Past Records, New Views: Carnac 1830-2000

Article excerpt

The megalithic monuments of Carnac, Brittany, in the Departement of the Morbihan, are amongst the most famous in France, indeed in the world. This region has not only the densest concentration of such sites in Europe but also retained its importance as a centre of monument-building from the late 5th to the 3rd millennium BC, giving it a unique significance in the study of Neolithic landscapes (Sherratt 1990; 1998). Its menhirs, stone alignments, and megalithic tombs have attracted the attention of scholars since the 18th century, and there is thus an unusually full record, both written and pictorial, of the nature of these monuments as they were perceived over 300 years. This documentation is of interest not only for the history of archaeology, but also because it contains information about these sites which cannot be otherwise ascertained. Such early records have two advantages: first, they show the sites before changes which resulted from the accelerated pace of destruction (and reconstruction) in more recent times, and secondly they were made at a time when the landscape was more open than it is today, so that it was easier to see the larger relationships between groups of stones. Their disadvantage is of course that standards of accuracy in recording have improved more or less continuously over this time, so that the most accurate records apply to the most altered states of the sites, and only relatively simple records were taken when the monuments were at their most complete. The following discussion illustrates how these two advantages of completeness and accuracy can be combined, so that an optimal record of these world-famous monuments may be obtained.

The historical record

The work presented here is a small sample of a current project (1) under the auspices of the AREA network, concerned with early records of the megalithic monuments of the Morbihan. It uses both archival materials and published sources to provide documentation of these sites, with the aim of illuminating the development of Neolithic funerary and ceremonial monumentalism over more than two millennia. Early records of these sites are critical in reconstructing the nature of both the megalithic chamber-tombs and the later stone rows, and constitute a resource of exceptional value for European archaeology (Sherratt 1987). Such records were compiled both by French scholars (either from Brittany itself, or from metropolitan France) and also by British visitors who were drawn by their observations. The monuments were well known to 18th-century antiquarian writers in France (notably de Caylus 1764: 369-89), familiar with Caesar's account of this area in the Gallic War, but they took on a new interest in the context of the Romantic Movement and their assumed association with the Celts. Brittany, like Wales and Scotland, became the object of scholarly tourism. While notions of the significance of their stone monuments was often couched in terms of Druidism and serpent-temples, the desire to depict these constructions led to important observations. The work of Stukeley in England provided a common inspiration both for local investigations in Brittany and for a succession of British antiquarians who, after the end of the Napoleonic War, were able to see these monuments for themselves, reporting their discoveries to the Society of Antiquaries. During the 1820s the first systematic descriptions of French megalithic monuments appeared in English, beginning with Alexander Logan's account of Carnac in the Archaeologia for 1825, making known the work of French scholars such as Maudet de Penhouet, himself a Celtophile and an enthusiastic admirer of Stukeley and Colt-Hoare and author of several descriptive works.

Although both British and French antiquarians produced a variety of records of the Morbihan megaliths (of which the most readable is undoubtedly Prosper Merimee's Notes d'un voyage dans l'ouest de la France of 1836), the contribution of British visitors was most notable for the plans which they took of the chambered tombs and alignments. …