Brittany, that peninsula in north-west France that juts out into the Atlantic with its distinct cultural history, has the largest concentration of megalithic stones than anywhere else in Europe. Here you will find the World’s tallest menhir, the most extensive stone alignments, the biggest dolmen, and the largest megalithic cairn. And, within the region along the southern coastline it is the peninsulas and islands in and around the Gulf of Morbihan that has the more interesting diversity of megalithic sites.
Southern Brittany is a wonderful area to visit, and not surprisingly it is one of France’s more popular tourist destinations. The area, like much of Brittany, has not been heavily industrialised; fishing and agriculture being the principal economic activities. Consequently the coastline has many picturesque fishing villages. For anyone who enjoys seafood you will be in gastronomic heaven. With the many fishing villages you can be assured of a fresh plateau fruits de mer – a platter of assorted seafood the region is proud of and not to be missed. And then there is the megalithic archaeology.
Diversity of Megalithic Sites in the Carnac Area
Some people think the word ‘dolmen’ is plural. But, it is one dolmen and two dolmens. This is because the more colloquial terms we use for some of the megalithic structures associated with the Neolithic and Bronze Age of Europe come from Breton, the traditional Celtic language of Brittany. Dolmen is Breton for stone (men) table (dol), while a menhir is a tall (hir) stone (men). While there are menhirs and dolmens throughout France, Brittany not only has the greatest concentration of megalithic sites, it also has a great diversity of site types. Making this a great archaeological destination for anyone wanting to experience first hand a great variety of megalithic sites.
As above, a menhir is a standing stone, usually quite tall – a number of the menhirs in Brittany are between eight and twelve metres high. The tallest is at Locmariaquer, and called the Grand Menhir Brisé (the great broken menhir) – but it is no longer standing. When erect, if it ever was erected, it measures 20 metres in height. Strictly speaking menhirs are usually found on their own. When there is more than one, the standing stones are in lines and these are called stone alignments. The most extensive stone alignments are to be found in the carnac area. Here there are thought to have once been four discrete fields of stone alignments. One of these, Le Ménec alignments, has 1,050 standing stones in lines that run for about 950 metres.As the Breton name implies, a dolmen is much like a table. The most simple comprises three slabs, two up right, supporting a flat slab which would have been the roof slab of a burial chamber. This table-like structure would have been covered by earth and or stones, and where these survive they are called cairns. Excellent examples of these in the Gulf of Morbihan can be seen at Locmariaquer and on the island of Gavrinis. Although there are many small dolmens that are simple made up of two or three standing slabs with a single roof slab, often a series of dolmens are placed side by side (see the example in the photo to the right). This produces a covered alley or passageway – hence the term passage tomb. The decorated passage tomb in the Gavrinis Cairn is, along with Newgrange in Ireland, perhaps one of the most spectacular examples in Europe.
Megalithic Pass – Pass des MégalithesGiven this diversity of megalithic structures, the Carnac area is definitely an area to consider to explore this aspect of archaeology. While there are a number of sites to visit in the Gulf of Morbihan area many of the better examples charge an entry fee. Visiting them all then soon starts adding up, particularly if you are travelling on a budget.
If you just want to visit one or two sites out of curiosity, I would recommend going to the stone alignments on the northern edge of Carnac, and stretching eastwards. The lines of standing stones are mostly fenced off and there is a charge for anyone wishing to go on a guided tour within the restricted area. But, you can just as easily get a good impression of the site by walking around the perimeter fence. Then, pay to visit either Gavrinis (this involves a boat trip to a small island) or the group of megalithic sites of Locmariaquer.
On the other hand, if you want a deeper understanding of the megalithic tradition around the Gulf of Morbihan, this will entail visiting a number of sites and an entry fee at each one. Fortunately, for those with a budget – and also to encourage people to visit more than one site – there is a partnership scheme of five of the main sites and museums that provides discounted rates. The Pass Mégalithes is free and is a ticket given to you at the first of the five sites you visit. Then, when visiting the second and subsequent site or museum in the scheme your entry fee is reduced.The participating sites are:
- The prehistory Museum in Carnac
- Gavrinis Cairn
- Petit Mont Cairn
- Carnac Stone Alignments
- Megalthic Sites of Locmariaquer
The Megalithic Pass really is worth taking advantage of: these five sites are the principal megalithic attractions in the area. And I thoroughly recommend visiting each of them if you have two or three days at your disposal or archaeology. Of course if you want to spend more than two days, there are other sites to visit. These are included in the various guides to the megaliths of the area, a number of which are also well signposted.
The sites and museum included in the Pass des Mégalithes are located on the map below, zoom in and have a look at the sites.
Many of the sites have very good Visitor Centres, the one at Locmariaquer is worth a specific mention. Here, a video of shown regularly throughout the day that gives a very good overview of the archaeology of the area and how the landscape has changed since the time these structures were constructed. The Megalithic Visitor Centre at Le Ménec Alignments is another good one. On top of both of these buildings are viewing areas that provide a high vantage point from which to look at the intriguing structures.
Where to Start?
After all this, are you wondering where to start? I recommend the Visitor Centre at Le Ménec Alignments. The book shop has an excellent collection of guides to suit all levels of interest. Should you wish to take a guided tour and walk amongst the standing stones, this is the place to go. Also from here, there are little trains that tour the various alignments – great for the kids! There is an excellent series of displays and videos that give a very good introduction to the archaeology of the area. From here you can explore megaliths throughout the area until your interest is satisfied.