Breizh Poellrezh SF - Douarañ Santel
Breizh Poellrezh SF - Douarañ Santel

Megaliths and Menhirs

Tumuli and Cairns

People have occupied Armorica since the Palaeolithic era. Living originally as hunter-gatherers, during the Neolithic period (around 4500 BC), the population became settled and gradually mastered the techniques of raising livestock, cultivating crops and building. This was the civilisation that created the tradition of standing stones. Most of the megaliths (dolmens, tumulus, and menhirs) wereconstructed between 4500 and 200 BC, at a time when, according to one Greek scholar, the Ancient Greeks were struggling to come to terms with the complexities of democracy, these people were plotting the course of the stars and the influence of the moon in relation to the seasons of the year. With almost 3000 standing stones spread over several sites, Carnac is the place to see some of the greatest vestiges of megalithic art.

Dolmens

A Breton word meaning long stones, these were once used as communal sepulchres. They comprise monumental stones raised as basic stone tables, covered alleyways or corridors leading to a mortuary chamber. Some dolmens are decorated with various motifs: idols, snakes, cross or axes, and elaborately engraved, such as the one at Gravinis, in the Gulf of Morbihan. Initially they housed some 15 dead, perhaps all members of the same family, or eminent personages but by the end of the Neolithic, they sometimes accommodated the bones of hundreds of people. The dolmens had a cultural purpose and were associated with funeral rites celebrating the passage from life to death. Frequently they were established at remote sites, thus reinforcing the secret nature of these rites.

A tumulus is a mound of earth and stones covering a mortuary chamber. The internal structure is in wood and small stone slabs. Within the family of collective sepulchres, the most highly structured is the cairn, constructed using stone blocks forming dry-stone walls. This juxtaposition of compartments indicates that Cairns were the sites of various types of ceremony. Tumulus and Cairns are generally constructed at sites visible from afar, of symbolic importance, and the central point of the community.

Menhirs

 

This is a Breton word meaning standing stones, menhirs are even more numerous and mysterious than the dolmens. Isolated or in groups, they may be arranged in a straight line, in alignment or in a circle. Their size ranges from a few centimetres to more than twenty metres. The spacing between the stones, their orientation and the outline they define was certainly of ritual or astronomical significance. Reference has been made to religious rites linked to the cult of fertility, or ceremonies in honour of the sun, etc. Their location does not appear to be the result of random hazard, but fulfils a real function. The alignments at Carnac, for example, appear to indicate the positions of the sun throughout the year.

A good example of a menhir is the one to the left. This huge standing stone is near Dol De Bretagne and is 9.5m (almost 32ft) high and is granite that was probably transported about 4km to get it here. It weighs around 50 tons and has been smoothed and shaped. The base is almost square in section then it gently tapers to a rounded top.

A word of caution, if you are using a British GPS to guide you to the sites of these stones don't bother, its about as useful as a cat-flap in a submarine unless you spend about 300€ on a replacement card that is supplied by IGN - the French equivalent of Ordinance Survey. You will get lost; believe us, we found out the hard way.

 

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