Visiting Carnac would be like visiting so many of the coastal towns of Brittany but for one thing; as you arrive outside the boundary of the town, the road, oddly named Route du Purgatoire, takes you through the middle of long lines of standing stones. These fields of flowers and menhirs are fenced off but there are pathways along either side of the fields. On the day we passed by, these paths were full of long lines of ageing tourists, school groups and bike riders. We were on our way to our Camping Park, ‘Le Dolmen’, outside of which they had their own small dolmen beside the gate. I assumed they had built it there recently rather than having the camper park built beside a 5000 year old stone tomb.
We had decided we would check out Carnac in stages. Given that we were staying close to coastline, we planned our route to take in the beachfront of Carnac before moving up through the centre of the old town and then on to the Neolithic stone alignments at its northern edge.
One of the many good things about travelling in campervans is that bicycles can be strapped to the back and in spread out places like Carnac, you can hit the trail on the bike and cover so much more area than you would ever do by foot. There were tourist buses trailing around Carnac while we were there but they come with extra expense, large numbers of people and no flexibility.
From Le Dolmen we rode down to Point Churchill that separates Plage (beach) de Beaumer from the Grand Plage of the town. The ride along the beach road was very interesting with some quite intriguing houses looking out over the Atlantic Ocean such as the one on the right, being guarded by a statue of St Michael. At the end of the beach there is a protected cove used by the Carnac Yacht Club; nearby there are the remnants of concrete, defensive gun emplacements that would be a daily reminder of the events along this coast-line back in 1943-5.
From Carnac-Plage we rode up past small lakes that, on the map, were called Anciens Marais Salants. These are the remnants of the old salt marshes that were spread right along this area of the coast and were displaced by the need for a beachfront to attract tourists away from heading south to the Cote D’Azur each summer. “Come to Carnac for the beaches and stay for the Neolithic Monuments!”
Our main destination in the centre of town was the Museum of Prehistory that is the major resource for megalithic history studies in Europe. A visit to this museum is a great adjunct to a stroll around the alignments of menhirs as it assists with some of the many questions that are prompted by the lines of standing stones.
- Who were the people who had mined these large stones, hauled them significant distances with large groups of organised labour and set them up in lines across the fields.
- What was the purpose or function of these stones and their alignment.
- When did the construction of these alignments occur.
The problem for archaeologists is answering these challenging questions is that stones can’t be carbon dated and with no organic matter under the stones that can be tested, there is little evidence available of the people who set up these monuments. The Carnac alignments have been generally dated as around 6000 years old; they were built by Neolithic people who settled in this fertile region three thousand years before any written history. The people who mined and set up the stones were examples of human society transitioning from wandering hunter gatherers to small agricultural settlements that were the precursors of early civilization. It is hard for nomadic people too busy fending off starvation to set up large monuments to their presence in the landscape; the Carnac stones illustrate a settled people who could feed themselves and as well as create social organisations that created long lasting monuments to themselves and their beliefs. Unlike in other areas of the world, there are few traces of the bones of these people at Carnac due to the acidic nature of the soil in area.
The Museum of Prehistory at Carnac has preserved significant inorganic remains of these Neolithic people. It contains beautifully carved stone tools gathered by archaeologists as well as necklaces and similar adornments that speak of a settled people free of the demands of constant movement to obtain food. Being settled in communities gives humanity time to reflect on the broader issues of life that touch on the nature of their universe and the meaning behind their own fragile existence in a hostile environment. The first signs of art and religious belief start to appear during the Neolithic period. Abstract designs such as the one on the rock in the photo on the left as well as the presence of dolmens (collective tombs composed of upright stones topped by horizontal stones) around Carnac speak of communities of settled people reflecting on the universe.
The most prominent feature of the landscape of Carnac is the large barrow or Tumulus of Saint Michael on the north side of town. It was constructed four to five thousand years ago and appears to have been built for members of the ruling class of this Neolithic society and when excavated in the 19th century, contained stone chests, pottery and jewellery displayed today in the local museum. The local Catholic church of Carnac must have recognised the Tumulus of St Michael as sacred ground as a chapel was built on top of the mound in the 17th century. The current chapel is a reconstruction of this first church, built in 1923. Beside the chapel is a stone medieval cross that hasn’t weathered as well as the standing stones of the early Neolithic people who built this barrow.
A series of cartoons in the museum depicting how the dolmens were created by the ingenius and patient people of the area were very enlightening. In answering question 2 about the purpose of the menhir alignments, one theory is that they were markers or pointers leading to sacred sites or significant burial places such as the tumulus of St Michael
From the centre of Carnac-Ville we rode towards the stone alignments along Route des Korrigans, the ‘Goblin’ Road, its name illustrating that the early town planners of Carnac were intent on creating an air of ancient mystery when naming the streets of their village. Another example was the name of the road leading to our Camping site, Avenue des Druides! The air of magic that has surrounded the Carnac stones can be seen in the early theories about the mysterious stone lines. Early explanations suggested that they consisted of pagan soldiers turned to stone by an early Pope or Roman soldiers turned to stone by Merlin.
The map above of the Carnac stone alignments and other neolithic monuments illustrates the beautiful journey that is to be had by biking or wandering the pathways along route de Kerlescan and Route des Alignments. It provides both natural beauty and the mysteries of early humanity to contemplate as you go.
Like the equally mysterious Neolithic people that built Sonehenge in Wiltshire in England with an eye to the heavens, there is the less than magical evidence that the Carnac stones run in an east to west direction of the sunrise at the Solstice. Whoever the builders of these stone alignments were, they were not haphazard builders setting up large stones for little purpose. Like Stonehenge, Carnac is a place held sacred by these earlier contemplators of the heavens, the stars, the Sun and the moon who built monuments to their beliefs about the nature of life and the afterlife for their own contemporaries and their descendants. Unfortunately, the details of their message has been lost in the passing of time; however the stones remain, still pointing towards the skies as we modern travellers attempt to discern these profound messages from our Neolithic forebears.
Appendix 1: Signs of Conservation and Protest at Carnac