Everyone knows Stonehenge but few are familiar with France’s equally ancient and wonderfully atmospheric megalithic monuments, along the Gulf of Morbihan in Brittany. The standing stones, tombs and burial mounds around the resort village of Carnac form one of Europe’s most spectacular archaeological sites.
The Carnac area boasts over 3000 standing stones, the largest concentration in the world. One local legend maintained that they were a Roman army turned to stone in the times of King Arthur, but archaeology tells a different story. The massive stones were quarried locally and erected by Neolithic peoples between about 4000 and 2500 BC.
Like Stonehenge, the purpose of the stones has been endlessly argued. Few doubt that this was an important ritual place. Some cling to theories about astronomical observatories and places made magical because of seismic activity.
At the site of Le Menec, visitors can see almost 1100 stones aligned in eleven rows, covering an area over a kilometre long and 100 metres wide. Over 1600 more standing stones (menhirs) can be seen close by, in two further concentrations. They may once have been part of the same ritual complex. A stone known as the Manio Giant stands over 6.5 metres tall.
The area is rich in other archaeological sites, including dolmens and passage graves covered in earth. Dolmens are smaller stone structures that were also covered with earth and used as graves. The passage graves occur in human-made mounds the size of small hills. These were the tombs of the elite, and excavations have uncovered stone chests, jewellery and pottery buried with the ancient rulers. A passage grave on the nearby island of Gavrinis contains elaborately carved standing stones, with more carving on the roof and floors of the passage and burial chamber. The island and its fabulous tomb can be visited by catching a local ferry.
Like Stonehenge, the Carnac menhir fields are protected but can be explored on guided tours during summer. Artefacts and finds are on display in the local museum and there are informative visitors’ centres on site. The field of pale menhirs against the green meadows is an unforgettable sight, a rare glimpse of a prehistoric landscape almost as it was around five millennia ago.