Built 1,000 years before the famous English site, the 3,000 perfectly aligned stones of the Alignements de Carnac continue to haunt historians.
It is said that St. Cornelius (patron saint of cows) was chased by a group of Roman soldiers and, unable to find any other way of escape, he hid in the ear of a bull and turned the legionnaires into stones. Needless to say, this is not the true origin of the route. Aside from the unlikely metamorphosis, the standing stones predate the Roman Empire by at least 3,000 years. But in an age of superstition, this may be a plausible explanation for a mystery that still baffles experts.
The Carnac Alignments, which stretch for 4 km along the Brittany coast, consist of more than 3,000 vertical stones (man-made, often conical, stones erected throughout Western Europe in prehistoric times – not unlike Obelix from the Asterix comic strip who was engaged in the profession of carving and delivery) representing the world’s largest group of man-made stones in the world. Like Stonehenge, their purpose, what they represent, and who placed them are mysteries shrouded in theory and legend. However, their status as one of the most important prehistoric sites in Europe is undisputed.
Radiocarbon dating has determined that these granite vertical stones were erected by a Neolithic community some 6,000 years ago (approximately 1,000 years before Stonehenge). The stones range in size from 0.5m high to the massive Manio giants, up to 6m tall, with the average size monument weighing 5 to 10 tons. They were typically quarried from bedrock close to the site surface and dragged and erected using pulleys and brute force. Given the superhuman effort required to create them, the formations would be of enormous significance, but Olivier Agogué, the site’s administrator, believes the true purpose of the formations may remain unknown.
“There are a lot of interesting theories, some of them with examples that seem to fit certain situations, but it’s always more to disprove them than to prove them,” he told me. “The Kanak routes are not straight; they wind and twist along ridges that separate the coastal plain from the inland land world, possibly acting as a kind of symbolic boundary between the two. It didn’t stop people from passing between them, of course, but it signaled that the geographical separation between land and sea was not random.” Kneeling next to a monolith with a serpentine carving at its base, which triggers its own set of theories, he adds, “But its ritual or religious significance is open to interpretation.”
Given this open pool of speculation, it’s not surprising that myths and legends have swept in to fill in the blanks. Stories about goblin-like creatures called Korrigans, or about stone soldiers who drank from a stream on Christmas Eve and crushed anyone in their way sound like dark fairy tales, but these early attempts to explain the unknown created a sense of awe that helped protect the site.
“The idea [of the vertical stones representing soldiers] extends to Celtic heroes defeated on the battlefield,” explains Wendy Muse, author of numerous books on Breton landscapes, history and legends. She adds that the parallels between the legend of Saint Cornély and the long-standing Breton myth still resonate today. “Not far from Quiberon, a stone monument is used as a ‘modern’ war memorial.”
The Carnac route consists of several different sections of standing stones, now separated by land, trees or roads – although there are theories that they were once intact. The most famous of these sections are known as Le Menéc, Kermario and Kerlescan, and they are also the best-preserved examples of these long stone columns. However, there are also many branch stone tombs (stone burial chambers), some of which predate the erected monuments and combine to make an unusually dense megalithic site.
The area covered by the Carnac Alignments is too large to be truly appreciated from the ground. To get a larger view, Agogué took me to visit another of the most interesting features of the area, about 1.5 km from the rows of stones. The Tomb of Saint-Michel, a huge grass-covered mound looming over Carnac, is the largest tomb on the European continent, built some 6,700 years ago. We walked through the dark, narrow passages and rooms inside the tomb, currently closed to the public, where Agogué noted the discovery of valuable artifacts, including polished stone axes and objects from Italy and Spain. Few artifacts were found outside the Karnak tomb due to the corrosive acidity of the soil.
Standing on the ancient burial mound, the countryside unfolds into the distance and the immense scale of the route of one of the largest Neolithic monuments in the world becomes clear. The 40 hectares of stone stretched far beyond my view. Incredibly, thousands of monoliths weighing several tons were mined, moved and erected in an era when lithic technology was at its highest level.
Agogué walked back through the monoliths, explaining that while the route is fairly well preserved, over time both nature and man have changed the appearance of the site. When the route is completed, the landscape will be open and the sea will be further away without the trees that now separate and flank it. In the past 6,000 years, a number of vertical monuments have fallen – including one last year.
Humans have changed the site in other ways. As we move between the stones, Agogué points to three deep fissures in one of the megalithic monuments, indicating cuts with modern tools, and explains that they have been used as local building materials, presumably including on the nearby island of Belle Île during the construction of the lighthouse.
The changes in the stones and the site are not just a modern phenomenon. “It’s a living place,” Agog says, because the site has been constantly evolving. Some of the later Neolithic branch stone tombs were even built with stones that were placed in other parts of the route centuries ago. Now that the road winds between the fields and the buildings within them, the site’s original architects might hardly recognize their creation if they saw it today.
The first major excavation at Carnac was carried out in the 1870s by Scottish archaeologist James Miln, who recorded the location and details of the vertical stones and found many artifacts within the branch stone tombs. his work was continued by Miln’s apprentice, Zacharie Le Rouzic, who began repairing the stones, re-erecting and marking the dropped ones. miln and Le Rouzic’s efforts laid the groundwork for the alliance to be recognized and protected by the state, but with this recognition grew in popularity.
Because of its historical significance and impressive size, it has attracted visitors for centuries. However, as the number of visitors surged in the 20th century to the point of potential damage to the site, a program designed to limit public access was initiated in 1990 to provide educational resources and protect the stones. Due to conservation concerns, free use of the stones is only allowed during the winter months. However, not everyone agrees that this is the right approach for the future of the site.
Menhirs Libres (Free Menhirs) is a Kanak-based group that claims they advocate for the wishes of local residents. A spokesperson was concerned about the commercialization of the site and the possible impact of more visitors, “The campaign to attract visitors focuses on the dream, mystery and beauty of the site without visitors at sunrise or sunset. The photos and videos never show the reality of summer overcrowding, traffic jams on the roads and any possible parking lots.” The organization believes that through better organization, visitor traffic between different parts of the route could be managed to avoid high concentrations in specific areas.
Regardless of the future management of the site, the route is a monument to human inspiration and capability. Now that technology is at our fingertips, there is almost nothing that we can’t find on our phones. But here, on this distant French coastline, presents a true mystery that has lasted for thousands of years and is refreshing.