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The Carnac Stones: Sky Watchers, Cattle Cults & The Largest Group Of Ancient Megaliths In The World

Around 3,000 standing stones arranged into avenues represent the most extraordinary megalithic monument in Europe. When were they erected? Was their purpose astronomical or religious or both? What is the sign of the Fairy Stone?

The Carnac Stones are the largest group of ancient megaliths in the world
The Carnac Stones are the largest group of ancient megaliths in the world

Huge standing stones and earth mounds erected in prehistory bear witness to the great sanctity of the area around Carnac in France. Some of the world's oldest manmade structures are to be found here, at the greatest of all megalithic centres, in the countryside of Brittany. Nowhere can the ancient reverence of neolithic people be felt better than at Kercado, near Carnac, where a large grass-covered mound is topped by an upright stone. This tumulus, whose entrance faces the midwinter sunrise, contains a stone-lined passage leading to a square stone chamber. Once a tomb where successive generations were laid to rest, its most remarkable characteristic is its great age. Dated around 4700 BC, it is the most ancient structure in Europe, nearly 2,000 years older than Stonehenge or the pyramids of Egypt.

Astonishing Avenues Of Stones

Carnac's main claim to fame is the largest grouping of ancient megaliths in the world. Thousands still stand despite centuries of neglect and active demolition by farmers. Four impressive alignments stretch for nearly 8km (5mi) through pinewoods and heathland, a remarkable testimony to the organizational skills of the ancient inhabitants of the region.

The largest assembly lies beside the hamlet of Le Ménec near Carnac, where a group of cottages are surrounded by an ellipse of stones standing shoulder to shoulder. Composed of 70 megaliths, each averaging 1.2m (4ft) in height, this enclosure is 100m (335ft) across but pales into insignificance when compared with its associated megalithic avenues.

Eastward from the enclosure at Le Ménec stand 1,099 stones arranged in 11 avenues that stretched to the horizon. The stones are also arranged by size. Starting from the enclosure, the largest are 3.7m (12ft) high but diminish in height until at the end of the avenues are 0.9m (3ft) high. The stone rows are not straight but follow a gentle curve toward the northeast and terminate at another stone enclosure over 0.8km (0.5mi) away.

The stunning sight of these avenues was aptly described in 1872 by a French antiquary, the Chevalier de Fréminville, when he called them "that regiment of stones, the startling array of shapeless rocks alignment so symmetrically". Like any unsuspecting visitor, de Fréminville had been "filled with astonishment. The numbers of these stones in their bizarre arrangements, the height reached by their long, grey, mossy outlines rising from the black heather in which they are rooted, and finally the total stillness that surround them, all astound the imagination and fill the soul with a melancholy veneration for these ancient witnesses to so many centuries."

The alignments at Le Ménec are impressive enough for their length, but a short distance to the east are the even bigger stones of the avenues at Kermario, "the place of the dead". The largest of these megaliths are more than 7m (23ft) high, and like the former array rapidly diminish in size toward the end of the alignment 1.2km (0.75mi) away where three huge stones stand at right angles to the avenues.

The remarkable layout of some of the ancient Carnac Stones
The remarkable layout of some of the ancient Carnac Stones

The third alignment of stones stands farther east still, near Kerlescan, "the place of the burning". Here, an almost square enclosure lies close to 13 parallel rows composed of 540 stones. Eastward yet again are about 100 stones of the Petit Ménec alignment which may once have linked up with the Kerlescan array.

Was Carnac The Centre Of A Cattle Cult?

Local folklore explains the ranks of standing stones as Roman soldiers petrified by Cornély, Carnac's own saint and a former pope who was chased from Rome to his native Brittany. In his flight, Cornély used oxen to carry his baggage, and because of this has become the patron saint of cattle. The centre of his veneration at the parish church of Carnac contains an image of Cornély surrounded by standing stones and blessing two bulls. On 13 September each year, local farmers bring their cattle to the church to be blessed. Could this saint's day ceremony be a continuation of an old pagan ceremony in which the magic power of the stones was used to heal sick cattle? The answer could be affirmative because some evidence of an old cattle cult has been found in the vicinity. Excavations of a Gallo-Roman villa at Bosseno near Carnac have uncovered the ceremonial statue of a bull, and remains of cattle have been found in local prehistoric burial sites.

Did Prehistoric Skywatchers Erect The Stones?

The alignments of stones, earth mounds, and single megaliths may have been erected to chart and measure the apparent movements of the sun, moon, and stars. The best evidence for this comes from Alexander Thom, former professor of Engineering at Oxford University, who accurately surveyed the megaliths from 1970 to 75. He concluded the megalith complex around Carnac had been designed to make astronomical observations, particularly of the moon. If true, the observations would have been carried out at the avenues, where four of the larger stones, including the 6m (20ft) high Giant of Manio, produce astronomically significant lines of sight with one another.

The most important stone in this observatory would have been the now-broken megalith known as Er Grab (The Fairy Stone) or as Le Grand Menhir Brisé. This lies in four huge pieces at the end of a former earth mound near Locmariaquer where it fell during an earthquake in 1722. Originally over 20m (65ft) high, the moving and erecting of a stone weighing more than 350 tons was a fantastic feat of engineering. Thom's survey showed the relationship of this Fairy Stone with other major features. From mounds and stones, up to 13km (8mi) from the Fairy Stone, important moon rises and moonsets could be observed using the great megalith as a marker.

The myriad stones of the alignments and the avenues may not have been employed directly for observing astronomical events such as these lunar movements. According to professor Thom, they could have easily been used for astronomical calculations because they form what he calls a sort of "megalithic graph paper". Despite the present irregularities in the alignments and positions of the stones, produced by the wear and tear of the ages and by the more recent re-erection of fallen stones, Thom concluded the layouts were planned by skywatchers as a series of straight lines or regular geometric forms. In other words, the megalithic avenues and associated stones that can be seen today are the remains of a great neolithic astronomical instrument.

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