Feature Articles – Carnac: A Promenade of Souls
The enigmatic stone rows of Carnac, on the shores of Brittany, have defied a comprehensive explanation. What could be the purpose of thousands of stones, aligned in rows? Maybe their very straightness is the answer?
by Philip Coppens
The furthest western point of Brittany is called Finistère – Finnis Terre – the End of the World. Beyond is the sea. But once, during the Last Ice Age, there was no sea. Then, of course, the Ice Age ended and the sea made this the end of the world. Then, five thousand years later, in southern Brittany, around Carnac and its neighbouring villages, four thousand megalithic stones were erected, many of them in stone rows, which has become the signature of Carnac. Archaeologists believe that the original amount was probably close to ten thousand stones. Though the stone rows of Carnac are not unique – they are found elsewhere in France and abroad – Carnac does have the most impressive and the most gigantic stone alignments in the world. But what purpose they served, is a big question. Archaeologists date the stone rows as being 5000 to 6000 years old, making them approximately 1000 years older than the Great Pyramid of Giza, in Egypt. It should therefore come as no surprise that locally, the stone rows are compared with a “Neolithic cathedral”. The region of Carnac is notorious for its granite surface. The greatest miracle of the stone rows is therefore not that they exist. It is known that the largest stones weigh more than twenty tons. Modern reconstructions, using tools and techniques that were known to our Neolithic ancestors, have shown that a group of approximately twenty people were able to create a stone of such size. But, as mentioned, this is not the enigma. The enigma is that the stones are still standing. The surface of the Neolithic Age is barely twenty centimetres below the present level. The granite layer sits at forty centimetres below the present level. This meant that the stones were placed at a maximum depth of twenty centimetres. In this shallow hole, they had to create all the required and available balance to keep the stone upright. Despite the odds, they managed to succeed in this, as is evidenced by thousands of stones. And what is even more remarkable is that they still stand… Whereas many megalithic remains have been seriously damaged and been the subject of wilful vandalism (such as in the English Avebury, where its stone row was once much longer and more majestic), the key to the survival of the Carnac megaliths might be that they were largely invisible until the 17th century. Documents do not refer to them and most likely they were hidden by intense shrubs and other foliage that masked them from passers-by.
In the 17th century, there was a need for more agricultural farmland, which meant a search for new fields, which led to the discovery of the megaliths. Because of this need for new territory, some stone rows were demolished, but in the end, there were simply too many of them and the effort to clear them simply outweighed the benefits. Though they were known since the 17th century, major archaeological interest in the stone rows only happened in the latter half of the 20th century, which might explain why today we still know very little about their true purpose.
Originally, the archaeologists believed that rather than a series of stone rows, there was in origin just one major stone row, covering a distance of more than eight kilometres. Further discoveries revealed that this “single stone row” theory did not float; it seemed that there were five stone rows, four of which containing approximately 1000 stones. However, since, Howard Crowhurst has argued that the stone rows of Le Menec, Kermario and Kerlescan are actually all linked and form one whole, a conclusion he has been able to draw by showing the mathematics that have gone into the creation of the various rows.
One concentration of stone rows can be found near Erdeven, while the other concentrations stand back to back to the north of Carnac. The most western is that of Le Menec, where there are 1099 standing stones in eleven rows. Amongst these there is one stone which towers above all others, and is thus labelled “the giant”, measuring an enormous 3.7 metres. Most of the stones here are, however, relatively small, definitely in comparison to the stone row of Kermario, to the east of the row of Le Menec.
Kermario counts 1029 stones, distributed in ten rows. The field measures 1120 metres, showing that the stones are roughly one metre apart. This field has the most gigantic stones, and is continued in the field of Kerlescan, where there are 594 stones, in thirteen rows over 880 metres. All three fields are constructed on the same principle: the tallest stones are located on the western side; the western side is also situated on higher ground than its eastern counterpart. The smaller stones on the eastern side are also at smaller intervals from each other. The stone row of Le Menec is one end of the series of stone rows. For a distance of approximately two kilometres, no stones rise, except a few scattered dolmens. Though less impressive than the stone rows, as a technological accomplishment, they are on equal par. The dolmen at Crucuno leans against a wall of a farm; its covering stone weighs an impressive forty tons. Archaeologists have dated it as contemporary with the stone rows, i.e. 4000 BC.
Two dolmens show the direction of the stone row of Saint Barbe. It was a stone row of fifty stones, positioned in four rows, orientated south to north. Only the tallest stones, in the north, are left standing. Once again, we find that the tallest are standing on the highest ground. Fourteen stones are still located underneath the sand, but the rest of the stones have succumbed to agricultural demands.
Three kilometres north of Saint Barbe is the most northern stone row: Kerzerho. It counts 1130 stones in ten rows, measuring an impressive 2150 metres in length. Near the camping ground of Kerzerho, some of these stones measure no less than six metres in height. They are the highest standing stones in the entire region. The row is aligned from southeast to northwest. Once again, the tallest stones stand on the highest ground.
Though Saint Barbe and Kerzerho are not linked together, as are the lines of Le Menec, Kermario and Kerlescan, they do appear to form one whole: starting from the stone row of Petit Menec, you walk through Kerlescan, Kermario and Menec. Then, no stone rows for two kilometres, followed by two dolmens. Then, the stone rows of Saint Barbe, then, further to the northeast, the dolmen and stone circles of Crucuno, the dolmen of Mane-Croh, and to the north a small stone row, with to one side the dolmen of Mane-Braz. To its west, is the stone row of Kerzerho. Though the lines do indeed not align, a certain “flow” can be discovered throughout the various sites. It takes approximately three to four hours to cover the distance from the stone rows of Petit Menec to those of Kerzerho.
Apart from massive stone rows, other impressive stone monuments can be found in the area. This includes one standing stone, which was twenty metres high, weighed in at 340 ton and was moved over a distance of six kilometres. It should come as no surprise that this stone is no longer standing. But this stone does underline the knowledge and technology of a culture that was able to perform such feats – feats that are much more impressive than Stonehenge and Avebury put together, which can hardly stand the comparison with the building intensity that was witnessed in Carnac – much of this actually far earlier than the construction of Stonehenge. But what are they? Archaeologists have excluded the possibility that these are graves. Neither did they serve a military purpose, though the American soldiers, during the Second World War, did mistake the stone rows for a German defence line. According to the legend, a French soldier who was aware of the situation had to intervene, as otherwise the stone rows would have become the target of intensive World War II bombing raids.
Excluding funerary and military purposes, archaeologists conclude that the only purpose could have been religious. Modern archaeologists think that it is likely that the stones were used for a procession. This would specifically apply to the individual stone rows, but it seems not unlikely that the entire series of stone rows itself formed part of a larger whole processional path.
Ritual walking is known to have been part of the so-called “Megalithic Civilisation”. It is comparable to the Australian Aboriginals, who walked their “song lines”, singing the sacred songs of their tribes, honouring the gods of the Dreamtime. It is one of the reasons why they were called “Dreaming tracks”, though the Aboriginals themselves call them “Footprints of the Ancestors”. Other aspects of ritual walking have been found across Europe, in the so-called “leylines”. Once thought to be energy lines, in the 1990s, it was found that the leylines were actually paths of the ancestors – straight lines which the dead were said to walk, or fly, along (the dead were believed to be able to only move in a straight line), which is why there are so many “dead-straight” paths between the church and the cemetery. Another commonality amongst some of the greatest standing stones is that they have subliminal imagery worked into them, specifically faces, mostly human, but sometimes of animals or more imaginative or contorted profiles. One of the most easily visible examples of a face in the stones at Carnac is at Erdeven, where on the other side of the road next to the small car park, are a series of standalone stones, which seem to “look down” over the stones.
It is clear that the people who constructed these stones, were fully aware of these subliminal images – in fact, specific stones were likely chosen because they had these face-like images. The question then is: to whom did these faces belong? The answer is likely to be the ancestors – those who had come before – maybe those who had lived in the megalithic equivalent of the Dreamtime.
The stones were not funerary markers, but a connection with ancestor worship seems to be the most logical conclusion. These were the stones of the ancestors – the megalithic equivalent of Christian saints – and what occurred here was likely a pilgrimage, each stone presenting an ancestor. The faces on the stones were a visible reminder that “inside” these stones, was spirit, a soul. One could say that the stone rows were a Promenade of Souls. This article originally appeared in Frontier Magazine 4.6 (November-December 1998) and Les Carnets Secrets 5 (2006) and has been extensively edited since.