Carnac – A Mob of Megaliths

The French call this rugged stretch of Brittany  the  Côte  Sauvage,  or  Wild  Coast. Winds  lash  across  the  pine  scrub  dunes, and  waves  crash  with  fury  against  the reefs.  Such  a  raw  and  elemental  spot seems  the  perfect  place  for  a  prehistoric site  such  as  Carnac’s  Field  of  Megaliths, where  some  3,000  great  rough  stones stand—not   in   architectural   circles   like Stonehenge  and  other  stone  circles,  but marching across the heath in regimented ranks, almost like a rock army.

The word for these stones is menhirs, a term taken from the old Breton language—fittingly, because there are more of these monolithic  stones  in  Brittany  than  any other  part  of  the  world.  Like  their  distant clansmen  across  the  Channel,  the  preCeltic Bretons were fond of erecting such tall,  tapering  stones  all  over  the  countryside,  whether  to  mark  directions,  commemorate a person or event, or provide a focus  for  religious  rites.  You’ll  find  a  few stones lined up in other sites around Brittany, but nowhere else are so many menhirs  so  strictly  assembled  in  one  place  as at  Carnac.  The  worn,  lichen-coated  gray stones—some  as  much  as  20m  (60  ft.) tall—stand lined up enigmatically in three major  groupings:  the  large  Ménec,  the curving  Kermario,  and  the  smaller  Kerlescan  alignments.  Notice  how  the  rows seem  to  grow  taller  at  the  western  end, and  how  the  alignments  are  anchored  at the ends with the ruins of either stone circles   or   small   cromlechs   (chambered tombs).  Gazing  at  them,  kids  will  readily believe the local legend, which says they’re a Roman legion turned to stone by Merlin (the old Bretons told their own version of the King Arthur story).

Scientists  date  the  Carnac  stones  to 4500–3300  B . C .  and  theorize  that  they served as a form of ancestor worship, with each  stone  marking  a  burial  site.  Besides the  cromlechs,  the  fields  contain  a  few tumuli,  grass-covered  mounds  of  earth heaped  over  graves.  The  kids  should  be able to pick out the largest of these tumuli, Saint-Michel, topped with its white chapel (a  replica  of  the  17th-century  original). Then  ask  them  to  find  the  site’s  largest individual menhir, the Giant, which stands 6.5m (21 ft.) tall.

To  prevent  vandalism,  the  local  tourist authorities—amid   much   controversy—have  fenced  in  the  megaliths.  You  can wander freely among them only between October  and  March;  the  rest  of  the  year (Apr–Sept)  you’ll  have  to  come  in  with  a guided tour. Tours last about an hour, and are  usually  conducted  in  French,  though guides  may  add  remarks  in  English  if enough English speakers are in the group. Before or after your tour of the fields, you may also want to stop in town to visit the Musée  de  Préhistoire, which displays  a  huge  collection  of  artifacts  from the  Paleolithic  era  to  the  8th  century, including  burial  objects  excavated  from the Saint-Michel tumulus.