Amid the kaleidoscope of fascinating remnants from over 2,000 years of its recorded history, ranging from Roman-era structures to medieval fortresses to Renaissance chateaux, Classical French architecture and some modern masterpieces, every now and then, a traveler in France runs into mysterious remnants of the unrecorded history of France, survivors from the eons since Celts were dominant occupants of what came to be known first as Gaul, and later France.
Those remnants are clearly primitive in appearance, but have a very distinctive look. They have been given a name that most French citizens recognize, even if most have no clue how or why they are present among them: megaliths. That ignorance is largely shared by those who are fascinated by them and yearn to know more. There is only so much that we can divine about what went through the minds of the prehistoric men who erected them.
What we know about them is that they are large standing stones that appear to have been erected to be monuments, and that some of them are part of more complex structures that are called alignments and still others that are called dolmens, in which at least two standing stones are capped by a stone placed horizontally on top of the two. Sometimes one finds a sequence of dolmens that were adjoined, and which are referred to as a tumulus. Tumuli that are covered with earth or other stones are called cairns.
More rarely we run into standing stones that are a series of menhirs and/or dolmens that are arranged in a circle or an oval, which are called henges, the most renowned of which is the one in the UK called Stonehenge.
Sprinkled here and there, you run into them all over France, but their greatest concentration is in Brittany, where they number in the thousands (over 3,000 of them in Carnac alone). They began to appear about 4,500 BC and continued to be erected as recently as 200 BC. In a recently published study led by Bettina Paulson at the University of Gothenberg in Sweden, in which 2,000 megaliths from all over Europe were carbon dated, her team concluded that they originated in a first wave that spread from Brittany, followed by two further succeeding waves that later spread via maritime trade routes along the western coasts of Europe.
Divining the purpose of menhirs, or single standing stones, is a conundrum that so far has defied proof, and reduces us to imagining purposes that we then attribute to those who built them. Calling them monuments is probably correct, but how can we be sure? We probably will never know how close or far we are from their true intended purposes.
Some tumuli contain human remains and are surmised to be burial chambers, but not all of them do. The one on the island of Gavrinis in the Morbihan Gulf of South Brittany, teases us into guessing that they also had astronomical functions. That is the result of the discovery that there are times when a shaft of sunlight penetrates through the succession of dolmens that is the entrance to the chamber at the end. It happens once a year on the occasion of the vernal equinox.
The discovery of valuable objects in some tumuli and actual human remains in still others leads us to think that at least some tumuli were intended as passage graves through which we can imagine it was intended that the recently deceased would pass from the world of the living to the world of the dead. Is there any proof of that? No.
If you are planning a tour of Brittany and the mystery of megaliths has an appeal for you, it is easy to incorporate seeing some or even many of them into your tour. A couple hours are sufficient for a round trip drive to visit the Middle-Neolithic Fairies’ Rock (La Roche-aux-Fées), east of Rennes, which dates from the fourth millennium BC.
Driving west, you can explore countless megaliths in the Broceliande aka Paimpont Forest in one afternoon, with an added attraction: Broceliande is where Merlin the Wizard and some of the stories of Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table played out.
Stonehenge has been demonstrated to have been designed at least in part to identify the summer solstice.
If you drive south, you can visit three monumental megaliths at Locmariaquer, on the left shoulder of the entrance to the vast inland sea, the Morbihan Gulf. On your way, you can choose to see the Carnac alignments, already mentioned above.
The monumental megaliths of Locmariaquer are named the Broken Menhir, the Merchant’s Table and the Er Grah tumulus. The first was a stone that was erected circa 4500 BC stood 60 metres high and weighed nearly 350 tons. Yet at about 4000 BC something caused it to topple and break into four pieces. The Merchant’s Table (3700 BC) is thought to be a funerary chamber which has been restored in modern time as a tumulus. It has a fascinating link to the Gavrinis cairn also mentioned above.
You need to devote half a day to seeing Gavrinis, because it is only accessible by joining a group visit that departs in a small boat from Larmor Baden. There you will be led by an official guide to the tumulus and inside. If you go in the morning, your boat will do a loop around another megalithic structure on a neighboring island, the crom-lech of Er Lanic. It is an ensemble of menhirs erected in the shape of a large ‘eight.’ Purpose? Who knows?
We have had several clients who have asked us to include some or all of a whole day in a four day tour of Brittany devoted to seeing some of its megaliths (https://www.parisluxurytours.com/brittany-tours/). Indeed, we had one lady who asked us to design all four days for the exploration of Breton megaliths. Her interest in the subject appeared to grow with each day.