The Megaliths of Carnac
I’m a geologist. So I’m predisposed to like rocks, and anything ancient. A visit to the Carnac Stones was at the top of my list when I traveled around Brittany this fall, and it stands out among my many outstanding memories of the trip. If you’re not familiar with them, or if you’re not a lover of rocks or things ancienne, don’t stop reading just yet. Not only is Lorrie (my wife and traveling companion) not a geologist, she’s pretty ambivalent about rocks generally, and old things particularly. And while I sometimes think she takes me for granite, she was nearly as enthralled with the megaliths at Carnac as I was.
When we look into the night sky, astronomers tell us that we’re looking backwards in time. When we look at the megaliths in Brittany, we’re also peering backwards in time, literally thousands of years, into a mysterious part of human history.
Megaliths are ancient stone monuments. The most familiar examples are at Stonehenge and Easter Island. Megaliths are found around the globe in various shapes and sizes, but all of them speak of an age of human history about which we know little.
The megaliths in the Carnac area were dubbed “menhirs” (meaning “long stones”) by the French archaeologists that originally studied them. At first glance, the stones in question may not seem very strange. They’re just a bunch of shapeless, gray rocks sticking out of fields and numbering over 3,000 in total. A closer look shows that they’re not shapeless. As the name menhir suggests, they’re roughly rectangular, or at least longer than they are wide. The stones were shaped by human hands, not very precisely but with enormous effort.
The stones are standing upright, with their long axis perpendicular to the ground’s surface. They’re mostly arranged in rows, some extending for several hundred meters, and including, in at least one “alignment“, over 900 individual stones, some of which weigh over 30 tons.
Archeologists and anthropologists know almost nothing about the people that erected these stones, aside from the fact that they were numbered among the Neolithic people of Northern Europe. From archaeological studies, it’s safe to say that the people of the Neolithic period were characterized by the technological developments of stone tools, domestication of animals, and settlement in agricultural communities. It followed the Paleolithic Period, or the Old Stone Age. I know only enough about all of this to know that it’s interesting and intriguing. Maybe I should have been an archeologist.
The information that archeologists have assembled does suggests that the oldest megaliths in the Carnac area were erected around 6,000 years ago, at least 1,000 years before the pyramids of Egypt. Archeologists believe that the stones had to have been transported to their current locations over distances not less than 6 miles, since outcrops of the type of granite from which they were hewn don’t exist any closer.
What would motivate a group of people to hack huge blocks of granite out of the ground with crummy stone tools, then haul over 15,000 tons of them more than 6 miles, dig deep holes in hard, stony ground, and set the massive stones upright in rows and columns?
The pyramids of Egypt were mostly built by slave labor. No one knows whether slaves were used in Carnac, but there was some extraordinarily powerful motivation for a people that must have struggled to grow, hunt, and gather enough food to survive winters, and to build shelters to keep them out of the harsh Brittany winter weather and safe from predators.
The work would have taken generations to complete, and was likely done over a span of hundreds of years. And by a relatively small group of people that probably had short life spans, meager sustenance, and almost no technology.
Since there probably weren’t enough of them to control a large group of slaves over several generations, the work must have been somewhat voluntary. Religion may be the best explanation, but there are literally no clues to as to what these industrious folks might have worshipped. There is speculation that the stones are aligned with some astronomical precision, but I haven’t found an ironclad case supporting this.
Some of the stones are arranged as tumuli, which are tombs or burial sites, but most them them are simply big stones standing upright.
Putting all of this together, I’ve so far come up with far more questions than answers. But they’re intriguing questions, and while the answers may never be found, it’s great fun to imagine what the Carnac area was like 6,000 years ago, and what the people were like that spent so much time and effort to create these strange monuments.
Carnac and the megaliths are just one of the many really good reasons to visit Brittany. The whole peninsula is a photo gallery of stunning seascapes, rugged coastlines, ancient villages, sand geologic wonders. Throw in some great seafood, excellent restaurants, town markets filled with the bounty of the region, and a friendly, eclectic mix of independent Bretons, and you’ll be hard pressed to find a better place in the world to explore.