The Carnac stones (Breton: Steudadoù Karnag) are an exceptionally dense collection of megalithic sites around the village of Carnac in Brittany, consisting of alignments, dolmens, tumuli and single menhirs. More than 3,000 prehistoric standing stones were hewn from local rock and erected by the pre-Celtic people of Brittany, and form the largest such collection in the world. Most of the stones are within the Breton village of Carnac, but some to the east are within La Trinité-sur-Mer. The stones were erected at some stage during the Neolithic period, probably around 3300 BCE, but some may date to as early as 4500 BCE.
Although the stones date from 4500 BCE, modern myths were formed which resulted from 1st century AD Roman and later Christian occupations, such as Saint Cornelius a Christian myth associated with the stones held that they were pagan soldiers in pursuit of Pope Cornelius when he turned them to stone. Brittany has its own local versions of the Arthurian cycle. Local tradition claims that the reason they stand in such perfectly straight lines is that they are a Roman legion turned to stone by Merlin.
In recent centuries, many of the sites have been neglected, with reports of dolmens being used as sheep shelters, chicken sheds or even ovens. Even more commonly, stones have been removed to make way for roads, or as building materials. The continuing management of the sites remains a controversial topic.
There are three major groups of stone rows — Ménec, Kermario and Kerlescan — which may have once formed a single group, but have been split up as stones were removed for other purposes.
Eleven converging rows of menhirs stretching for 1,165 by 100 metres (3,822 by 328 feet). There are what Alexander Thom considered to be the remains of stone circles at either end. According to the tourist office there is a "cromlech containing 71 stone blocks" at the western end and a very ruined cromlech at the eastern end. The largest stones, around 4 metres (13 feet) high, are at the wider, western end; the stones then become as small as 0.6 metres (2 feet 0 inches) high along the length of the alignment before growing in height again toward the extreme eastern end.
This fan-like layout recurs a little further along to the east in the Kermario (House of the Dead) alignment. It consists of 1029 stones in ten columns, about 1,300 m (4,300 ft) in length. A stone circle to the east end, where the stones are shorter, was revealed by aerial photography.
A smaller group of 555 stones, further to the east of the other two sites. It is composed of 13 lines with a total length of about 800 metres (2,600 ft), ranging in height from 80 cm (2 ft 7 in) to 4 m (13 ft). At the extreme west, where the stones are tallest, there is a stone circle which has 39 stones. There may also be another stone circle to the north.
A much smaller group, further east again of Kerlescan, falling within the commune of La Trinité-sur-Mer. These are now set in woods, and most are covered with moss and ivy.
There are several tumuli, mounds of earth built up over a grave. In this area, they generally feature a passage leading to a central chamber which once held neolithic artefacts.
The tumulus of Saint-Michel was constructed between 5000 BC and 3400 BC. At its base it is 125 by 60 m (410 by 197 ft), and is 12 m (39 ft) high. It required 35,000 cubic metres (46,000 cu yd) of stone and earth. Its function was the same as that of the pyramids of Egypt: a tomb for the members of the ruling class. It contained various funerary objects, such as 15 stone chests, pottery, jewellery, most of which are currently held by the Museum of Prehistory of Carnac. It was excavated in 1862 by René Galles with a series of vertical pits, digging down 8 m (26 ft). Le Rouzic also excavated it between 1900 and 1907 discovering the tomb and the stone chests.
A chapel was built on top in 1663 but was rebuilt in 1813, before being destroyed in 1923. The current building is an identical reconstruction of the 1663 chapel, built in 1926.
Moustoir 47.6119°N 3.0608°W
Also known as Er Mané, it is a chamber tomb 85 m (279 ft) long, 35 m (115 ft) wide, and 5 m (16 ft) high. It has a dolmen at the west end, and two tombs at the east end A small menhir, approximately 3 m (10 ft) high, is nearby.
There are several dolmens scattered around the area. These dolmens are generally considered to have been tombs; however, the acidic soil of Brittany has eroded away the bones. They were constructed with several large stones supporting a capstone, then buried under a mound of earth. In many cases, the mound is no longer present, sometimes due to archeological excavation, and only the large stones remain, in various states of ruin.
North, near the Chapelle de La Madeleine. Has a completely covered roof.
La Madeleine 47.6208°N 3.0482°W
A large dolmen measuring 12 by 5 m (39 by 16 ft), with a 5 m (16 ft) long broken capstone. It is named after the nearby Chapelle de La Madeleine, which is still used.
A rare dolmen still covered by its original cairn. South of the Kermario alignments, it is 25 to 30 metres (82–98 ft) wide, 5 m (16 ft) high, and has a small menhir on top. Previously surrounded by a circle of small menhirs 4 m (13 ft) out, the main passage is 6.5 m (21 ft) long and leads to a large chamber where numerous artifacts were found, including axes, arrowheads, some animal and human teeth, some pearls and sherds, and 26 beads of a unique bluish Nephrite gem. It has some Megalithic art carved on its inner surfaces in the form of serpentines and a human-sized double-axe symbol carved in the underside of its main roof slab. In ancient cultures, the axe and more precisely the bi-pennis used to represent the lightning powers of divinity. It was constructed around 4600 BC and used for approximately 3,000 years.
A roughly rectangular mound, with only one capstone remaining. It is aligned east-to-west, with a passage entrance to the south.
On a small hill, has two separate chambers.
Mané-Kerioned (Pixies' mound or Grotte de Grionnec)
A group of three dolmens with layout unique in Brittany, once covered by a tumulus. Whereas most groups of dolmens are parallel, these are arranged in a horseshoe. The largest of the three is at the east, 11 metres (36 ft).
A "classic" dolmen, with a 40-tonne (44-short-ton), 7.6-metre (24 ft 11 in) tablestone resting on pillars roughly 1.8 m (5 ft 11 in) high. Prior to 1900, it was connected by a passage making it 24 m (79 ft) long.
Crucuno stone rectangle 47.625°N 3.121667°W
A classic 3, 4, 5 rectangle of 21 menhirs varying in height from 0.91 metres (3.0 ft) to 2.4 metres (7.9 ft) that is aligned along its diagonal to the midsummer sunrise. Alexander Thom suggested it measured forty by thirty of his megalithic yards.
There are some individual menhirs and at least one other formation which do not fit into the above categories.
An arrangement of stones to form the perimeter of a large rectangle. Originally a "tertre tumulus" with a central mound, it is 37 m (121 ft) long, and aligned to east of northeast. The quadrilateral is 10 m (33 ft) wide to the east, but only 7 m (23 ft) wide at the west.
Manio giant 47.6034°N 3.056°W
Near the quadrilateral is a single massive menhir, now known as the "Giant". Over 6.5 m (21 ft) tall, it was re-erected around 1900 by Zacharie Le Rouzic, and overlooks the nearby Kerlescan alignment.
From the 1720s increasing interest was shown in these features. In 1796, for example, La Tour d'Auvergne attributed them to druidic gatherings. In 1805, A. Maudet de Penhoët claimed they represented stars in the sky.
Englishmen Francis Ronalds and Alexander Blair made a detailed survey of the stones in 1834. Ronalds created the first accurate drawings of many of them with his patented perspective tracing instrument, which were printed in a book Sketches at Carnac (Brittany) in 1834.
The first extensive excavation was performed in the 1860s by Scottish antiquary James Miln (1819–1881), who reported that by then fewer than 700 of the 3,000 stones were still standing. Towards 1875, Miln engaged a local boy, Zacharie Le Rouzic (fr) (1864–1939), as his assistant, and Zacharie learnt archaeology on the job. After Miln's death, he left the results of his excavations to the town of Carnac, and the James Miln Museum was established there by his brother Robert to house the artefacts. Zacharie became the director of the Museum and, although self-taught, became an internationally recognised expert on megaliths in the region. He too left the results of his work to the town, and the museum is now named Le Musée de Préhistoire James Miln – Zacharie le Rouzic.
In 1887, H. de Cleuziou argued for a connection between the rows of stones and the directions of sunsets at the solstices.
Among more recent studies, Alexander Thom worked with his son Archie from 1970 to 1974 to carry out a detailed survey of the Carnac alignments, and produced a series of papers on the astronomical alignments of the stones as well as statistical analysis supporting his concept of the megalithic yard. Thom's megalithic yard has been challenged.
There are also general theories on the use of the stones as astronomical observatories, as has been claimed for Stonehenge. According to one such theory, the massive menhir at nearby Locmariaquer was linked to the alignments for such a purpose.