Carnac is the most important prehistoric site in Europe – in fact this spot is thought to have been continuously inhabited longer than anywhere else in the world. Its alignments of two thousand or so menhirs stretch over 4km, with great burial tumuli dotted amid them. In use since at least 5700 BC, the site long predates Knossos, the Pyramids, Stonehenge and the great Egyptian temples of the same name at Karnak.
The megaliths form three distinct major alignments, running roughly in the same northeast–southwest direction, but each with a slightly separate orientation. These are the Alignements de Menec, “the place of stones” or “place of remembrance”, with 1169 stones in eleven rows; the Alignements de Kermario, “the place of the dead”, with 1029 stones in ten rows; and the Alignements de Kerlescan, “the place of burning”, with 555 stones in thirteen lines. All three are sited parallel to the sea alongside the Route des Alignements, north of Carnac-Ville.
Visitors can only walk freely around the best-preserved sites in winter. In summer, access is on guided tours only, some of which are in English – it’s worth joining one of these if this is your first exposure to the subject, as otherwise you can feel as though you’re simply staring at rocks in a field. They start from the official visitor centre, the Maison des Mégalithes, across the road from the Alignements de Menec, which also holds some interesting displays, plus a model of the entire site.
Divided between the original Carnac-Ville and the seaside resort of Carnac-Plage, the modern town of Carnac has a special charm, especially in late spring and early autumn. For most, the alignments are, if anything, only a sideshow. The town and seafront remain well wooded, and the tree-lined avenues and gardens are a delight, the climate being mild enough for evergreen oak and Mediterranean mimosa to grow alongside native stone pine and cypress.
The megaliths of Brittany
The megaliths of Brittany
Along with Newgrange in Ireland, Stonehenge in England and the Ring of Brodgar in the Orkneys, the tumuli, alignments and single standing stones of Brittany are of pre-eminent status among the megalithic sites of Europe. Dated at 5700 BC, the tumulus of Kercado at Carnac is the earliest known stone construction in Europe. Little is known of the monuments’ creators; the few skeletons unearthed indicate a short, dark, hairy race with a life expectancy of no more than the mid-30s. What is certain is that their civilization was long-lasting; the earliest and the latest constructions at Carnac are more than five thousand years apart.
Each megalithic centre had its own distinct styles and traditions. Brittany has relatively few stone circles, or cromlechs, and a greater proportion of free-standing stones, menhirs; fewer burial chambers, known as dolmens, and more evidence of ritual fires; and different styles of carving. Carnac’s alignments are unique in their sheer complexity. As for their actual purpose, the most fashionable theory sees them as part of a vast astronomical observatory centred on the fallen Grand Menhir of Locmariaquer. However, controversy rages as to whether the Grand Menhir ever stood at all, or, even if it did, whether it fell or was broken up before the surrounding sites came into being. Moreover, sceptics say, these measurements ignore the fact that the sea level in southern Brittany 6600 years ago was 10m lower than it is today. Alternative theories interpret the menhirs as a series of territorial or memorial markers. This annual or occasional setting-up of a new stone is easier to envisage than the vast effort required to erect them all at once – in which case the fact that they were arranged in lines, mounds and circles might have been of peripheral importance.