Mysterious Megaliths: The Standing Stones of Carnac, Brittany, France

By Aviva, Elyn; White, Gary | The World and I, October 1998 | Go to article overview
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Mysterious Megaliths: The Standing Stones of Carnac, Brittany, France


Aviva, Elyn, White, Gary, The World and I


We saw them for the first time in the pale, pastel light of early evening: row after row of grayish-pink granite stones, some twelve feet tall, stretching ten rows deep across the countryside. More than a thousand standing stones, each one nestling in a dark green patch of gold-blossomed broom, filled the landscape as far as the eve could see. They looked like enormous, jagged teeth thrusting up from the earth. I was bewildered by these seemingly endless rows of enigmatic stones, awed by their mystery. What had the stones been used for? It must have taken enormous effort, time, and ingenuity to erect them, since each weighed many tons. But why were they there?

I wanted to touch them, to walk among them, but I couldn't. They were surrounded by a sturdy, green metal fence. If only they could speak. All I could hear, however was the chirping of insects. the croaking of frogs, and the sound of a large tour bus driving away from the nearby visitors' center.

To learn more about the standing stones, my husband and I decided to hire a tout' guide and talk with local people. We realized our quest would be difficult when Alan, our guide, warned us that although there used to be many legends about the stones--this was once an isolated area and people sat around at night telling stories-today everyone has a TV with twenty channels. Nonetheless, we were determined to learn the stories people tell about the stones: stories. we soon learned, that ranged on a continuum from folklore to science. Sometimes. it was not easy to tell the difference.

Neolithic alignments

The northwestern French province of Brittany is famous for the remarkable number and variety of its megalithic monuments. Many of these are found around Carnac. More than three thousand standing stones are generously scattered around the countryside, yet what remains today represents only a fraction of what was originally there, estimated at more than ten thousand stones.

The megaliths include large, free-standing upright stones, called menhirs: covered graves, called dolmens: semicircular or quadrangular stone enclosures, called cromlechs: and rows of lined-up menhirs, called alignments. The menhirs range in weight from 20 to 350 tons. The largest. "The Fairy Stone"--which is also the largest artificially shaped stone in Europe--is found, broken into four pieces. at nearby Locmariaquer. It was once 21 meters long and weighed 350 tons.

These monuments were constructed between seven thousand and four thousand years ago by Neolithic people who grew cereals, raised livestock, made pottery, produced polished stone tools, wore jewelry, and traded in flint. They were part of a larger Megalithic culture that flourished in Europe at that time. We know very little about their social organization or religious beliefs, although we know that they buried their dead, sometimes with grave objects and sometimes inside large artificial mounds, and they appear to have worshiped the Great Mother goddess. Because they were farmers, it is likely that fertility rites and the seasonal cycles of the sun and moon were extremely important to them.

The three-thousand-odd stones that make up the Carnac alignments stretch some four kilometers across the Breton countryside. They are divided into four sections and appear to be roughly oriented in the same direction, from northeast to southwest. Each set begins at the west with the tallest stones and ends with shorter ones. Some of the alignments still end (or begin) in a semicircular cromlech, but others have been destroyed.

Alan started our tour at Le Menec, the largest and most southwestern alignments. Le Menec is composed of 1,099 menhirs arranged in a dozen or so rows, approximately one hundred meters wide, more than one kilometer long. A number of the standing stones are gone, taken to build the road and the nearby hamlet. At each end of the alignment are the remains of oval-shaped cromlechs, one of which partly surrounds the tiny village of Le Menec.

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