Jutting out of the ground in a variety of bizarre shapes - some look like whale heads covered with moss and lichen, others like abstract sculptures carved by the wind and rain over the millennia - the nearly 1,100 stones form an extraordinary panorama.
|This is photograph of the rows and rows of standing stones, Menhirs, in Carnac.|
Visitors are left to wander up and down the rows of the Menec Alignments just north of the village of Carnac and ponder big questions: who put these stones here, how did they manage to do it (the stones stand up to 3 1/2 metres tall and weigh several tonnes) and, most puzzling of all, why did they go to all the trouble?
Brittany, in the northwest corner of France, has some of Europe's most important prehistoric monuments, ranging from the alignments of Carnac to massive single stones and tombs decorated with elaborate carvings.
While certain types of monuments can also be found in Portugal, Ireland, Scotland and elsewhere, "in Brittany you have a concentration of all the kinds of architecture," says Serge Cassen, an expert on prehistoric megaliths who directs a research lab at nearby Nantes University.
As for standing stones - known as "menhirs" - there is nothing elsewhere on the scale of Carnac, which altogether comprises close to 3,000 stones in several different sets of alignments, says Cassen.
The stones are thought to have been hewn from a nearby granite quarry and brought here by a neolithic civilization over 5,000 years ago - at least 1,000 years before the building of Stonehenge, England's most famous prehistoric stone structure. But it long seemed "quite impossible" for humans to have accomplished the feat, says Cassen, and so a myth arose that only giants could have created the rows at Carnac.
Another legend gives St. Cornelius the credit. Pursued by an army of pagan soldiers, the third-century pope is said to have turned each one into a stone. According to local folklore, dwarves and fairies have haunted the stones, and have even been able to make them move.
Many experts now believe, only slightly less colourfully, that the site was a giant open-air temple, with the rows serving as processional alleys leading to a place of worship.
Comment: It is unfortunate that so called experts assign everything that doesn't carry a signature of a "modern culture" to some kind of worship or religion. A sure sign of lack of imagination. Consider this:
From Jupiter, Nostradamus, Edgar Cayce, and the Return of the Mongols by
The interesting thing about the megalith builders is that the peoples who were able to perform these utterly amazing feats of engineering are still, in most circles, considered to be barbarians because they did not build cities, engage in agriculture, develop the wheel, or writing. Yet, they did something that clearly cannot be, and was not, done by "civilized" peoples who did all of those "civilized" things. They had some sort of "power" that we cannot replicate and do not understand.
I would like to speculate here for a moment. The first thing that comes to my mind when I consider the problem of the megaliths is that of what I call "payoff." That is to say, nobody who is human ever does anything without a "payoff," or to put it more generally, for a reason. What could be the reason for the stones? There were clearly a great deal more of them than would be necessary for simple "monumental" or "worship" purposes, or even time keeping, as recent researchers have suggested. They appear to be arranged like the inner workings of some vast global machine whose purpose is an enigma to us. For example, at Carnac in Brittany, 3,000 menhirs formed thirteen parallel lines, sprawled across four miles of the French countryside.
At the same time, could the overabundant presence of these megaliths, their "machine-like" arrangement, have anything to do with the things that are observed to be "lacking" in these peoples, i.e. the signs of civilization: the wheel, agriculture, writing and cities? Might we suppose the reason for the stones and the reason for the absence of evidence of what we, today, call civilization, are identical?
It's an explanation that resonates with some visitors, who feel a definite spiritual energy as they roam among the stones. Others are simply amazed at what the builders accomplished with such limited technical know-how.
"I'm just in awe of the people who built this thousands of years ago - how they moved these stones, and what the purpose was," Sheila Kee, a self-professed history buff from Port Angeles, Wash., says as she takes in the scene.
About 15 kilometres east of Carnac, the archeological site of Locmariaquer features a 20-metre-long, 300-tonne menhir - the largest prehistoric monument of its kind in western Europe. Toppled over long ago and now lying broken in four pieces, it is an awesome sight, suggestive of some enormous shapeless beast lying dead on the ground.
Next to it is a neolithic tomb with a small entryway, requiring visitors to bend down, that leads to a 2 1/2-metre-high chamber. Carvings of an axe and an ox-like creature are clearly visible on the ceiling.
A thorough exploration of Brittany's ancient monuments would take visitors to a wide range of locations - hilltops and cliffs, shady forests, municipalities and rocky seashores.
There are so many prehistoric stones in the region, in fact, that only the most prominent ones are typically mentioned in guidebooks. Tourists meandering along country roads are apt to be surprised by the sight of a dolmen - a grouping of vertical stones supporting horizontal roof-like slabs - in a farmer's field, with a simple plaque offering minimal information.
As well, the juxtaposition of the very old and very new can make for a jarring experience.
In the seaside town of Pornic, a modern subdivision complete with rooftop satellite dishes has sprung up beside the Mousseaux Tumulus, a tomb dated to before 3500 BC.
Having endured while more "advanced" trappings of civilization have come and gone, the tomb seems inevitably destined to outlive the latest constructions that surround it.
Another strange contrast can be found a few kilometres away, where the Joseliere Dolmen is situated in a field overlooking the Atlantic Ocean - next to a Second World War-era German concrete bunker.
Cassen asks visitors to respect Brittany's ancient sites, many of which have unrestricted access and have been defaced with markings.
"It is a big problem" for experts who have to clean the monuments, Cassen says. He notes that dolmens and some other structures originally served as graves - "so if we are thinking in terms of a funeral, we could have more respect."
If you go . . .
The best time to visit Carnac is between Oct. 1 and March 31, when part of the site is open for visitors to explore on their own. During the busy summer months the site is protected from tourist crowds, who must view it from the other side of a fence or by taking a guided tour. For tourist information, go to www.ot-carnac.fr.
The Musee de prehistoire in Carnac has a rich collection of pottery, jewelry, tools and other prehistoric artifacts.
Information on all the megalithic sites in Carnac and the surrounding Morbihan area is here.