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Dolmen, Menhir, Cairn… What is a Megalith?



Menhir



A megalith in the etymological sense is a large stone which has been set, on its own or with other stones, to create a manmade monument. There is nothing random about these monuments, they are positioned to face a certain direction, they use energy currents, and they are part of a larger whole on a regional, national or even continental scale. For example, if all the megaliths across Europe are seen as constellations, together they form a veritable star chart, a fact most non-initiates remain unaware of.

Standing stones are found all over the world, and most were put in place between 5000 and 2000 BC, although in Western Europe their major development occurred in the third millennium BC. This was the Neolithic era, a prehistoric age when humans began to settle, construct villages, grow crops and raise animals. It was part of what we call the Stone Age, after which followed the Bronze Age and later still the Iron Age, which was the period when the Gauls arrived.



Dolmen



A Menhir is a tall, vertically placed standing stone, whilst a Dolmen is a table-like structure comprising a large slab laid horizontally on two smaller stone supports (orthostats). When there are a number of dolmens side by side, it is described in French as a covered passageway. The entrance is usually protected by a Menhir positioned within a few metres and which has ‘magical’ qualities, in fact the density of the granite cancels out magnetic fields in the passageway.



allée couverte



The oldest megalithic monuments seem to be Cairns (named after the island of Carn off the northern coast of Brittany) which have been dated between 4000 and 5000 BC. They are large tiered heaps of stones, clad or covered on the outside, housing burial chambers inside, and oriented towards the rising sun, on a solstice or an equinox. But even more ancient necropolis sites existed before these, at least as far back as 6000 BC. More recently, between 2500 and 3500 BC, came structures known as Tumuli or barrows which are mounds of stones and earth, internally and externally clad to be watertight, with the entrance to the passageway left accessible. These burial monuments can take various forms, and include ‘passage’ dolmens.



Cairn


Cairn



However, menhirs appear to be even older, from around 7000 BC. I have to remind myself that modern man, that is the species which all of today’s human population belongs to, originated in Africa around 200,000 years ago, and only started to populate Europe about 45-50,000 years ago. Other hominids lived at that time, for example Neanderthals, with whom we still have some shared genes in our DNA, but they all disappeared and only modern man survived, the ancestor of all peoples currently on this planet.



Menhir



What was the purpose of menhirs? Firstly, they come in different shapes: convex, triangular, trapezoid or oval. Convex menhirs mark the entrance to a dolmen, carefully positioned to allow the rays of the rising sun to light the end of the chamber once a year, on either a solstice or an equinox. Thus they are astronomical monuments. It seems that triangular menhirs indicate routes, a map, directions… whilst ovals designate a border, a watershed, or indeed a memorial to a notable event in that place in the past. It is not uncommon in Brittany for a Calvary shrine to be created around an oval menhir.



Carnac


Menhir



So, to summarise, a menhir is a landmark, a tablet, a signal, and a dolmen is a tomb. And of course there are the famous alignments of menhirs, such as at Carnac in Brittany and many also in Ireland, in Celtic lands generally, and notably the magnificent Stonehenge, a rare surviving testament.



Stonehenge



What is left nowadays are remains. We have to imagine that in the past there were maybe 1,000 times or even 10,000 times more stones than remain today, due to erosion, systematic destruction (predominantly arising from Christianity), or quite simply because the stones were reused in quarries.



Menhirs



Stonehenge



Therefore, what remains these days are merely a few rare survivors and witnesses to our history. And there is often confusion in people’s minds; these monuments appeared well before the arrival of the Celts, in the Iron Age, about 800 BC, who came from the Danube basin in central Europe to populate our peninsula, Armorique. It was not the Celts who made the standing stones, although all that gave rise to Gaul…



Carnac



These prehistoric monuments are still present in every commune of Brittany, and if you come on holiday to Moëlan sur mer, where I live and where we have numerous holiday rental properties, you will be able to discover for yourself the following megaliths, as they are particularly abundant here:

Kergoustance Passageway: composed of 16 pillars and 7 tables. Length: 17.8m / Width: 3.4m / Height: 1.4m. Legend has it that Korrigans (fairies or spirits) lived here and lured those who were on their way to the mill and made them dance all night. (Access: on the road between Moëlan and Riec sur Belon)

Kermeur-Bihan Passageway: composed of 11 pillars and 6 slabs (2 others have been lost). Total length: 16.2m. This monument was excavated in 1882: vases, polished axes, pendants, arrowheads and knapped flint were discovered. (Access: towards Anse de Lanriot after the village of Kergroës)

Kerloret Passageway: unfortunately this monument is in ruins. All of the slabs have disappeared. Length: 13m / Width: 2.5m. (Access: road leading to the port of Merrien)

Kercordonner Passageway and Menhir: wonderfully preserved, this passageway dolmen is composed of 3 tables supported by 17 pillars, 11m in length. 5 metres from the passageway is a 3.15m tall menhir. (Access: along the route de Brigneau, on the left)

Kerseller Menhir: 5m tall. According to legend, every year on the Feast of St John, the menhir would leave its spot to go and quench its thirst. (Access: via route des Moulins du Duc, above the Bélon valley)

Mescleo Menhir: a 2m tall ‘Christianised’ menhir. Situated 200 metres from the previous menhir, 1.5m tall. (Access: along route de Moëlan, on the left)



Carnac



Welcome to a land where traces of the distant past are all around.

Philippe.