Nowhere in the world boasts as many prehistoric monuments as Carnac and greater Brittany: the very words to describe them – dolmens (table stones), menhirs (tall, standing stones) and cromlechs (stones arranged in a small circle to form a burial chamber) – are Celtic. And the vast majority are found in and around Carnac, making this the world’s premier megalithic site, or, as one delightful Irish visitor I overhear will have it, megtralictic.
© ATOUT FRANCE/Michel Angot
The area is believed to have been continuously inhabited longer than anywhere else in the world, certainly since at least 5700BCE. The standing stones here, several thousands of them, make infants of Stonehenge, Knossos, the pyramids and the great Egyptian temples bearing the same name at Karnak. ‘Kar-’, ‘Car-‘, or, more usually, ‘Ker-‘ is a familiar prefix to place-names here.
And so, the place to see huge and unfathomable alignments of standing stones is unquestionably Carnac, where three separate enclosures ring-fence the stones. Raised around 6,000 years ago, these 2,730 or so monoliths have been part of the landscape of Brittany since long before any system of long-term communication was invented that could carry their meaning and purpose down the millennia. In recent times, too many feet have mercilessly trampled the terrain around the stones, making the earth friable and the stones unstable. So, today they have been fenced off for their own protection, and many of the wild flowers that flourished naturally around the stones have once again started to grow. But even a perimeter stance gives more than enough of a view to arouse a sense of wonder in all but the most blasé.
Most experts agree that the stones had Religious, Astronomical or Ritual purpose, maybe all three. But the mystery remains, and it is unlikely that we will ever know. Which means that the more prosaic of the thousands of visitors that come here each year can confidently opt for the R-A-R interpretations, and those closer to my end of the mental spectrum can perpetuate the endearing legend that they are Roman soldiers turned to stone by Carnac’s patron saint, Cornély (Cornelius), as he fled for his life in the 3rd century. Of course, we don’t have to go quite so far as the US Marines of the Second World War who (allegedly) believed them to be German anti-tank defences, but we can certainly identify with Gustav Flaubert’s sentiments when he commented that ‘Carnac has had more nonsense written about it than it has standing stones’.
data-custom-mark="true"Information about the Neolithic populations is scarce: the Breton soil is very acid and dissolves human bones, but skeletons found on the islands of Téviec and Hoëdic only a few kilometres away, which in prehistoric times were attached to the mainland, tell us that the people were hunter-gatherers, who domesticated animals – dogs and sheep – and practiced collective burial of their dead. They were slight of build, and not very tall, about 1.6 metres at the most. And few lived beyond their mid-thirties.
Remarkably, although the stones stand in apparent mute testimony to Man’s presence here, they also say a good deal about him. To put up rows of standing stones like these required not only physical strength, but good organisation. This was no spontaneous gesture of a bored people with nothing better to do on a Sunday than plant rocks in the ground, but the product of a single will, a hierarchical leader with the diplomacy to persuade the rest of the population. It also required ‘architects’, who understood the resistance of materials, ‘masons’ who could master measurements and knew enough about right-angled triangle geometry to create amazingly accurate circles and pass a 21st-century GCSE in Mathematics, priest-like individuals who sustained the faith of the people, no doubt when many of them were enduring horrifying injuries if they didn’t get out of the way quickly enough, and basic, raw man power.
The monuments at Carnac suggest a large population. An experiment conducted in Deux-Sèvres in 1979 with a stone weighing 32 tonnes, showed that it could be dragged 100 metres per day using 200 people. The heaviest stones at Carnac weigh around 300 tonnes, and their transportation must have mobilised hundreds of men – and that implies a population of thousands. Thankfully, they didn’t have far to come, as they are all made from local fine-grained Carnac granite.
© OT Carnac
The alignments at Le Ménec, those nearest to Carnac, include 1,169 menhirs laid out in eleven rows over 950 metres, with an oval enclosure at the western end. The nearby Kerlescan lines present 579 menhirs in thirteen rows over a length of 350 metres, and those and Kermario extend over 1,100 metres and contain 982 menhirs in ten rows.
So, quite what do we make of them? The most frequently accepted hypothesis is that the alignments are ceremonial. It cannot be by chance that they are roughly aligned east-west. The presence at the western end of an enclosure to which the increasing height of the stones leads, suggests they are processional alleyways to a place of ritual or worship, making the enclosure a prototypical temple, a sacred place, somewhere to be viewed with reverence if you came as an observer and something imbued with rather less enthusiasm if you were the sacrificial offering.
In the end, whether you see here processions of priests, fairies dancing by moonlight, Druidic practices or a puzzle as yet to be resolved is immaterial. But one thing is certain: here you touch on the past, and reach to the very beginnings of Man’s progress. It will be an awe-inspiring moment.
© OT Carnac
Comité Régional du Tourisme de Bretagne
1 rue Raoul Ponchon, 35069 RENNES
Tel: 02 99 28 44 30
For additional information about Brittany contact Brittany Tourism, Atout France, Lincoln House, 300 High Holborn, LONDON WC1V 7JH. Tel: 020 7061 6630
Comité Départemental du Tourisme du Morbihan
PIBS KERINO, allée Nicolas Leblanc, BP 408, 56010 VANNES
Tel: 02 97 54 06 56
Carnac Office de Tourisme
74 avenue des Druides, 56342 CARNAC
Tel: 02 97 52 13 52
The nearest cities to which flights can be made from the UK are Dinard, Nantes and Rennes.
Flybe fly from Manchester and Southampton to Nantes and Rennes, and from London Gatwick to Nantes
Ryanair fly to Dinard from Bristol, East Midlands, Leeds Bradford and London Stansted
Cityjet fly from London City to Brest (April-October only), and Nantes
British Airways from from London City to Quimper
EasyJet fly from London Gatwick to Nantes
British Rail and French Railways (SNCF) operate a daily service between London (St Pancras, Eurostar) and Paris (Gard du Nord) (3h). The TGV operates from Paris to Vannes (3h) or Auray (3h20), while Lille to Vannes can be completed in 5 hours.
rail services throughout France can be arranged through Voyages SNCF in the UK
Tel: 0844 848 4070
From the UK, there are numerous cross-channel services. The shortest is from Caen (Ouistreham) – Brittany Ferries – and takes around 4h30.
LOST IN LEGEND
It’s the fact that the real purpose of the Carnac stones, their true origins, have been lost in time that so greatly adds to the fascination.
I enjoy profoundly the true story that as recently as the 1960s children in Carnac still chanted the legend of the ‘menhirs’: ‘All these stones were once upon a time an ancient Gaulish cemetery. For each dead person a stone was raised; if it was someone rich it was a large stone, if someone poor, a small one.’
There are indeed large and small stones: all the tall stones are to the western end of the alignments, decreasing in size the further east you go. Quite why this should be has never been satisfactorily explained; maybe it really is the tidy mind of some prehistoric cemetery superintendent.