebreaking forums pored over interviews from Plougastel-Daoulas officials, trying to work out if they were being sincere.
Folks on the Reddit forum UnresolvedMysteries also had a go at cracking the case. One user suggested, “I found a rock very similar to this on the other side of the Channel in Dartmoor, England, a few years ago. I asked Reddit what it was, and we eventually worked out that it was carved about 230 years ago by the Rev. William Bray, who was very much into druids.”
The Redditor went on, “Bray made it his life’s passion to [travel] to Druidic sites. And I note that in the tourist guide to Plougastel, it’s said, ‘Walking through the city, you can enjoy various [sites] – the best known of which is the White Fountain, a Druidic cult object…’ Maybe it was this guy?”
Another person suggested, “My theory after looking at this for a while is that this might be just a list of names. Some with first and last, some with surname only. All with questionably accurate spelling.” And, curiously, some of the letters on the stone were also found to be etched upside down – as if the writer barely knew the language.
Did the competition yield any results? Well, there was certainly no lack of interest. In December 2019 two of the officials running the contest told Radio France Internationale that they’d received a whopping 1,500 pages worth of code-breaking ideas – some coming from as far afield as Australia and Thailand. The attention the story received on social media had helped spread the word, it seemed.
And it appeared that Michel Paugam – the man responsible for looking after Plougastel-Daoulas’ sites of historical interest – had some ideas about who had created the rock inscription. He explained to the French radio company, “They had expertise in sculpting and the material. Writing, we’re less sure. It’s possible [that] someone else was telling the engraver what to do, but they were definitely from the profession.”
Paugam went on, “[That individual] knew how to etch into stone. Maybe people working in the [Corbeau] fort had free time to come here in the evening. 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.”
And crucially for all those potential code-crackers, Breton language expert François-Pol Castel also talked to Radio France Internationale. Apparently, his uncle had come up with his own transcription of the rock’s message back in the 1980s but had never ascertained what language – or languages – had been used. Yet, according to Castel, there did appear to be some Breton in there, including what he claimed were the words for “nest,” “clay” and “forever.”
Other parts of the message appeared to be in different tongues, though, and Castel thought there could also be Catalan, Spanish and Russian on the rock. He explained why, saying, “Plougastel is close to Brest, and Brest is a big port. As in all big ports, you can meet sailors from all over the world, speaking all kinds of languages.”
Most importantly, though, Castel thought that he may have identified 20 Breton words in all. And while this wasn’t enough to reveal the secret of the stone, one phrase he’d translated was particularly intriguing. At the top of the rock, he believed, was the sentence, “Through these words, you will see the truth.”
Still, neither the words nor the truth had been uncovered right then. Stéphane Michel, another town official, told Radio France Internationale, “We’re certain there’s a logic to the sentences, to the alignment of words. It’s not just someone who engraved a letter here and a letter there. They had something to say, but for now we’re not sure of the language. That’s why we’re interested in all the theories about it.”
But Michel and his colleagues didn’t have to wait long to get to the bottom of the mystery, as in February 2020 it appeared to be finally solved. There were two potential solutions that were so similar to one other that this joint explanation was most likely the correct one.
So, who were the lucky winners of the $2,240 prize money? Well, one of them was Noël René Toudic, an English professor with a degree in Celtic Studies. Then there was the team of Roger Faligot and Alain Robert – a writer and a comic book creator, respectively – who had joined forces to decipher the code.
What did these intrepid puzzlers discover? According to Toudic, the message on the rock was all about a soldier lost at sea – explaining the symbol of the ship, perhaps. This tragic figure had been named Serge Le Bris, the professor had worked out, and another soldier called Grégoire Haloteau had created the inscription in memory of him.
Faligot and Robert had a very similar theory, although their interpretation put the inscription in a different context. The message wasn’t just a tribute to a dead friend, they suggested, but one that was full of anger. Someone had sent their comrade to his death, and they had wanted their outrage to be known.
Regardless of how you look at the message, though, its partial translation seemed to come as welcome news to Cap. Speaking at a press conference on February 24, 2020, the mayor announced the findings and the names of the contest winners, proclaiming, “Today, we have made a great step.” But there was still more to uncover, as parts of the text were still unknowable despite people’s best efforts to solve them.
Mind you, the decoded, translated fragments are interesting enough in themselves. Toudic’s interpretation of the text reads, “Serge died when with no skill at rowing. His boat was tipped over by the wind.” The writer, he thought, would have been a man who spoke 18th-century Breton but was only semi-literate.
The other translation adds a more personal element to the story, suggesting that the unfortunate Serge was claimed to be “the incarnation of courage and joie de vivre [zest for life].” It continues, however, “Somewhere on the island, he was struck, and he is dead.” And Faligot and Robert believed that the writer blamed someone else for this death.
So, while the full story of Serge’s passing still isn’t known, perhaps someday it will be. After all, code-cracking has only become more sophisticated since the days of the Rosetta Stone translation. And while there are many old cryptic messages out there that remain unsolved, slowly the answers are being deciphered.
Take the famous codes of Edgar Allen Poe, for example. The celebrated author was a cryptanalyst in his spare time, and in 1840 he posted two mixed-up messages allegedly sent to him by a “Mr. W. B. Tyler.” The codes appeared to be fiendishly difficult, too, as it took until 1992 to solve the first and 2000 to solve the second. Many people think, though, that this “Tyler” was in fact Poe himself playing games with his audience.
Then there are the codes of World War II, which continue to fascinate. Alan Turing and his colleagues at England’s Bletchley Park worked to decipher some of these ciphers, and their success in interpreting the Nazi messages may just have tipped the war in favor of the Allies. But not all of these were understood at the time. Yes, there are some WWII-era cryptographs that still haven’t been cracked to this day.
Another famous code just so happened to be cracked in 2020. In December of that year, news broke that a cipher left by the notorious Zodiac Killer had been solved. The chilling message begins, “I hope you are having lots of fun in trying to catch me” before going on to make references to capital punishment and “paradice” – a misspelling of the word “paradise”.
This was a win of sorts for crime-solvers, even though the murderer himself is yet to be found. It had taken over 50 years to understand the note, after all. That’s nothing compared to the centuries that the Plougastel-Daoulas inscription had stood unsolved, but all in all, 2020 was a pretty good year for breaking codes.
And speaking of the Plougastel-Daoulas stone, it still remains, where it originally fell, at the base of a cliff. In time, though, officials in the town are planning to lift it out and put it somewhere more accessible. Perhaps, then, you’ll be able to visit the rock in the future and read for yourself the fragmented tale of Serge Le Bris.
Similar inscriptions like this can be found in other unexpected corners of the world, too. In 2006, for instance, mysterious carvings were discovered deep inside a cave in Alabama. And while the individuals who wrote them are long gone, experts have only just begun to unravel their remarkable secrets.
Many ancient civilizations – among them the Romans and those once in Greece and Egypt – have left behind inscriptions. And these markings have often proved illuminating, too. On occasion, some etchings have helped us form better understandings of historic events such as the destruction of Pompeii; others, by contrast, have revealed fascinating details about ancient people and their ways of life.
This brings us to Manitou Cave in Alabama, where in 2006 a photographer happened upon a set of strange markings. Now, after more than a decade of research, experts have finally deciphered the unique lettering. And the symbols scrawled across the walls of this damp, dark cave give us a rich insight into life 200 years ago as well as the people who left the messages there: the Cherokee.
The Cherokee are one of the indigenous groups of the Southeastern United States. And in 1650 it’s believed that there were more than 22,000 Cherokee members living across 40,000 square miles of the Appalachian Mountains. Today, this patch would cover northeastern Georgia, western parts of South and North Carolina and eastern Tennessee.
Meanwhile, some of the first records of the Cherokee come from Spanish expeditions dating from the mid-16th century. These explorers reported that the people they encountered used stone tools such as blades and axes; the native Americans also grew crops including maize and beans, fashioned woven baskets and crafted pottery.
And before the 1700s, typical Cherokee communities are thought to have consisted of up to 60 homes. There were also meeting houses – places for gatherings and sacred fires. However, life would change dramatically for the Cherokee in the 18th century. Even though the indigenous people had aligned themselves with British colonialists in the 1750s, many of their towns would be destroyed by the invaders.
Nevertheless, the Cherokee continued to support the British throughout the American Revolution of 1765 to 1783. During this time, they even fought alongside the colonialists in many battles. Then, at some point in the 1800s, the Cherokee began to adopt some aspects of European culture by dressing differently and using new construction and farming techniques.
However, peace would not last for the Cherokee, as in 1828 prospectors found gold on the tribe’s land. Then, two years later, Congress passed an act that would allow for the forcible removal of indigenous people from their homes. This was the start of a horrendous mass displacement that would become known as the Trail of Tears.
After being expelled from their land, then, Cherokee communities went in search of new places to live. In fact, some of them walked for thousands of miles. And, tragically, it’s believed that 4,000 people died on this quest as a result of the elements or of lack of food. Those who did survive, however, would come to settle in states such as Oklahoma, Missouri, Georgia and Alabama.
Cherokee people first began to settle in northeast Alabama, for example, in the 1780s, with many having already spread across farms in the region by 1800. At this time, so-called civilization policies encouraged indigenous men to take up farming and women to carry out domestic work such as weaving.
And Fort Payne, AL – then called Willstown – was one of the locations in which many Native Americans had put down roots after they had been displaced during the Trail of Tears. In fact, the U.S. government considered Willstown to be at one point the most important settlement of the Cherokee.
Not far from Fort Payne, moreover, lies Manitou Cave, which seems to have been significant to the Cherokee people of Willstown. More specifically, the grotto – parts of which reach up to 50 feet in height – is nestled in a forest on Lookout Mountain. In addition, Manitou boasts the Great Spirit Mountain formation – a natural structure towering more than 40 feet.
But Manitou Cave is noteworthy for more than just its beauty. You see, it now appears likely that the cave was once also an important meeting place for the local Cherokee people. And the complex inscriptions that have been discovered at Manitou may yet bear this out. In a study published in the journal Antiquity in April 2019, experts finally revealed the meanings of these markings – as well as what they tell us about Cherokee culture.
Interestingly, this ancient lettering is believed to be related to ceremonial activities, meaning it may hold vital clues about the Cherokee way of life. Yet despite the apparent importance of Manitou Cave to the Cherokee, the hollow hasn’t always been available to the indigenous people. .
During the American Civil War, for example, Manitou Cave became a saltpeter mine. And as saltpeter is an essential ingredient in gunpowder, Manitou was therefore used by the Confederate Army as a means of acquiring propellant for its artillery.
Then, in 1888 – just over 20 years after the Civil War ended – Manitou Cave opened as a tourist site. And while the attraction stayed accessible to the public into the early 1900s, it ultimately fell into a state of disrepair. Even when the cave reopened in the 1960s, its resurgence was short-lived – meaning the mountainside cavern lay eerily abandoned a few decades later.
So, until 2014, the fate of Manitou Cave seemed uncertain. In that year, however, Annette Reynolds visited the site for the first time. Having learned of the cavern through a family member, she was seemingly intrigued to hear that it was up for sale and went to check it out. And in April 2019 Reynolds told AL.com that when visiting the cave, she had been affected by its “peacefulness” and “beauty.”
After realizing that there was still a lot of interest in Manitou Cave, then, Reynolds found a bunch of investors. And together, they bought the place from its then-owner in 2015. It was Reynolds’ intention to protect the cave’s biological, cultural and historical value, and she called in an army of volunteers to clean the location up and make it fit for visitors once more.
As we now know, then, Manitou Cave has been open intermittently to the public over the years, with the result being that some visitors have left their marks on its walls in the form of graffiti. However, not all of the scrawling inside the grotto is random doodles or mindless vandalism. Some markings, in fact, are believed to have been left by the Cherokee people in around 1828.
Photographer Alan Cressler and historian Marion O. Smith first identified the historic lettering in 2006. Since this initial discovery, though, Cherokee inscriptions have been found in several spots within Manitou Cave. And while some of these markings are still extremely difficult to decipher, others have begun to give up their secrets.
At first glance, the inscriptions found in Manitou Cave may appear to show similarities to written English. But upon closer inspection, the symbols and characters reveal themselves to be from a Cherokee language – or syllabary – that was only created in the early 19th century. This means that the syllabary was just a few decades old at the time the markings are believed to have been left.
We know, too, that it was Cherokee scholar Sequoyah who invented this written language. Sequoyah – who was sometimes known by the English name George Guess – volunteered for the U.S. Army. And while he was fighting against rebelling Creek Indians, he developed a fascination with the way in which his comrades spoke to one another using the alphabet.
In developing his syllabary, though, Sequoyah intentionally drew elements from the anglophone alphabet. This way, you see, printing presses could be used to create Cherokee publications. But while the syllabary may have been inspired by English, it was actually often used as a way for the indigenous tribe to communicate in secret when they were under attack from invaders.
Then, in 1821, Sequoyah’s work was done, meaning the Cherokee language could be read and written down for the first time. And the syllabary became official four years later, causing literacy rates among the Cherokee people to soar – even trumping those of European-American settlers.
Interestingly, though, before Sequoyah’s Cherokee syllabary gained widespread recognition, some of his first students had been his children. And so researchers may have realized the importance of the inscriptions inside Manitou Cave when they saw that two of the markings possessed signatures made by Richard Guess – one of Sequoyah’s sons.
However, it’s taken years of research to discover the true significance of the inscriptions inside Manitou Cave. And in April 2019 a team of Native American experts finally shared their findings in anthropology publication Antiquity. That month, Beau Duke Carroll, a co-writer of the article, told The Washington Post, “People had probably been looking at and passing by [the markings] for years, but they just didn’t know what they were looking at.” So, what exactly did the scholars find?
Well, fascinatingly, the researchers determined that the inscriptions “reveal evidence for secluded ceremonial activities at a time of crisis for the Cherokee.” You see, at the very moment that indigenous people made these markings, their important cultural and religious customs were under threat.
At the time, missionaries and federal officials wanted the Cherokee people to abandon their traditional ceremonies and rituals and assimilate. But the inscriptions within the Manitou Cave reveal that some of the tribesmen weren’t giving up on their way of life easily. In fact, it seems that they were honoring their Cherokee traditions in the same manner as they always had.
Commenting on the Cherokee messages inside Manitou Cave, University of Tennessee anthropologist Jan Simek told The Washington Post, “For archaeologists, that’s a remarkable outcome because you’re usually interpreting symbols or words. But here they are telling us, ‘We were practicing in our old ways – look.’”
One of the Manitou Cave inscriptions reads, “????? ? ? ? ? 1828 ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? 30 ? ?.” And according to the experts, this translates as, “The leaders of the stickball game on the 30th day in their month April 1828.” Yes, this suggests that the Cherokee were engaging in a traditional sport even under pressure to change their ways.
A typical Native American game that was not dissimilar to lacrosse, stickball used wooden sticks and balls fashioned from animal hair or skin. Apparently, the sport required a lot of physical exertion and could become very violent – perhaps explaining why stickball is known as the “little brother of war.”
And before a game of stickball, participants would often retreat into a cave so that they could ready themselves – both physically and mentally. Inside, they would sometimes meet with a spiritual adviser or healer; they would also apparently purify themselves using smoke and water before dancing and praying.
Elsewhere in Manitou Cave, a separate inscription appears to reveal just how violent stickball was. The writing reads, “? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ,” which is believed to mean, “We who have blood come out of their nose and mouth.” And experts believe that this message appears to refer to the Cherokee custom of returning to the cave during an interval or when the game had ended.
According to Pennsylvania State University Cherokee historian Julie Reed, bloodied stickball players would seek the shelter of a cave because they saw blood as a “powerful liquid.” So, by retreating into a cavern, they could keep the blood that was now “outside the body from disrupting the world,” Reed explained to The Washington Post.
But anthropologists discovered yet another inscription inside Manitou Cave that apparently reads, “I am your grandson.” And according to Carroll, this was probably indicative of Cherokee people sending messages to “spiritual beings that lived here before.” Alternatively, the inscription could have been seen as a way of communicating with Cherokee ancestors.
Furthermore, inscriptions of this kind could signify that caves were considered “spiritually potent” to the Cherokee, as the study in Antiquity claims. However, they aren’t the only marker of the sacred importance of Manitou. You see, there were also some messages scrawled backwards on the cave’s ceiling – apparently left to try to contact spiritual beings.
And according to Reed, the significant of the Manitou Cave inscriptions lies in their directness. “Here we have indigenous people using a written language to tell us what they want to say,” Reed told The Washington Post. “As a Cherokee, I was like, ‘Wow.’”
What’s more, David Penney – an associate director at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. – has agreed that the Manitou Cave inscriptions are indeed unique in their significance. “They reflect an aspect of Cherokee life before removal that’s otherwise hidden or obscured from the historical record,” he told The Washington Post.
And not only are the inscriptions almost 200 years old, but they are also rare in their perspective. Penney explained to The Washington Post that the messages are of particular interest because “history is often written by the victors, and this really is an aspect of Cherokee history that really comes from the Cherokees themselves.”
As for Carroll, he revealed that the findings at Manitou Cave allowed him to look deeper into his own Cherokee history. Not only that, but the inscriptions also enabled him to see the Cherokee language in its written form as it had been almost two centuries ago. Carroll told The Washington Post that it had been special “to find [the markings] like [they] had been since 1828.” Summing up the experience, he added, “It was like I had just gotten there right after they left.”