Category: Normandy & Brittany
Discussed in this Episode
- Carnac (Eglise Saint-Cornely and the patron saint of cattle)
- Arzon (Le Petit Mont and Butte de Cesar)
- Ile aux Moines
- Côte Sauvage
Mysterious Stones! The Fabulous Secret of Brittany and its Megaliths
There are strange stone constructions, called Megaliths because of how big they are, everywhere in the world: most of them have never given up their secrets as to their function or even how they were assembled. Estimates are that many of them date back to at least over 5000 years ago.
The largest concentration of these enormous structures found so far is in Western Europe, and in Western Europe, the place that has the most is Brittany!
For a long time they were associated with Celtic civilization, which was, in other words, the Gauls. But recent research has shown that most of them were put together well before the Celts arrived in Western Europe and in France so in fact, we really do not know who these people were who made them.
What do they look like?
When we talk about Megaliths (Mego = big, Lith = stone) we are talking about two sorts of constructions.
Menhir: (from the Gaelic or Breton Maen = Stone, Hir = long).
The menhir are large, long solitary stones, often several meters high, some with carvings and inscriptions on them. They are vertical and stand alone. Sometimes they are just by themselves, marking a territory, and sometimes, as in the famous field of Carnac in lower Brittany, there are many of them, usually aligned like soldiers in a battle. Even if there are inscriptions or images on them, there is nothing either underneath or next to them, that has ever been found. Their function is still a total mystery, so you can decide for yourself when you see them what they were for.
Dolmen: (from the Gaelic or Breton taol = table and maen = stone) A dolmen is a construction of many medium large vertical stones covered by horizontal stones. Unlike the menhir, the dolmen were used as burial places and so are either half or completely underground. And they were covered by earth and grass at first, so they look like mounds. A dolmen could be a burial place for one or several people and so their size varies a lot.
Many of the dolmen that are now visible were discovered because the earth and grass slowly disappeared and revealed a dug out structure underneath. But in most of the dolmen there are no bones left, and it is believed that the neolithic people who made them, simply places the dead, with cloth or fur, on the surface. In Brittany the soil is too acidic and humid to preserve bodies, and so there are none to examine.
How do we know what dolmens were used for?
Interestingly what has been found are objects, small carvings and tiny figurines. That is the proof that these were places that were burial sites, although what else could have been there it is not easy to know
Where can you find menhirs and dolmen?
Anywhere in Brittany!! It is possible to see menhirs or dolmens just about everywhere. Sometimes there is one along a small country road, or in a field. Sometimes they are just in between a couple of houses or on a farm. Many are cleared with panels and signs telling you what they are and what the designs on them might be. But the largest concentration of them is in the southern part of Brittany. There are two places in southern Brittany that are famous.
The field of Carnac, is just next to the town of Trinité sur Mer in the department of Morbihan near the northern side of the Gulf of Morbihan.. This is the largest field of menhir and dolmen found anywhere in the world. It is a unique World Unesco Heritage site and has a museum and guided visits. The site is over 4 km long, and it is estimated that originally the huge area was over 8 km long.
The menhirs are aligned in a northwest – southwest orientation and are set up in a size order. There are over 4,000 stones, with 2,733 menhirs, at this site.
There are a few Cromlech: that is circles of stones: vertical and horizontal and these circles were used for some kind of ceremony but we are still not sure exactly what.
Now it is supposed that the fields, arranged as separate areas, had distinct functions, but that is still part of the mystery.
Very close by, in the town of Locmariaquer, is a fallen menhir made of granite, the Grand Menhir of Er Grah. It is broken but left in place lying on the ground. It measures over 18.5 meters long and is estimated to weigh at least 280 tons. This is the longest and biggest menhir ever found so far.
What was the function of menhirs?
Well, nobody knows but it is assumed, based on other archaic and prehistoric sites, that there was a seasonal or ritual function. Some researchers speculate that these stones were for “good luck” had special powers.
The Cairn of Petit Mont
On the other side of the Gulf of Morbihan, at the very northwestern tip, in the town of Arzon, is a huge tumulus or cairn, that was a gigantic burial site. From a distance it looks like a flattened pyramid. What is amazing is that the construction is enormous, but the two chambers are very small. So it is assumed that the people buried here were very special. And it is on top of a hill that gives a perfect 360 ° view of the ocean and the Gulf of Morbihan. Inside these chambers are some carved stones and human made piles of rock. This was a special burial site and was covered in earth, grass and small stones, until it was re-discovered in the 19th century. It is estimated that there are 10,000 sq meters of stone in this site!
There are other tumulus in Brittany, and many, many places where you can discover both menhirs and dolmens. It adds to the mystery and atmosphere of Brittany to see them and to know that there are secrets from the past that have not yet been revealed.
To visit Carnac
Visits are guided inside the fields. 6 euros per adult, free for under 18. For the full priced ticket you can get a Megalithic Pass that will allow you to go to the other sites nearby, including the menhirs at Locmariaquer, the Museum of prehistory and the site of the Petit Mont.
You can also walk along the outside of the area for a certain distance, and see the field from far away if you do not wish to pay.
So the next time you go to Brittany, besides eating crepes and galettes, and walking the coast, immerse yourself in the mysterious world of the menhirs and dolmens of prehistory.
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Category: Normandy & Brittany