Brittany is said to have the greatest concentration of megalithic sites in the world. These megaliths range from single standing stones to complex alignments stretching for miles and massive man-made tumuli the size of a small hill. Older than the written word, their meanings remain clouded in mystery, shrouded in superstition and folklore.
The epoch known as the Neolithic, towards the end of the Stone Age, saw primitive man emerge from his cave dwellings and create fixed purpose-built settlements. It was a time when mankind turned from reliance on nomadic hunting for subsistence to the cultivation of crops; animals were domesticated for the first time and rudimentary but effective tools and earthenware vessels developed. In Europe, as elsewhere, one of the greatest reminders of the technological and cultural development that took place in the Neolithic and early Bronze Age are the megalithic monuments that still pepper the landscape.
Here in Brittany, it is virtually impossible to travel more than a few miles without seeing some form of ancient megalith. Many sites are well cared for or have been fenced but most stand mute in forests or heathland, or else surrounded by crops of maize or sit rather incongruously amidst a carefully manicured lawn.
The megaliths here were mainly erected between about 4,500BC to 1,500BC and range from single standing stones known as menhirs (Breton for long stone), some as tall as eight metres, to careful alignments of stones that stretch for miles; from a simple dolmen (Breton for stone table) to more complex passage tombs. In its most basic form, a dolmen can consist of just three stone slabs; two set upright supporting a flatter slab that formed the roof of a burial chamber. The whole structure would originally have been covered by stones and earth forming a small mound and where such mantles survive they are called cairns or tumuli. Finally, when a series of dolmens are built side-by-side, effectively forming a covered passageway to one or more burial chambers, the structure is known as an allée couverte or gallery grave.
With such a richness of megalithic sites, it would be impossible to do justice to Brittany’s Neolithic heritage in a blog post, so, I shall simply highlight a few of the monuments that have impressed me here the most.
The world’s largest dolmen, or more correctly allée couverte, is known as La Roche-aux-Fées (the Rock of the Fairies) and stands near Essé in eastern Brittany. Constructed from 32 upright stones with nine roof slabs, this structure is almost 20 metres long by five metres wide and at its highest point inside is over four metres high. The massive stones were likely quarried about 4km (2.5 miles) away and dragged to this site some 5,000 years ago. As with many megalithic tombs, it is aligned to catch the sun’s first rays at the winter solstice.
Local folklore ascribed the construction of this dolmen to the fairies who, according to some accounts, completed the work in just one night. However, 13km (8 miles) away at Saulnières is another monument said to have been built by the fairies, La Table aux Fées (Table of the Fairies). This was apparently built by them to serve as a table where they could eat and rest after carrying the giant rocks from the quarry to La Roche-aux-Fées. The presence of many of the neighbourhood menhirs were once explained away as discarded building stones; at the precise moment the structure was completed, the fairies carrying their now superfluous stones, one under each arm, simply dropped them where the stood. It was also said that the fairies had placed a spell of confoundment upon their erection so that no count of the number of stones would consistently tally.
Another tale tells that the structure was built by the fairies to shelter the souls of the just but that these fairies disappeared with the retreat of the forest. Since then, the whistling of the wind between the stones was held to be the lamentations of souls no longer visited by the fairies.
It was once a local tradition for couples wishing to marry, to visit the stones on the night of a new moon and to walk around them in different directions; the women going clockwise and the men counter-clockwise, counting the stones as they did so. If the lovers agreed on the number of stones, not necessarily the correct one, it was said that their marriage would be a happy one.
While the trees surrounding the stones at La Roche-aux-Fées might have dwindled over the ages, it took a fierce wild fire in Brocéliande to expose a major megalithic site that had long been lost to memory and the forces of nature. Prior to 1976, it was thought that just three menhirs, the tallest of which was 5 metres high, existed at Monteneuf but the fires that ravaged the countryside that year uncovered many more fallen stones. In fact, an archaeological survey undertaken in the 1990s identified over four hundred, including an alignment of seven rows of standing stones oriented east-west. Carbon dating of deposits in the holes used to site the stones has shown that the first stones were erected around 4,500BC and that construction of the site continued for at least 1,500 years. Sadly, the stones were toppled in the Middle Ages, likely at the behest of the religious authorities of the day seeking to rid the land of symbols of paganism.
The alignment at Monteneuf with its 42 standing stones is an impressive testament to the perseverance and industry of prehistoric man but even this pales a little when you visit the Carnac Alignments, where the main sites contain over 3,000 menhirs arranged in about a dozen rows over 4km (2.5 miles) long; the largest concentration of megaliths in the world and first erected some 5,500 years ago. As you head east away from the site of the alignments at Menec, the site’s largest menhir – the Giant of Manio – looms seven metres tall.
Some archaeologists believe that these alignments once served as ceremonial avenues leading to a large enclosure where ritual gatherings took place and that the original, simple avenues were distorted over the millennia by people superstitiously adding new stones each year. Others have suggested that the alignments possibly once extended to twice the length of what we see today; we know that until the 1960s people would regularly dig out stones to re-purpose elsewhere, so, it is difficult to image what might have been lost over the millennia.
There are many legends surrounding the alignments of Carnac; some say that they were produced by Brittany’s little folk, the magical korrigans; others tell of the wizard Merlin cursing a Roman legion to stone or that they are the remains of ancient Bretons so determined to stand fast against the invading Romans that their resolution turned them to stone. Yet another legend tells us that Saint Korneli, the patron saint of horned animals, having been pursued to the edge of the sea by a pagan mob resentful of his evangelising activities, changed his pursuers to stone.
Carnac also boasts several dolmens in addition to the Tumulus of Kercado, erected in 5,700BC and thought to be the earliest stone construction in Europe and the awe inspiring Tumulus of Saint Michael, a structure that offers a stunning example of the degree of effort that primitive man put into building 6000 years ago; shifting 35,000 cubic metres of stone and earth to form an artificial hill covering a tomb for just one person. However, an excavation at the turn of the 20th century discovered a second dolmen within the tumulus, indicating that a later burial took place at this auspicious site. A small chapel dedicated to the Archangel Michael now stands atop the tumulus on the site of an earlier 17th century structure.
In times past, women, whose husbands were at sea, used to sweep out the chapel in the direction that they wanted to see a favourable wind blow. They would then pray at the sacred fountain near the base of the tumulus and drink its water. This fountain was also held to have divining powers; to know who had stolen from you, it was necessary to visit the fountain on a Monday having not broken one’s fast and cast pieces of bread into the water while reciting a list of suspects. The name of the thief would be identified when a piece of bread sank immediately after their name was called.
Just 13km (8 miles) east, the town of Locmariaquer is home to a number of impressive megaliths. Three are particularly worth noting, such as the remarkable Table des Marchands; a large dolmen erected some 5,800 years ago that features wonderful prehistoric decorations, and the Great Menhir of Er Groac’h (Long Stone of the Fairies in Breton), at 21 metres high and weighing 280 tonnes, this was the largest monolith ever erected by humans at this time but it is now broken into four pieces.
While the finds from the first excavation of the Table des Marchands have disappeared, those discovered at the nearby Tumulus du Ruyk, which was found to be intact and undisturbed when explored in 1863, are safely housed in a local museum. Immediately on entering the chamber was found a large pendant carved from green jasper and in the centre, a large ring of jadite and the head of an axe, also of jadite, its point resting on the ring. Nearby, were three large jasper pendants and an axe-head of white jade. Clearly, these valuable objects were deliberately placed and formed a straight line that coincided exactly with one of the diagonals of the chamber. Other pendants were found in the main chamber as well as 104 other axe-heads – a noted symbol of power. Jadite axe heads were also found in the Tumulus of Saint Michael and carved representations exist in several megalithic sites across Brittany. Interestingly, no traces of bone or cinders were found; the structure must therefore likely have been a cenotaph. At the entrance to the rectangular chamber is a sculptured slab, on which is carved a mysterious rune, perhaps the totem of a once important chieftain?
Another stunning Neolithic structure, known as the Gavrinis Cairn, is located just a few kilometres east across the Auray estuary on a small island; the sea level having risen about ten metres in the 5,500 years since its construction. The structure boasts a 14 metre long passageway that leads to a large circular chamber that served as a tomb, although some suggest it might have been used as a temple. The chamber is made up of about 50 slabs of rock which support the largest stone, the ceiling slab, estimated to weigh about 17 tonnes but it is not their size that makes these stones so special but their decoration; the majority feature remarkable carvings of men, cows, axes and bows as well as stunning geometric patterns in spirals and concentric lines.
Some have suggested that these designs are evidence of prehistoric palmistry; the hand being a symbol of power. Others have interpreted the designs as a map of the fabled lost city of Atlantis. The decoration on one of the stones matches exactly those found on the ceiling stone of the Table des Marchands, suggesting that both stones once formed part of a single block that had been part of an earlier monument and subsequently re-purposed.
In 2006, builders clearing a piece of wasteland in preparation for the construction of a housing development in Belz, just a few kilometres west, struck an enormous block of granite; the rump of a buried menhir. An archaeological excavation uncovered another 60 fallen menhirs, all approximately some two metres in length and indicative of a once significant alignment. Experts believe that the stones were erected and then deliberately toppled sometime around 2,500BC.
Unlike other important Neolithic sites where the soil of the period has generally been corrupted by man or eroded by the passage of time, at Belz the Neolithic sub-soil on which the stones were erected has been preserved. This has allowed researchers to uncover traces of the original earthworks and the methods used to assemble and position the menhirs. The fact that the stones were erected and then deliberately toppled was an important discovery, suggesting a significant cultural or religious shift towards the end of the Neolithic period.
It is in the north of the region that Brittany’s second tallest standing stone is found, a few kilometres south of Dol-de-Bretagne. The Menhir de Champ-Dolent stands over nine metres high and was long regarded as the tallest menhir in Brittany until one in the west of the region was confirmed as standing just 20cm (8 inches) taller. Estimated to weigh about 100 tonnes, this block of granite was Christianized in the early 19th century when it was surmounted by a wooden cross but this has since been removed. According to local legend, the menhir fell from the skies to separate two feuding brothers and their armies who were engaged in a great battle at the site. Another legend tells that the menhir is slowly sinking into the ground, and the world will end on the day when it disappears completely.
Overlooking the Bay of Morlaix, the Cairn de Barnenez is the largest megalithic tomb in Europe, measuring some 75m x 25m, and also one of the world’s oldest structures, predating the pyramids of Gizah by some two thousand years. Just as in the Tumulus of Saint Michael, the cairn contains burial chambers from differing periods, the initial five chambers dating to around 4,500BC and a second group of six that were added about 400 years later. This massive structure dominates a little peninsula and would have made a considerable impact on our prehistoric ancestors. Today, we can be just as impressed by the commitment of those same people to have moved over 7,000 cubic metres of stone, weighing in excess of 14,000 tonnes to build this monument.
Sadly, the presence of all this stone saw the site used as a quarry as late as 1955 when some of the cairn’s dolmens were exposed. Excavations in the 1960s found Neolithic pottery, axes and arrowheads as well as pottery from the Bronze Age and several of the passageways and chambers were found to be decorated with carvings similar to those seen in other megalithic sites in Brittany; predominantly axes, bows, wavy lines and horseshoe shaped designs.
Another site worth noting for its concentration of megalithic monuments is Plouhinec on Brittany’s Atlantic coast. Known locally as Menez Korriged (Mount of the Korrigans), the Pors Poulhan dolmen is one of the region’s largest and is composed of two rows of 16 upright stones supporting three ceiling slabs. Dating from around 3,000BC, the site clearly remained a significant one as archaeological explorations in the 1980s unearthed several funeral urns from the Gallo-Roman period in the burial chamber. The dolmen was noted as being used as a barn in the 19th century but the structure we see today is the result of renovation work undertaken in the 1980s; much of the structure having toppled and collapsed when it was dynamited to improve the line of sight of a German coastal battery during World War Two.
Nearby, on the Pointe du Souc’h, five dolmens and a Neolithic tomb mark the end of the world with only the remains of the 42m by 11m stone cairn, which once covered the site, now present; the site was used as a quarry into the 1970s. The site was in use for many years; the first burial chamber dates to around 4,500BC and the last to around 2,800BC. Archaeologists have identified six distinct phases of development and finds from the site have included flint blades, polished axe heads and over 100 tiny pearls as well as an earthenware vase of a style unique to this location.
The cliff on which this site is situated contains a cave some 15m deep that shows traces of hominid occupation dating back almost 500,000 years. To date, excavations have unearthed thousands of objects such as cut stones, worked flints and fragments of mammal bones but perhaps the most interesting discoveries have been traces of almost a dozen hearths. These have been found in all the various layers of occupation between 500,000 and 200,000 years ago, making this one of the world’s oldest known examples of controlled fires.
It is commonly believed that prehistoric man worshipped celestial bodies as well as trees, springs, mountains and stones and all remained objects of veneration among the Celtic pagans of Brittany. Some have suggested that primitive man built dolmens to mimic the cave dwellings from which he had but recently emerged and that later the pattern of stones within the tombs was uncovered and expanded to create stone circles.
However, if these stone circles carried ceremonial significance and were used for communal gatherings such as feasts and funerals rather than burials, it raises the question of why people of significance no longer merited massive mausoleums. There are myriad theories concerning the role of standing stones and stone circles in primitive culture; centres of sacrifice, astronomical observation posts, sites for communal gatherings and sacred venues for worship or celebrating the solstices among them. Perhaps, over time, a combination of all the above or possibly none; we will never know with any degree of certainty.
The worship of stones into the common era is not so easily explained as the worship directed toward objects possessing vitality and movement. Perhaps the mysterious nature of these massive blocks of stone retained ancient associations with death and the afterlife or possibly the stones held a ritual significance in the religion of the Celts. Whatever the reason, the worship of stones endured in Brittany and elsewhere in northern Europe.
This is witnessed by edicts from various Church Councils, such as that of the Council of Arles in 452 which expressly forbade the worship of stones; the Council of Tours in 567 ordered that ‘all those who worship stones or ruins and on which they make vows and oblations’ be excommunicated; in 658 the Council of Nantes ordered bishops to dig-up the stones and the Council of Rouen in 692 denounced all who offered vows to stones. Yet it seems that many of the old beliefs refused to die under the onslaught of Christianity because a capitulary of Charlemagne in 743 again explicitly forbids the worship of stones and oblations made on them.
Thankfully, there appears to have not been any systematic programme of destroying the megalithic monuments of Brittany so as to purge the landscape of its pagan reminders. Perhaps the local priests charged with carrying out any removal orders feared alienating their parishioners? However, hundreds of menhirs were toppled or else dug-out, moved and re-worked as building or paving stone between the 17th and 20th centuries. In many cases, Christianity simply transferred, to its own uses, the ancient religious feeling concerning stones, as many are explained away as existing due to the intervention of a Christian saint.
Sometimes, a chapel or shrine was erected nearby in an attempt to transfer the devotion attached to the stones to a Christian site such as at the Tumulus of Saint Michael in Carnac. Not only were tumuli thus transferred by re-dedication from pagan gods to Christian saints but dolmens and menhirs too. Sometimes this was done by topping the menhir with a wooden crucifix, as at the Menhir de Champ-Dolent, or by carving a Christian cross onto the face of the stone. An early 18th century chapel in Le Vieux-Marché was even built incorporating an ancient dolmen into its very structure. This is a most curious building and the only chapel in France dedicated to the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus. Local legend says that this structure dates from the beginning of time, having been shaped by God on the sixth day of creation.
The traditional folk beliefs associated with the megaliths of Brittany are, as you might expect, numerous. Many believe that the ancient Bretons venerated the stones as the abodes of gods or as seats of divine power and that such sacred sites were places where the pagan priests once invoked the spirits of their ancestors. Perhaps this helps explain why the megaliths are so closely associated with supernatural beings such as korrigans and fairies; entities who are often said to be spirits from a time before the arrival of Christianity.
In Breton legends, fairies are often declared to live in dolmens or in the springs near menhirs, while dolmens were held to contain an entrance to the subterranean world of the korrigans and their hidden treasure. This association has long since seeped into the region’s toponymy with many monuments known as the rock or grotto of the fairies and the house or castle of the korrigans. The old folk belief that only such supernatural creatures could have erected the massive stone monuments was widely found across Brittany, albeit sometimes with small refinements such as the stone blocks being carried in aprons, balanced on the heads of fairies or carried under each arm. The hours of darkness belonged to the fairies and one night was thought all that was needed to raise a dolmen. If the stone had to be brought from afar, the work was arduous and sometimes incomplete before dawn’s first light; as attested by the presence of many roofless dolmens in the landscape.
Other popular legends relate that menhirs go once a year or once every hundred years, usually while the bells of the Christmas midnight mass are being rung, to wash themselves in a river or the sea, returning to their ancient seats after their ablutions and before the sound of the twelfth bell has died. However, the stones of La Roche-aux-Fées dolmen are said to change their places continually.
Some Breton folktales tell that menhirs were once men who had the effrontery to insult a fairy and were turned to stone for their insolence, or were the discarded spindles that fairies had once used when making their clothes. Others say that they are monuments raised by the fairies to honour those mortal men and women who had made good use of their lives, while another legend tells us that the menhirs are powerful enchantments containing fairies who have been locked up by the power of magic. The presence of such a fairy shrine was seen as a guarantee of good fortune, spreading a subtle charm across the immediate neighbourhood. This belief in the benevolent charm of the stones can also be glimpsed in the old Breton practice of placing pieces of megaliths or Neolithic worked flint into the walls and roofs of houses as a protection against lightning.
Numerous superstitious rituals connected with sacred stones were noted as still extant in Brittany at the end of the 19th century. For instance, young people would rub their loins against the stele set in the churchyard of Saint Samson in Pleumeur-Bodou in the hope of improving their strength, while men would rub their shoulders against the menhir in Landunvez for the same purpose. To ward off rheumatism, people would rub their backs against the leading stone of the dolmen at Guimaëc and on the menhir in the churchyard at Saint-Guyomard.
Given the obvious phallic significance of the menhir, we should not be too surprised that a number of superstitious rituals surrounding fertility were once closely attached to some stones. The Menhir de Kerloas, the tallest in Brittany at 9.5 metres, was visited by newly married couples who would rub their bare bellies against the stone in order to only have male children; the ceremony was also believed to ensure the woman became the absolute mistress of her household. Similarly, young couples would visit the menhir at Moëlan-sur-Mer and rub themselves against it in the hope of children. Childless couples and barren women would, under cover of darkness, also visit the broken menhir near Locronan and rub their abdomens against the stone in the hope of having a child.
At Monthault, unmarried women would slide down a massive ashlar, leaving behind a ribbon, in the expectation that they would be married within the year. It was important that no one witnessed this act as it was thought only the stone could keep the secrets of the maiden’s heart. Similar practices were known to have long taken place on other stones, such as those at Mellé and on the inclined menhir near Saint-Samson-sur-Rance. The latter stone was also reputed to be one of three stones that blocked the entrance to Hell. At the stone in Plouër-sur-Rance, it was necessary for the woman to slide all the way down the edifice with bare buttocks; the skin in constant contact with the stone. A bare bottom was also needed for sliding down the broken blocks of the Great Menhir at Locmariaquer but to succeed, the ritual had to be completed on the night of May Day.
There are also accounts from the late 19th century that relate how some couples yearning for children would visit the stones at Carnac during the period of the full moon; the men undressed and chased their naked wives around a menhir. Similarly, young women seeking husbands, undressed completely and rubbed their navels against a menhir in Carnac that was especially devoted to this usage. Similar practices were also recorded at the dolmen near Saint-Aubin-du-Cormier.
Brittany abounds in megalithic sites and you never need to wander far to connect with our prehistoric ancestors. Whether you wish to visit the world-famous sites or take the road less travelled and seek out hidden gems for yourself, you will be sure to discover something to make you wonder. Indeed, there are about a hundred megalithic sites within just 20km (12.5 miles) of where I sit writing this!