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A 230-Year-Old Riddle Was Revealed By Low Tide, And Experts Have Finally Solved The Mystery

Feb 17, 2021

Mysterious inscription on Plougastel-Daoulas rock -
There’s a small town in France called Plougastel-Daoulas according to If you don’t live in the region, you would probably never have heard of it. But in 2019 a remarkable mystery put it on the map. Suddenly every puzzle expert worth their salt knew where Plougastel-Daoulas was, and what had been discovered among its rocks.
Plougastel-Daoulas is a pretty nice place to visit. It’s on the coast, so visitors get to enjoy not one but several beautiful beaches. Tourists can relax on the sand or partake in water sports. But until a few years ago, those holidaymakers would have been unaware of the fantastic mystery the town was home to.
If they had known, that spot might have become a site of historical interest just like many others in Plougastel-Daoulas. The whole town is a dream for history lovers, in some respects, 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.
Around that historical site there are many other exciting spots for history fans, including churches, graveyards and fountains. And it’s said that the water one fountain produces can even cure sick children. That should give you an idea of the kind of reverence people once had for the area.
Plougastel-Daoulas is also noted for its strawberries. Farmers of the olden days discovered that the slopes around the village were absolutely perfect for growing large quantities of the fruit. So if you do decide to holiday there, expect plenty of strawberry-based food and drink to be found in the restaurants.
So far the town has survived the French Revolution and two World Wars, historical periods which obviously saw great loss of life. But something else survived all that historical turmoil, too. If you go to a particular Plougastel-Daoulas cove at low tide, you’ll find a boulder which baffled experts for years. And its secret has only recently been uncovered.
The mysterious rock in question was discovered sometime during the 1970s, according to French media. At the time, it didn’t pick up much international interest. But the people who actually lived in Plougastel-Daoulas were interested. It took a while but a French-language news website, Ouest-France, reported on the story in 2017.
The news outlet reported, “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.”
It seemed the people who discovered it had worked for the mayor’s office in Plougastel-Daoulas. Apparently, they had found the rock by sheer accident and gotten to work highlighting the lettering. They’d removed the lichen, which had built up for over decades, and then used chalk to make the inscriptions clear enough to see.
But no-one could work out what was written on the rock. The inscription contained both letters and symbols, making it even more confusing. It appeared to 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. Plus two dates: 1786 and 1787.
The dates were the easiest thing to understand. Because there had been significant things happening in the area between 1786 and 1787. Several naval defenses had been erected along the coast, the Bay of Brest, with Britain and France at war. And one nearby was the Corbeau Fort. Was that what the symbol of a ship was about?
But what about everything else? The 2017 Ouest-France article noted, “Today, the engraved block keeps its secret and 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 a famous French linguist who helped decipher the Rosetta Stone – by the way.
Come May 2019, the officials of Plougastel-Daoulas announced a competition to finally try and crack the code. It was open to linguists and puzzle experts from all over the world. And the contest was called “The Champollion Mystery at Plougastel-Daoulas,” after Jean-François Champollion.
To take part, all potential future Champollions had to do was register with the Plougastel-Daoulas mayor’s office, and they’d be sent photographs of the rock and its mysterious inscription. And yep, there was a reward for whoever cracked it. But not much. The winner stood to receive €2,000, which equates to about $2,240. Oh well, it’s about the mystery first we guess.
When the contest was announced, the town’s mayor Dominique Cap spoke to news agency AFP. And regarding the writing on the rock he said, “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.”
Cap also spoke to the BBC News website about the contest. He said, “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 person claimed to the French media that it was all done for the purpose of increasing tourism to the area. So users of codebreaking forums poured over interviews from Plougastel-Daoulas officials, trying to work out if they were being sincere.
The Reddit forum UnresolvedMysteries 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.”
They went on, “Bray made it his life’s passion to travelling 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.” Indeed, some of the letters on the stone were spelt upside down, as if the person barely knew the language.
In December 2019 two of the contest officials spoke to the website RFI about how it was going. And they revealed 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 got on social media had helped spread the word.
Michel Paugam, the man responsible for heritage and history in Plougastel-Daoulas, had some ideas about who could have made the rock inscription. He told RFI, “They had expertise in sculpting and the material. Writing we’re less sure, it’s possible someone else was telling the engraver what to do, but they were definitely from the profession.”
Paugam went on, “They 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.”
Plus a Breton language expert, François-Pol Castel, spoke to RFI, too. Because his uncle had come up with his own transcription of the rock’s code back in the 1980s, but never ascertained what language it was in. It could of course be in more than one. Castel told RFI that there were some words on the rock that appeared in Breton, including those for “Nest” “Clay” and “Forever.”
Other words appeared to be in different languages, though. Castel thought there might be Catalan, Spanish and Russian on the rock, too. He explained, “Plougastel is close to Brest, and Brest is a big port, and as in all big ports you can meet sailors from all over the world, speaking all kinds of languages.”
Castel thought he might have found 20 Breton words in all. Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough to reveal the secret of the stone. But one phrase he’d found was very intriguing indeed. At the top of the stone he believed was written the sentence, “Through these words you will see the truth.”
Yet neither the words nor the truth had been uncovered yet. Stéphane Michel, another town official, told RFI, “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.”
And with so many heads together, by February 2020 the mystery of the Plougastel-Daoulas rock was finally solved. It turned out that more than one person had solved the code-breaking contest – because their solutions were so similar to each other. Therefore it appeared that this explanation was the most likely.
There were actually three winners in all, who would split the $2,240 prize money between them. Firstly there was Noël René Toudic, an English professor with a degree in Celtic Studies. Secondly there was the team of Roger Faligot and Alain Robert, a writer and a comic book creator respectively.
The solution from Toudic concerned a soldier lost at sea. That was what the symbol of the ship had been all about. This man had been named Serge Le Bris, the professor worked out, and another soldier called Grégoire Haloteau had created the rock inscription in memory of him.
And Faligot and Robert had a very similar theory, but theirs put the inscription into a different context. Rather than a simple tribute to a dead friend, they suggested, the rock had been carved to hold a message of anger. Someone had sent their comrade to his death and they wanted their outrage known.
Mayor Dominique Cap announced the findings, and the names of the contest winners, at a press conference on February 24. He said that although “today, we have made a great step,” there was still more to uncover. Because parts of the text were still unknowable despite people’s best efforts to solve them.
But the decoded, translated fragments were interesting enough in themselves. Noël René Toudic’s translation read, “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 the 18th century Breton language but was only semi-literate.
The other translation added a more personal element to the story. It declared that the unfortunate Serge was, “the incarnation of courage and joie de vivre [zest for life].” And yet, “Somewhere on the island, he was struck and he is dead.” The speaker, Faligot and Robert thought, blamed someone else for this death.
The full story of Serge’s tragic death still isn’t known, but perhaps some day it will be. Code-cracking has gotten more and more sophisticated since the days of the Rosetta Stone. There are many old historical codes out there challenging people to solve them, and 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 codes allegedly sent to him by a “Mr. W. B. Tyler.” It took until 1992 to solve the first and 2000 to solve the second. Many people think that this “Tyler” was in fact Poe himself playing games with his audience.
And the codes of World War II still fascinate people. Most famously Alan Turing worked to decipher codes sent between the German military during the war. This resulted in swinging momentum in favor of the Allies. But there’s some World War II codes 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. It began, “I hope you are having lots of fun in trying to catch me,” and made chilling references to capital punishment and “paradice.” He meant paradise, by the way, stupid murderer couldn’t spell it seems.
The FBI confirmed that the cipher had been solved, a win for crime solvers even though the real Zodiac Killer was never actually found. It had taken over 50 years – though of course that’s nothing compared to the hundreds of years the Plougastel-Daoulas inscription stone had stood unsolved. All in all, it was a pretty good year for breaking codes.
The Plougastel-Daoulas stone still remains where it fell at the base of a cliff. But the officials of the town are planning to lift it out and put it somewhere more accessible. So perhaps in the future you can visit and read for yourself the fragmented tale of Serge Le Bris.

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