The Ancient Avenues of Carnac

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The earth mounds and standing stones of Carnac are some of the oldest man-made structures in Europe and comprise the largest megalithic monument on the continent. Thousands of commentators have speculated on their purpose, but it remains a mystery. Megalithic monuments are scattered all over Europe in a broad swathe that stretches from Italy in the south to Scandinavia in the north, and arcs around to include the British Isles. The greatest assembly of all, however, is at Carnac in the heart of the pinewoods and heathland of Brittany in western France.

Not only are there more stones here than elsewhere in Europe, they are also arranged in the largest-scale pattern, over the biggest area, some 2½ miles (4km) long. Little is known of the people who erected the Carnac stones, but they must have been skilled engineers with recourse to an enormous labor force, and they must have worked to a preconceived plan.

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Sky View of Carnac Stones

The Carnac complex comprises three major groupings of menhirs (the word, from the Welsh maen, ‘stone’, and hir, ‘long’, refers to any tall, free-standing stone), all situated to the north of the town of Carnac: Le Menec, Kermario and Kerlescan. At Le Menec, 1099 stones are arranged in 11 rows, over an area of land 5/8 mile (1km) long and 110yds (100m) wide. To the east of this are the 10 rows of Kermario, which stretch ¾mile (1.2km). Farthest east still is the almost-square alignment of Kerlescan, 13 short rows of stones – 555 in all – which end with a semicircle of 39 huge menhirs after ½ mile (800m). A fourth, much smaller assemblage at Le Petit Menec is made up of a mere 100 stones.

All these concentrations of stones are broadly similar. They are conceived in rows, aligned west-east, although the rows are not spaced equally but are placed closer together towards the outer (northerly and southerly) edges of the formation. The farther east along an assemblage one looks, the closer together and taller the stones. Occasionally, too, the stones are placed not in rows but in parallel curves. The height of the menhirs also varies: the smallest stones, at the western end of Le Menec, are about 3ft (90cm) high; the tallest at Kermario are 2ft (6.5m) high.

The 3000 menhirs of the Carnac complex may represent only half the original number of stones. Some have eroded, still more have been pillaged by local farmers for their own uses and by amateur archaeologists. Earth tremors and an earthquake in 1722 toppled and smashed many of the stones, which made them even easier to carry away.

The concentrations of stones were erected at different times, between about 4500 and 2000 BC, which makes them roughly the same age as Stonehenge in England and the pyramids in Egypt. Although the ‘architects’ of Carnac and their methods remain a mystery, archaeologists are in general agreed that some, if not all, of the menhirs pre-date the introduction of the wheel to Europe (the first evidence of which dates from around 1000 BC, although it may well have been in use earlier). The stones were hewn from local granite, and then dragged from the place of quarrying to the site at Carnac, to be hauled into position. Since some of the tallest stones are likely to weigh around 350 tons, an enormous workforce must have been employed on the project. At a time when the life expectancy for men was 36 years and women 30, it is unlikely that anyone engaged at the start of one of the sections of the complex would live to see its completion.

The avenues and circles of menhirs are not the only prehistoric monuments at Carnac, nor are they the earliest. Earth mounds, or tumuli, at least two of which were built before 4000 BC, have also been discovered in the area. The alignment of Kermario points to an upright stone that marks the entrance to the passage grave of Kermario, which comprises a large, grass-covered mound topped by a single stone (dolmen). Inside, a stone-lined passage leads to a square stone chamber where successive generations were buried. Constructed around 4700 BC so that its entrance faces the mid-winter sunrise, this is claimed to be Europe’s oldest surviving structure.

Lying to the north-east of Carnac, the tumulus of St-Michel (St Michael) is a large burial chamber with connecting galleries leading to smaller rooms. The tumulus is 40ft (12m) high and 410ft (125m) long, and has been dated to around 4500 BC. It was first uncovered in 1862.

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Saint Michel Tumulus

The mounds and, in particular, the stones at Carnac have drawn thousands of visitors over the centuries, many of whom have attempted to explain the significance of the avenues of menhirs. As the 19th-century French novelist, Gustave Flaubert observed: “Carnac has had more rubbish written about it than it has standing stones”. One of the most popular theories is that Carnac was a religious centre and that the stones were worshipped by the ancient Bretons. Much later, the same stones were ‘adopted’ by the Romans, who carved into them the names of their deities. After the coming of Christianity, crosses and other associated symbols were also carved upon the stones’ local folklore, however, holds that they are ranks of Roman soldiers, turned into stone by the local saint and former pope, Cornely, after they had chased him out of Rome and back to his native Brittany.

One of the most popular theories is that Carnac was a religious centre and that the stones were worshipped by the ancient Bretons. Much later, the same stones were ‘adopted’ by the Romans, who carved into them the names of their deities. After the coming of Christianity, crosses and other associated symbols were also carved upon the stones’ local folklore, however, holds that they are ranks of Roman soldiers, turned into stone by the local saint and former pope, Cornely, after they had chased him out of Rome and back to his native Brittany.

According to one belief (current at least until the Middle Ages) the stones could increase fertility, and so a barren woman might spend several nights sleeping on a cromlech (a flat stone laid horizontally across several standing ones) anointed with wax, oil and honey. Alternatively, she would raise her skirts and either squat over a stone, or slide down it to absorb is magical power. Many people apparently believed that the standing stones represented the spirits of their ancestors, petrified for eternity. Perhaps they were conceived as place markers for those attending ceremonies at which druid priests blessed crops and animals. Or were they simply monuments to the dead? The word Carnac itself means ‘cemetery of the dead’ in Breton.

A more recent theory gives the stones a specific purpose. Studies of Carnac and other megalithic sites have led Dr. Alexander Thom to conclude that the builders of the rows of menhirs had an advanced knowledge of astronomy and arranged the stones either to study the movement of celestial bodies – particularly the moon, but also the sun and stars – or to use as a huge, astronomical clock, whereby ploughing and planting times, for example, could be deduced. According to Dr. Thom, the most important stone in this lunar observatory was the now broken megalith at Locmariaquer known as Le Grand Menhir Brise (the Great Broken Menhir). From mounds and stones up to 8 miles (13km) away, the moon rise and moon set could be observed, using the stone as a marker.

Le Grand Menhir Brise (the Great Broken Menhir) was once the largest megalith in Europe, standing 65ft (20m) high. It may have been the keystone of a huge lunar observatory, but since the broken pieces lie at the end of a Neolithic burial mound, its purpose may have been to guard the dead. An earthquake in 1722 might have caused its fall.

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Le Grand Menhir Brise (the Great Broken Menhir)

It may never be possible to say with certainty what the giant stones at Carnac signify, but that does not detract from the power that they exert over the thousands of visitors who flock to see them each tear. Although the stones are covered in lichen and many are missing, Carnac provides an awe-inspiring link with the beginnings of civilization on the continent of Europe.

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