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A time machine malfunctions and spits a traveller from ~2015AD out in 500BC northern France. With nothing but the clothes on his back, and minimising contact with the locals (as that may risk altering timelines), how can he best determine his approximate location and time period?

His pockets contains only coins, a wallet with both Canadian and US money and credit cards, keys, and a few dirty tissues. He's wearing business attire - black jacket, black shoes, tie, button up blue shirt, nice pants.

He knows a little bit of modern French (He can navigate a Quebec café menu), and a few touristy Spanish phrases, but not the languages that may have been spoken in this time period in this place. He doesn't know Celtic, or Greek, or Latin or Italian. He probably can't even recognise them if he hears them. His main language is Canadian English.

He's never been to France but has definitely read the odd relevant Wikipedia page.

He is in his 40s, and has few cuts and bruises from the time-mishap, but otherwise is in great physical condition. He's a star at his local gym where he can basically bench press the other customers. He's mentally sharp, ex-military, ex-police, basically the guy from this related question about a tough smart guy making a time determination but a few years senior.

His time machine has previously only connected his 2 offices located at two different points in history, where he has separate past-and-present identities and has been slowly transferring knowledge back in time to accumulate wealth for himself through a series of lucky stock market plays and "insightful" patents. He has no idea why it malfunctioned and sent him to some random point in time on the other side of the globe.

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    $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Mar 8 at 18:23
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    – L.Dutch
    Mar 10 at 18:15

18 Answers 18

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ouf, hard one.

There are MANY ways to obtain this detail, but all of them require in-depth and specialist knowledge by the traveler.

There is a well-established local population, though very sparse by modern standards.

Iron age technology. Somewhat warlike, hill-forts with attendant settlements. Language Celtic and Germanic, with some Greek along the coasts. Your traveler will understand, even recognize, nothing from the language. Romans exist, but only as rumors of a tribe over the mountains, they would have no influence in France yet.

Geographically, he will see forested hills, and forested plains, and swamps, and grassy plains. Maybe get a glimpse of some true mountains to the south. He should be able to get a rough idea of latitude from the sun position and at night from the stars. But none of this will tell him whether he is in Europe, or Ukraine, or China, or North America. If he was a gonzo amateur astronomer he could get exact latitude and place the date to within 50 years, by measuring the deviation of Polaris from the celestial northpole, but how many of us know how to do that? And this would still give no clue as to longitude.

Plantlife will give him both location and timespan, but... Just how many people can even tell the difference between the various plants' subspecies, much less recall where they originated and when the plants were spread by humans to other regions? For example, the absence of rice and maize and potato but presence of lowgrowing Barley and really tall Wheat will tell him he is in central Europe between 1000bc and 200bc. But... can he even see the difference between Wheat and Barley of any kind? Most people cannot.

Unless your traveler has specialized, obscure knowledge in either ancient languages, or historic biology, or astronomy with a keen observation eye and knowledge of Earth's orbital precession, etc... He will most likely remain rather lost. And also, will likely not survive long enough to learn. Primitive tribes tended to behave unkindly to strangely-dressed people speaking nonsense, and the wildlife will only care about his calories, not his origin.


Example:

If this were to happen to me, I would die.
But give me an armed escort, and some survival supplies... I could determine north/south hemisphere and rough latitude within one day, from sunsticks. This will also give me compass directions more accurate than any magnetic compass(who knows where the magnetic northpole would be, at unknown date in the past?).
I could determine the latitude within the first cloudless night, accurate to about 2-3 degrees. 500BC is an opportune time, as right about then (+-80 years) the celestial north pole was squarely on the brightest star of the little dipper's bowl.

So after one sunny day and one cloudless night I would know my latitude, and the date. (Yes, I'm a bit of an astronomy geek).

The Climate and Plantlife would tell me I'm somewhere in Europe, or western Asia. Possibly even regions of China. But nothing better than that.
Ditto for observing or interacting with natives. I know in theory what languages they should be speaking, but to actually recognize them, much less intelligent conversations? Nope.
Pity we are not a bit further south, I would recognize the old Latin of the Romans(although they are more like their ancestors the Etruscans than the Imperial Rome we think of). Would not be able to speak it well enough to make myself understood, but at least they would see that I'm trying. But the older Celtic and Germanic languages? I have no clue!

So, for my specific case, I would be able to place the date and latitude very closely, the longitude only +- 6000 kilometers.
And that's from someone having specialist knowledge (astronomy), and keen interest (ancient civilizations and sciences)

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    $\begingroup$ The sun’s altitude won’t let him fix his latitude very well, because he doesn’t know what time of year it is to an accuracy of better than a couple of months. Even if he’s a serious astronomer, precession will have messed up what stars are visible when. $\endgroup$
    – Mike Scott
    Mar 8 at 8:16
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    $\begingroup$ @MikeScott Sun's path plus observed climate and season-of-year will give you latitude to within 10 degrees. One cloudless night's observation will give you celestial north pole accurate to observational limits. This will give you latitude to within 2-3 degrees. Latitude plus sun path will give you two possible seasonal dates accurate to within less than a week each. Should be able to see if before or after summer solstice from plantlife, giving ONE specifiv week of year, and accurate latitude. Yeardate is much harder, your only clue is precession of the equinox. 500bc is an easy one though! $\endgroup$
    – PcMan
    Mar 8 at 8:29
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    $\begingroup$ Racial characteristics of the populous would be enough to determine that he must be in Europe or western Asia. While recognizing the language is out, there is a distinct difference between Gaelic/Germanic languages than Slavic or Asian families of languages that he could likely recognize (it doesn't take training, just hearing enough of the modern versions to recognize the general form). This wouldn't guarantee him France, but will at least reduce the uncertainty to only 2000 km.or so. $\endgroup$ Mar 8 at 18:06
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    $\begingroup$ @Alexander Realistically, ANY point more than about 20km removed from the traveler's entry is "too far". He is on foot, in a business suit with business shoes, in what amounts to a howling wilderness with no tools, no guides, no weapons, no supplies. I would be staggered if he manages to even locate as much as a goat trail by just blundering about. Human settlements are on average 50-60km apart. Paved roads have not been invented yet. The locals are still using pack animals, not even carts. And the Forest is everywhere that is not swamp. And a lot of North France was swamp!(like paris) $\endgroup$
    – PcMan
    Mar 8 at 19:40
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    $\begingroup$ @ash Geography.. If my feet are dry, I'm not in the ocean. That sort of thing. Possibly from thinking about why I wrote "The Climate and Plantlife would tell me I'm somewhere in Europe, or western Asia." .At that lattitude, eastern China and North America have quite distinctively different plantlife. $\endgroup$
    – PcMan
    Mar 9 at 6:15
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How to tell you're in northern France?

You're going to need to explore a bit a spot a landmark that you can recognise. You have no idea when you are so this could be either a town name or some writing style or something visually familiar - otherwise you're waiting for information to come to you (which it never does outside of the movies) or giving up.

The best advice I have is to either walk in a spiral slowly exploring and expanding out from where you landed, or head straight towards the nearest coast (follow water downstream). Both paths are decent attempts to try to recognise landmarks or named ports.

Assuming you're north of Amiens but not in Belgium (because that's where Google scaled the map when I searched "northern france"), the most interesting map feature is the coastline towards to your north-west, and also towards the coast, so you should find it with either strategy.

enter image description here

When you get there, the white cliffs of Dover are fairly unique and notable out to sea.

enter image description here

I do not know if this view is unique, but for much of the coastline in the north of France, for Berck to Wimereux to Dunkirk, you should be able to see some weird white cliffs on the horizon.

I've been to this area and can confirm they are very visible so long as there isn't fog or rain over the channel.

I think this is the only way you can determine your location in under a month in this rough area without knowing when you are. (You could wait up to a year and get a very accurate latitude reading at the equinox - buts that's a long way away).

How do you tell it's 500BC?

This is only accurate to a few hundred years, but if he has a decent common knowledge of cultures of the world, and has determined hes opposite Dover on the northern French coast, hell have the shock of his life when he looks at the sky next.

He will see part of the southern hemispheres culture clearly in the sky of the northern hemisphere. He can then know an approximate timing from the fact that you can see the Southern Cross from France.

Two very bright pointer stars pointing to the arms of a cross:

enter image description here

With the feet of the cross pointing southwards-ish. In the time period you left, this was only visible in the Southern hemisphere, it's on the Australian and NZ (and more) flag. If it was visible in Europe, why is it part of Australias identidy? And Why is this up so far North?

In one of the Wikipedia pages you read you happened to note that the Southern Cross was visible as far north as Britain up until 400BC. I've read a lot of random wikipedia pages and its nice to imagine that all that stuff will one day be useful.

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    $\begingroup$ Why would anybody assume that they might reach the sea in few days and start the journey when not knowing where they are located? $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Mar 8 at 7:36
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    $\begingroup$ @L.Dutch-ReinstateMonica You need to explore somewhere - otherwise you're waiting for information to come to you (which it never does outside of the movies) and slowly dying of thirst / hunger / boredom. $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Mar 8 at 7:39
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    $\begingroup$ Not questioning that. But you picked a convenient location. If he landed somewhere near Metz or Strasbourg, still North of France, following the water he would end up somewhere on the Dutch coast. I think he has other things to worry than "let's get to the seaside and see where I am" $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Mar 8 at 7:50
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    $\begingroup$ And if he started between France and Germany, Following the river would lead him 2850km to the Black Sea. $\endgroup$
    – PcMan
    Mar 8 at 7:54
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    $\begingroup$ As for seeing the Southern Cross. That EITHER tells you you are between 4500bc and 400bc, at latitude 50n, OR you are between... creation and now, at latitude 25n. Not particularly informative, until you determine your latitude to begin with. This change in position of the stars is due to precession of the equinox. $\endgroup$
    – PcMan
    Mar 8 at 7:57
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He Doesn't

First, our hero is an ordinary 21st century man. Gym rat, has had military and police experience though no stated special survival skills. He is basically fit but has travelled into the deep past without the knowledge to survive the first 48 hours of a plunge into the deep darks of any primeval landscape, chances are good your time traveller will either be killed by a native or be eaten by a bear.

Secondly, without soap and clean water, those wounds will fester. Without antibiotics, those festering wounds will become infected and perhaps balloon into gangrene and sepsis. This is the wilds of primeval Europe, not the local provincial park with sanitary restroom facilities.

Thirdly, without a source of clean and safe drinking water, your time traveller will almost certainly begin to suffer from Sjorgall's Revenge and will end up squatting trousers down more often than trying to find out where he is trousers up.

Best plan of action he can do is just find a comfortable spot to lay down, pull out that wad of Canadian twenty dollar notes and inhale the maple syrupy goodness as a last reminder of home, because there is suddenly a whole lot less life before him than there was yesterday evening. (But that's what you get for using a time machine to play the stock market!)

The long and short of it is: your time traveller will make for a very smartly dressed corpse.

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    – L.Dutch
    Mar 10 at 3:24
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In my opinon he shouldn't be able to prove his is in Gaul (not France), but he could be able to determne he was in northwestern continental Eurasia fairly easy, if he meets natives and they don't kill him.

The first men he meets would probably be hunters or farmers, and so probably be rather tanned, but he could probably tell that they weren't very dark skinned people. And their facial features, if he gets close enough to see them clearly without being killed, should look rather Caucasian instead of belonging to other races.

If prehistoric men take him to their camp or permanent village, or if he meets women and children gathering food in a forest, or working in fields, he should note that the women and children are lighter skinned than the men, since they spend more time indoors and haven't been tanned so much, and since women tend to have lighter skin then men in order to make more vitamin D for the health of their children. Thus he should calculate that he is in northern Eurasia, and also in western Eurasia, since there would be few groups with such light skin in East Asia.

So if he can tell his latitude by the height of the Sun at noontime during this season of the year, and by the stars at night, and if he doesn't see any large bodies of saltwater to the north, he can guess that he is in northern Continental Eurasia. If he can tell his latitude closely enough, he might know that he is near the latitude of the English channel, and maybe even be certain that he is south of it.

So he might be able to deduce that he is in continental Eurasia, somewhere south of the latitude of the English Channel, along a belt of latitude which stretches from northern Gaul east for thousands of miles to as far east as he imagines there might be people who look like that.

And he should be able to deduce the rough historical era by the technology of the natives, if they don't kill him.

The use of iron spread north and west in Europe, and the Iron Age in remote Ireland, among the last regions to use Iron, began about the date he finds himself in, around 500 BC. Thus the use of iron should be common in northern Gaul by the time he arrives there.

So the use of iron tools & weapons should tell him he is in a time period after about 1000 BC.

Lack of evidence of Christianity or Islam should tell him that the date is before either religion came to the area, and so before AD 1500 at the latest.

And lack of any evidence of classical culture should tell him that it is before the time that the Romans conquered this unknown region - if they ever did. Most parts of Eurasia that far north were never part of the Roman Empire.

And if the natives don't kill him and he learns a bit of their language, he might possibly deduce that he is in northern Gaul from their description of a channel to the north and a large island beyond that channel, and of an ocean not too far to the west.

And I think that some answers exaggerate the probability that bears or wolves would eat him, since the natives would have been hunting bears and wolves for more than 10,000 years and they would usually avoid humans.

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    $\begingroup$ Even being killed by the locals (especially on first contact) is not all that likely. People even back then traded with strangers from faraway places, so if locals happen across someone wearing very strange clothes, they will most likely escort him to their leader instead of just killing him on the spot. $\endgroup$
    – vsz
    Mar 9 at 14:23
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    $\begingroup$ Did women and children really spend much more time indoors? There's wasn't much indoor housework to do, besides cooking. Washing clothes -- when it was done at all -- would require going down to the river, for example. Tending the garden is outside. Tending the animals is outside. I'd expect the population to spend a lot of times outdoors as long as the weather permitted, and thus all to be rather tanned. $\endgroup$ Mar 10 at 15:40
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For location, you basically need him to get lucky. He happens to arrive somewhere that has a world-famous landmark that existed 2,500 years ago. In France, that probably means either the White Cliffs of Dover or the Lascaux cave (which was buried in recent history until 1940, but might have been more accessible 2,500 years ago) (I hope he has a torch/flashlight on his keychain).

Edited to add: There are also the megalithic complexes at Carnac in Brittany, but unless he’s sufficiently expert to recognise a much younger version of them, that just tells him that he’s somewhere in Britain, Ireland or Brittany. A Canadian layman would probably think “Stonehenge” and be wrong.

If he can arrive further south and knows a bit of history, Marseille exists in 500BC and is a Greek city called Massilia, which name he can probably get from the locals with mime and sign language.

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    $\begingroup$ i don't think you've really thought this through, how do you expect to get the name Massila with sign language between two people who don't share a common language, cultural references or culture? .. this is a game of charades I'd love to see ;))) $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Mar 8 at 12:20
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    $\begingroup$ That also assumes the locals are even willing to talk to this strangely-dressed man speaking gibberish and don't chase him away and/or kill him. People of this time aren't exactly kind to outsiders. $\endgroup$
    – Seth R
    Mar 8 at 16:03
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    $\begingroup$ Lascaux cave → this is not in the north of France (rather bottom third) $\endgroup$
    – WoJ
    Mar 9 at 14:34
  • $\begingroup$ @WoJ That’s true, but the OP didn’t define what he means by “northern”, so I thought it was best to interpret it flexibly. Lascaux is not on the Mediterranean coast. $\endgroup$
    – Mike Scott
    Mar 9 at 14:44
  • $\begingroup$ Would Lascaux have ever been a famous landmark? I assume that every large tribe had an Art cave and Lascaux survived because it was buried and hidden. $\endgroup$
    – arp
    Mar 11 at 9:42
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We'll presume the traveler carries a smart phone -- even six years ago in our timeline, these were pretty remarkable devices. Even with zero connectivity, most installed apps will still work, at least as long as the battery charge lasts. If he's thinking, he'll put the device in "airplane mode", shutting down all the radio hardware to extend battery life, as soon as he realizes he's in an unknown time/location and has no signal -- perhaps checking for signal periodically before he knows when he is -- or he might well be in the habit of doing so before going to his "early" office anyway, since if it's before the early 2000s there won't be any compatible signals.

If he has any kind of star map software already loaded, he can use that to get close on the date (at least to the millennium, likely to the century) based on what constellations are where in relation to others. Once he has that, he can use things like sunrise/sunset times to get an approximate time of year, then solar noon angle to arrive at latitude -- this will take at least some days, so being able to use his smart phone for the task will depend as much on battery conservation as on the software already installed.

I doubt he'd be able to get as far as "northern France" based on sky data alone without a fairly precise time reference, however. Something like "36 degrees north, give or take two or three degrees" is likely as close as he'll come.

However, the climate didn't change all that much from the 5th century BCE to the present (aside from the Little Ice Age of the 14th century or so), so he might be able to recognize vegetation common to Western Europe to narrow things down to either France, or Italy/Corsica, or the Balkans -- and separating those based on landforms and vegetation shouldn't be hard, if he's traveled a bit.

So now, our lost traveler has some idea when he is, and knows roughly where he is. Unless his time machine is one he carries with him, he's probably still stuck; he can't leave a message for the future without risking massive alteration to the time lines.

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    $\begingroup$ Oh, the climate did change between 500 BCE and now. It was first warmer (the classical thermal optimum), then it was cooler (early medieval cooling) then it was just right, then it was seriously cooler (the so called little ice age) then it was just right, then it was cooler again. Now we are again coming close the the balmy climate of the classical age. (And the vegetation of Corsica is quite different from that of northen Italy, and both are very obviously different from that of northern Gaul, even for an amateur with zero knowledge of botany. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Mar 8 at 12:42
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    $\begingroup$ Oddly, I just realized a way he could more-or-less safely leave a message for the future... it would take some atypical tech chops, though, and possibly having the right software (although almost any laptop running a Linux distro should suffice): use the public keys of whatever CA's are installed on his device/computer to encrypt his message. Only the CA's will be able to decipher the message, but if he also includes the CA public key, there's at least a chance someone will eventually figure it out... once the CA key exists. Until then, it's undecipherable gibberish; just a curiosity. $\endgroup$
    – Matthew
    Mar 8 at 12:52
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    $\begingroup$ @Matthew Of course, hopefully he'd think to include error correction coding, else 2500 years is very likely to result in loss of enough characters to render the whole thing permanently indecipherable. But just finding a bunch of Arabic numbers scratched on a rock, datable from several centuries before Arabic numbering was invented, would either change the time line, or result in the artifact getting trashed as an obvious vandalism. $\endgroup$
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Mar 8 at 13:56
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    $\begingroup$ Good points, but you could mitigate some of that by choosing a contemporary (or even older) script, so long as it's something with at least 16 glyphs, ideally in an order that would be known (I do believe ancient Greek would suffice). Or just invent your own glyphs. Starting with one of each glyph in order will help with deciphering, as will including some math tables to help communicate that you are using glyphs to represent numbers. The idea is to make something like a Voynich Manuscript. $\endgroup$
    – Matthew
    Mar 8 at 14:09
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    $\begingroup$ @Matthew don't forget, he's in northern France in around 500 BCE -- there won't even be papyrus. Unless he's a tech history geek (like a lot of us are, but few normal people), he won't know how to make papyrus from reeds, never mind ink from bird eggs and soot from his fire. He probably won't even know how to make a fire, meaning he won't survive the first winter night... $\endgroup$
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Mar 8 at 14:34
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If your traveler realises that he has moved in both time and space, but is still on the same planet, all of which you've already either implied or specified, he's already in a better position than someone without that knowledge.

If he can survive and remain unnoticed for two days and the skies are cloudless, he can at least determine the compass directions, whether he is in the northern or southern hemisphere and the approximate time of year using primary school level knowledge and good observation skills. It would just be tedious. Tracking the path of the sun, determining the length of day, etc. - sun sticks, counting seconds, finding the spot in the sky the stars seem to rotate around, all the fun stuff.

If he's wearing a watch or has a cellphone and it's still working, you can eliminate a lot of the tedious counting, too.

Seeing the Southern Cross in the night sky after already knowing he's in the Northern hemisphere will tell him he's somewhere prior to 400BCE, spotting any worked iron will tel him it's definitely after 1000BCE, and probably later than 800BCE. If he spots a Greek trading party (up from the South) he might know it was between 600 and 400 BCE, i.e. after the establishment of Greek presence on the Medetiranean, but prior to the disruption of trade to the north, but that might be pushing it. Since you specified avoiding the natives, well, not much else he can figure out easily.

For anything more detailed, you'd have to either give him specialized knowledge & skills or have him get lucky.

There are many ways to do this.

You can drop him somewhere he's been (which you already ruled out) or somewhere he has extensive knowledge of, which has a distinctive natural or archeological landmark he can recognize. This would be easiest if he's near the coast, as there are a few distinctive areas such as the white chalk Etretat cliffs, pink granite coast, view of the white cliffs of Dover accross the channel, etc. heck, maybe Mont San Michel is even recognizable. Maybe he recognizes a piece of coastline, distinctive rock formation or whatever because he once reasearched the area thinking to plan a vacation there, or you dropped him in the middle of the Carnac stones in the northwest or near the coast of the English Channel in the north where he can spot the cliffs of Dover. Or he was fascinated by the allied landings in Normandy in WWII and recognizes something he saw when studying maps and photos of the area.

You could make him a survivalist type who knows everything there is to know about finding your way anywhere - including in a doomsday scenario where there was polar reversal ....

He could be a history buff or just a fan of celtic history and be able to tell from the style of the hill fort spotted in the distance that it is celtic and from around 600-400BCE. Or a Julian May fan who has a fascination with the geography of France throughout history from the Pliocene up to the present. Amateur botanist or lepidopterist who recognizes a plant or butterfly native to the region, astronomy geek who can determine the date from the differences in the night sky due to precession, there are many possibilities.

Build a believable backstory for why he knows it, and you can give him a method he can use or a lucky break to do the job for him.

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    $\begingroup$ you could tell hes on the same planet by simply looking around and taking a deep breath. even if its another highly earthlike habitable world, its almost guaranteed to be recognizable whether or not its earth, and id you can breathe fine, it pretty much confirms that its a pretty "recent" point in earth's history (recent on a geological scale) $\endgroup$
    – zackit
    Mar 8 at 14:52
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    $\begingroup$ @zackit Someone with low level of modern education who grew up in a region with drastically different climate and a different enough longtitude may not recognize it as the same planet. Which is what I meant by implied - the description of the character's background precludes that sort of issue. $\endgroup$
    – Gwyn
    Mar 8 at 17:25
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    $\begingroup$ still, you'd most likely assume a planet with green plants that look fairly normal is probably earth, right? and based on the mention of not interacting with other humans in the question, this implies they have seen anatomically correct humans in the area. seems bold to assume its a different planet then, doesnt it? $\endgroup$
    – zackit
    Mar 8 at 18:00
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    $\begingroup$ Or in heaven, hell, a dream, a different dimension, ... I don't/can't know, my frame of reference is similar to yours and not that of e.g. an inhabitant of North Sentinel Island ... or a post-apocalyptic world 3000 years in the future or whatever. $\endgroup$
    – Gwyn
    Mar 8 at 18:44
  • $\begingroup$ Seeing white people with spears in pine and oak forest tells him he's in Europe. Their speech won't sound like German, nor Latin. Any white 15 year old kid with a spear and an irishy accent out hunting might be Cú Chulainn. If he has a longsword? Bingo. Yer boy is in Celtic lands, about to be killed or enslaved by teenagers, Celts were constantly fighting each other, if Yer Boy is a standard canuck white dude, he'd look like a scout, although he would be the clumsiest scout they'd ever seen, which is why China would have been better, maybe novelty can get him enslaved. $\endgroup$
    – chiggsy
    Mar 11 at 8:28
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I will focus on the main question: the easiest way, from a storytelling perspective, to have the time traveller identify his location, is to have him accidentally stumble on a relevant landmark.

For Northern France, two come to mind:

  • the White Cliffs of Dover as seen accross the English Channel (already mentioned above, and a very iconic landmark, that I would except a Canadian to know about, given cultural links between Canada and the UK)
  • the Carnac Stones (not so Northern, as it's in Brittany, but interesting as a unique man-made landmark that did already exist in 500BC). A bit of a niche piece of knowledge, but since it's a popular tourist spot, maybe our guy got a friend send him a postcard from there while on holidays.

As for the date, I guess spotting some locals would be your best bet. The lack of Roman influence (don't speak latin, no Roman roads, etc.) would tell you it's BC, not AD. But the fact they have iron tools (not just bronze) would indicate it's the Iron Age, so circa 500AD (plus or minus a few centuries...) is a good bet. I don't think you'd be able to get a more precise date. You need to be a bit of a history geek to know all that, but this is primary school level of knowledge for British kids (not sure about Canada), or stuff you could easily pick from a BBC TV documentary.

Edit: you could have your guy gather clues about the date without meeting people directly, by stumbling on relevant artefacts (someone's lost bag). E.g. a few iron tools (or other metal objects, like a brooch, a belt), and some celtic coinage, but no roman coins.

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    $\begingroup$ This; I think the clues left by people and their technology are your best bet; barring specialist astronomical knowledge or extensive travel to identify geographical features. Celts were a pretty distinct bunch; you wouldnt mistake them for a roman or egyptian. Bronze vs iron, another good one. South/middle/northern europe, is something you cant miss after observing a season or two at most. The trickiest determination would be france vs bavaria vs romania. Further east youd notice ethnically; but celts also didnt sit still and were all over europe at some point. Iron and celts favors west tho. $\endgroup$ Mar 9 at 11:30
  • $\begingroup$ I don't think that you'd find iron tools in Northeastern France in 500 BCE (by the way, you have a typo in your answer; it says "circa 500AD"). That area was outside of the Hallstadt zone in which you'd find iron tools as early as 800 BCE. It was only the La Tène culture at about 450 BCE that brought iron to that part of France. So the time traveler might just miss that development. $\endgroup$
    – Schmuddi
    Mar 9 at 16:12
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His best chances?

Through dumb luck he lands in a religious sanctuary of some kind at a point in time at which it will be clearly seen that he appears out of nowhere. His foreign clothes and strange talk are therefore manifestations of the divine. That gives him a much needed in with the locals. Also, it gives him the best odds of finding locals with astronomy knowledge, which was needed for calendars. (Both the Greeks and the Romans, though a bit later, said that their religious leaders, the Druids, were good astronomers.) He could pose as judging how well they have studied the matter on behalf of the gods. (That is, fit in with their culture to minimize change.)

He should devote himself to learning the language and the places. His best bet would be traders. Some place names still have continuity, and he can work out history. Mind you, this was the days of the Persian empire, though Rome was expanding. You'd have to give him some knowledge of history to work it out.

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  • $\begingroup$ Couldn't he just be as likely to be received as a demon ow witch? $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Mar 9 at 19:06
  • $\begingroup$ Hence the need for timing -- something that will make them take him as a divine messenger. $\endgroup$
    – Mary
    Mar 9 at 22:48
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Finding the location would depend on luck and knowledge, finding the time on the available knowledge.

LOCATION:

Assuming he has a detailed knowledge of the local geography, he can search for relevant landmarks. For example being able to see the Mont Ventoux would be a strong indicator he is somewhere in Provence.

While searching for food and shelter, he should try to finding a vantage point from where he can see his surroundings and try to find some relevant feature, like a river, a lake, a mountain. I am not familiar with the landscapes of northern France to point a few of them. If he manages to find it, he can try to communicate with the locals and find the name they give to it. If he has the knowledge, he can track back the name of the landmark to the location. For example

The name Meuse is derived from the French name of the river, derived from its Latin name, Mosa, which ultimately derives from the Celtic or Proto-Celtic name *Mosā.

TIME: Once he has determined the approximate place where he is staying, he can browse his memory and find a list of relevant astronomical events which can help him narrow down the period in which he is. Something like an eclipse, a conjunction or the celestial coordinates of known constellations can help him find the period of time where he ended. Quicker and rougher, he can simply check the tech level of the fellas he will meet on his venture. If he manages to not get killed, he can tell if they are stone age, bronze age or iron age, and if iron age also which culture they belong to.

All in all, it would require him to be some Pico della Mirandola to be able to store and retrieve all those information in his memory.

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    $\begingroup$ Most landmarks are only landmarks to people who are already familiar with the area. Names are also a problem: for example, the asterisk in "*Mosā" means that the name isn't attested anywhere, it's a reconstruction based on general patterns in linguistic changes. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Mar 8 at 23:20
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If the time traveller spies on the people, then there will be druids performing ceremonies, perhaps some holy mistletoe someplace, people wearing silver, bronze and gold torques, rings and bracelets, celtic inscribed rocks, fine bronzework, weird celtic military and decorated helmets, plaid clothes, perhaps someone running off saying Teutatis, the name of a god.

Perhaps the most obvious ways to tell that they are in France will be if they walk a while near the charriot tracks and sees lots of dolmens and obelisks.

Perhaps the traveller is questioned and held captive for long enough to recognize vaguely some words like "Brigand"(brigantii tribe), "rocs", "Chariot"("Kars"),"Aurocs","mouton","ambassade","bouche","chamois","gobelet","Glaive","lance","javelot"... carpenter/carbanto, chene, dague, ... Some words have slight resemblence to the celtic of 500BC, and it would be possible to figure some of them out.

Perhaps you can hear geographic names like the name of a river and places, Bayeux, Armorique, Ardoise, Amiens, Bourbon, Cantal, Auvergne, Geneve, Caen, the Parisii celts, which are all words that come from pre-roman france.

For the timing of 500BC, there was a celtic calender started in about 800BC and documented by romans, but it's very mysterious. The locals wouldn't use coinage until about 350BC, they would trade in semi precious metals and exchange livestock, it's the middle of the transition from bronze to iron, some some of the iron working could still be a bit crude, and still experimenting with iron to make it better than bronze.

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    $\begingroup$ Trying to pick out words isn't likely to be helpful unless the traveller has special knowledge. Question poses that he does not. Many of the words you chose are French (several of Latin extraction), so would not have existed yet and would not have sounded very close to what would come about later. It is also not common knowledge what Gaulish in 500 BC sounded like, certainly not outside of isolated words. Picking those out of unfamiliar speech with novel grammar would be difficult. Going off of cultural artifacts/practices won't help; w/o training most Celtic cultures appeared quite similar. $\endgroup$
    – gormadoc
    Mar 9 at 4:28
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    $\begingroup$ Please note that even 500 years ago our traveler would have trouble recognizing the language in France unless being near Paris. Modern French wasn't spoken in the majority of France until pretty recently, every region had its own language and dialect, and by "dialect" I don't mean a slight accent but a difference big enough to be almost incomprehensible. $\endgroup$
    – vsz
    Mar 9 at 14:29
  • $\begingroup$ 500BC is utterly non latinate in Brittany. The franks are a germanic tribe. French is what you get when Germanics speak Vulgar Latin, which is a thousand years from being a thing. The people here will be speaking some variation of Celtic/Gaelic/Welsh. $\endgroup$
    – chiggsy
    Mar 16 at 23:18
  • $\begingroup$ All the celtic words i listed are still commonly heard by english and french speakers. Car/dague/baiyeux is celtic not lain. $\endgroup$ Mar 17 at 3:16
  • $\begingroup$ A medium warm extensively north facing coast with celts can only be france. Esp. If has caen and armorique and brigands. $\endgroup$ Mar 17 at 3:19
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Hide a GPS-like system at some known time in the past for emergencies exactly like this

Send back in time and hide a long-lived hidden transponder system that contains an atomic clock and trilateration capabilities. Possibly on the moon where it won't interfere with history.

Unlike GPS, to keep itself hidden and to preserve power, it only responds when when polled responds by giving you the time and your location.

You could also design an electronic mailbox into the probe so users use it to relay an SOS message into the future to call for rescue. Whatever agency in the future maintains the probe can monitor the mailbox.

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  • $\begingroup$ How would the mailbox help him if he doesn't know where or when he is? I mean, he'd have to find it, which requires him to know where he is in relation to it. $\endgroup$
    – Gertsen
    Mar 10 at 7:48
  • $\begingroup$ @Gertsen Not a physical mailbox. An E-mailbox on the probe itself which you contact wirelessly. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Mar 10 at 7:51
  • $\begingroup$ That makes more sense yes :-) That way it could also auto-timestamp when the rescue was requested. And possibly triangulate the where as well. $\endgroup$
    – Gertsen
    Mar 10 at 12:02
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    $\begingroup$ Now we know what Stonehenge was about.. $\endgroup$ Mar 11 at 0:12
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Identify the Culture

If your time traveller is an ancient cultures enthusiast, he could figure it out without actually being able to talk to the locals. He'd just need to see them and their artwork.

Hair Styles

The Ancient Gauls are known for having a distinct hairstyle that to the best of my knowledge is not common in any other culture in history. Using lime, they would style their hair into white spikes or horse manes. The closest pre-modern civilization would probably be the Mohawkians, but they plucked the sides of their head to create a strip and did not actually stand them up or dye them white; so, if your time traveler is not very well educated he might erroneously assume Native Americans, but not only if he does not know anything about the Ancient Gauls.

By seeing both white horse manes and white spiked hair, your traveler could infer he is probably dealing with Gallic Celts some time before the Roman conquest. This single datapoint will get you a lot more precise than most answers on here and only takes knowing a single piece of trivia that anyone could possibly know.

The Hallstatt Art Style

The hair would tell him where he is, but the artwork could narrow it down much better. The prevalence of iron over bronze would tell your explorer than he arrived after the end of the Bronze Age, but before the rise of curvilinear artwork that rose in the La Tène period. With a strong art history background paired with the clue of the hair, the explorer could further determine the date to be somewhere between 800-450 BCE.

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He finds his journal.

Most of the text has been lost to mishap and water damage over the years, but what is left gives a sense of his miserable travels across the continent, his brushes with death, his map-making, his recollection and deduction of the rules by which the North Star would pass from (he recalls) Vega to Polaris. Eventually he concluded a great deal about his time and place. But none of that helped him to defeat the key problem that the wake of his errant time machine lands only in close vicinity to one place, one time, one wretched spot in the ancient world, with no trace of the machine to be found or hint of where it went next. And his note that, lacking any other idea, and feeling the ravages of years of injury and disease, he is going to simply keep walking into the traces of the stream that he has mapped until he either lands in the vicinity of his lost machine, wherever and whenever it might have been lost, or arrives ...

embedded in the stone, within ten minutes' walk of the place where he first arrived, his skeletal hand protruding and holding forth the journal that will inspire him to begin his researches into a means of escape.

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Cave Paintings

It might necessitate a change in the story, but let's say your time traveler is visiting one of the many sites in France where there are ancient Paleolithic and Neolithic cave paintings when he gets transported back. Some of these are as much as 20,000 years old, but others are less so. If he sees these paintings in modern times, and then gets transported back and sees either the same cave wall unpainted, or even sees the person painting it, that would give a very clear signal as to how far back he's traveled, without requiring any kind of expertise or equipment he happened to bring with him. (Let's say before he was transported back, a tour guide was telling him how old these paintings were estimated to be.)

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  • $\begingroup$ The cave paintings are rather in the south and they were discovered in the 50's. There is probably zero chance to stumble upon on in the north of France. Not to mention that they are indeed way older (after that caves were not painted because there was no reason to do so) $\endgroup$
    – WoJ
    Mar 9 at 14:28
  • $\begingroup$ @WoJ I did preface it with a caveat that it might require a change in the story. Not sure how much it would break things to be in a different part of France. The date of discovery of the paintings is irrelevant since we assume he's starting from present-day when they are well-known. The age of the paintings could be an issue, but some of them are more recent than others. He doesn't have to be at the absolute oldest site... $\endgroup$ Mar 9 at 14:44
  • $\begingroup$ Not to mention travel is no small feat back then. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Mar 9 at 19:05
  • $\begingroup$ Especially for someone who is wearing the finest clothes anybody will see for centuries. They are walking around barefoot, sandals, or maybe some soft leather slippers.Yer boy is wearing what? Track pants and a hoodie? It'll be literally a thousand years before stitching like that is available to anybody. He'll not speak the language, and he'll stand out like a sore thumb because his face won't have been ravaged by smallpox. He won't be able to hide from them. Still, caves are good. Write "F-- you, Jimmy for leaving me to die in the past." Iconoclasm will be your legacy. Leave his email too. $\endgroup$
    – chiggsy
    Mar 11 at 8:35
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    $\begingroup$ @chiggsy: seems smarter to leave your email so you hear about this Neanderthal graffiti as soon as you get your email address set up. That way you can take your time mulling over where to leave the getaway time machine for later (earlier) when you need it. $\endgroup$ Mar 13 at 0:34
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Here's some quick ideas: You can work out east and west by it rising and setting easily enough, and you can probably tell which half of the sky it's in. In the UK it's fairly obvious, but since France is at a lower latitude, I'm not sure if that's the case, so he might need to observe the shadows of something during midday to work it out. However, knowing the sun is to the south of him, and that it's not all day or all night, should be a good indication that he's somewhere between the equator and the arctic circle.

Places of worship. Looking for places where people worship or bury their dead should give a pretty good indication of when you are. Arabic Numerals were only introduced to Europe in the 12th century AD, and neither christianity nor latin were particularly present before the spread of the roman empire.

You're also likely to run into written language of another form: Runes. Your Time Traveller might not know the difference between different types of runes, but gaulish runes look similar enough to norse runes, which most people would probably have a decent grasp on what they look like given how often vikings show up in pop culture, and like the bluetooth symbol. So that should narrow it down to "I'm in northern europe". That's probably the best bet for guessing when and where you are.

Wildlife: There are multiple forms of wildlife that should help narrow down where he is to north-western europe. Badgers are a pretty obvious one. European Badgers look drastically different to North American Badgers, which narrows things down to europe and asia, as do Red Squirrels, as grey squirrels were only recently introduced to eurasia. What would really help though is finding a Yew Tree. Yew Trees are very much limited to Europe, and Brittany in northern france is one place they were originally native to. Even if he doesn't know exactly which parts of europe they're from, that definitely narrows things down to a single continent.

None of this is particularly specific to "I'm in -5th century france" but it should help determine "I'm in europe and somewhere/somewhen where latin hasn't come to yet" without any specialist knowledge. Although, as others have noted, running into a landmark he recognises like seeing the cliffs of dover across the channel would probably help with nailing down the specific place.

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I think the easiest way to solve this problem is to have an artifact travel with him which gives him the information. It could be the control interface, for instance, which he was holding at the time of the mishap. From it he gets the settings at transference, and thus his own new circumstances. This solves the problem, introduces a potential future plot device (a small piece of technological kit) and requires no further explanation.

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Other answers already pointed out how to determine the geographical latitude, I will give a hint on how to get at the longitude without accidentally landing on a well-known touristic spot:

Birdwatching

The birds are all foreign, therefore he can exclude the North American continent.

There is a twin species of crows, Carrion crow (all black) and Hooded crow (black and grey) with a peculiar East-West distribution pattern. By spotting crows the time traveller can decide whether he is East or West of the dividing line. Seeing Black crows he can infer he is stranded in West Germany, France, or South England.

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