Hubert Scharnagl (Austria):
The first time that I saw pictures of the Carnac stones was in a textbook at school and I was instantly fascinated by these enigmatic alignments. Many years later, when I came across the World Heritage list, I was surprised that Carnac was not included. It is on the French tentative list since 1996, but no efforts have been made to submit the site for final decision. So I was pleasantly surprised to find a recently launched website by the association Paysages de Mégalithes. The association aims to protect and promote the megalithic sites in Carnac and Southern Morbihan. The description on the website reads: "Site protection and promotion work is designed to lead to a project to promote all of the heritage in the 26 municipalities in Southern Morbihan included in the research programmes, followed by an application to be listed as Unesco World Heritage."
The website provides descriptions of about 30 of the more than 500 megalithic sites that are scattered across the region: dolmen, tumuli, menhirs, stone circles and alignments. But it is not mentioned which sites will be included in the final nomination, and also the sparse text of the T-list entry gives no detailed information. Probably it is not yet decided.
The Carnac alignments are undoubtedly the most spectacular megalithic sites in Morbihan. The complex consists of three groups of alignments: Ménec, Kermario and Kerlescan (from east to west). In total, there are about 3000 standing stones at a length of four kilometres, aligned in ten to thirteen rows. The alignments were erected between 5000 BC and 3000 BC, a more precise date can not be established, as there is no recent investigation using modern techniques. Originally, the complex was larger, but it was reduced in size over the centuries as stones were removed, now its original boundaries are difficult to identify. Apart from Carnac, three sites seem to be the most interesting: Locmariaquer and the burial mounds of Gavrinis and Le Petit-Mont. At least these are the sites where you have to pay an entrance fee.
In August 2015, we visited Carnac, Locmariaquer, Gavrinis and some of the minor sites. But first things first: We arrived at Carnac in the early afternoon and went first to the 'House of Megaliths', the information centre at the western end of the alignments. The parking lot was almost full with cars and tour buses, most from France, but we saw also number plates from Germany and the UK. The beaches of Morbihan are popular tourist destinations, especially with windsurfers and sailors, and they all also visit the Carnac stones. The mass of visitors has long been a problem for the protection of the stones. Since many years, the alignments are fenced and from April to September the access is limited to guided tours, access is free between October and March. We booked tickets for the 4 pm tour to the Kermario alignment (6 euro per person). The starting point of the tour is about 2 kilometres from the visitor centre and we had plenty of time to explore the area on foot. Directly across from the visitor centre are the Ménec alignments. The fence is low everywhere, only one meter high and the complex is well visible. The Ménec stones are relatively small, most only one metre high or less. We walked on a narrow footpath between the fence and the main road that runs alongside the alignments. The stone rows are also intersected by roads in north-south direction, and we had to cross several streets and roundabouts on our short hike. The traffic affects the pleasure of the visit considerably. Maybe, it is possible to reduce or redirect the traffic, it is likely that ICOMOS will request improvements on this issue in the management plan. At least, the footpaths should be enlarged and extended.
The guided tour started at the western end of Kermario group and covered about one third of the alignments. At Kermario are the largest stones of the Carnac complex, often more than three metres high. The stones get smaller from east to west, which applies to all groups of alignments. If you visit Carnac in summer, I would definitely recommend to take a guided tour, you get a much better impression of the site when you wander around the stones and have a closer look to the sometimes bizarre and mysterious shapes. The photo shows the Kermario alignments from the ruins of a windmill, which serves as a lookout tower. In the background the area, where the guided tour takes place.
The Carnac stones are still mysterious, just like the people who built them. Several hypothesis about the purpose of the complex have been proposed. Certainly, the alignments had a spiritual meaning and were related to the dolmen and tumuli in the area, a kind of neolithic temple. But what exact function the alignments had, whether it was just a ceremonial place or also an astronomical observatory or calendar, and whether the distance between the rows and between the stones had a specific meaning, is controversial and unproven. Of course, also myths and legends emerged over the centuries, I like best the legend of Saint Cornely that says the menhirs were Roman soldiers turned to stone.
Some other remarkable megalithic sites in and around Carnac:
Kerzerho alignments: about 7 kilometres north of Carnac, in the town of Erdeven. The area is much smaller than in Carnac, but freely accessible, some large stones, several metres high. There are numerous dolmen and menhirs between Erdeven and Carnac, e.g. a chair-shaped stone named 'Caesar's chair'.
Tumulus Saint-Michel: in the outskirts of Carnac, the largest burial mound in Morbihan, with a chapel from the 17th century on the top. Currently, the burial chamber is closed due to restoration work.
The Géant du Manio: in the forest between the Kermario and Kerlescan alignments, a 10 minutes walk from the main road. With 6.5 metres it is the tallest menhir at Carnac. Right next to it the Quadrilatère du Manio, an quadrangular enclosure, it was probably a burial ground.
The second day we went to Locmariaquer, about 20 minutes from Carnac by car. The site consists of three monuments: the Grand Menhir, a huge monolith with an impressive lenght of 20 metres that has been broken into four pieces, the Er Grah tumulus and the dolmen Table des Merchand. The burial chamber of the latter is open for visitors, some of the stones are decorated with engravings. In the afternoon we visited the cairn on the small island of Gavrinis. We decided spontaneously to go there, after we had seen photos of the interior at the information center in Carnac and although it was quite expensive: 18 euros per person for the ferry and the guided tour (in French). It was a 40 minute drive from Locmariaquer to the port of Larmor-Baden. We were lucky to get the last tickets for the 3 pm tour. In high season it is recommended to book in advance, but it was very windy and rainy that day, so some tourists had cancelled their reservations. It was only a short ride with the ferry, the tour started with some general explanations, then our group of about 15 people was split for the visit of the interior. We passed the waiting time with strolling around the stone mound and reading the information panels (also in English). The interior was a real surprise, almost all stone slabs of the corridor and the chamber are abundantly decorated with engravings: curved lines, U-shaped symbols that look like animal horns, arrows, zigzag lines, snakes. There are nearly 30 stone slabs with well-preserved ornaments. The tour was very good, the explanations were detailed, and the guide also answered questions in English. We spent almost half an hour in the interior. We got torch lights, so the engravings were clearly visible, but it's not allowed to take pictures.
In my opinion, the Carnac alignments are unique and outstanding and would be a worthy WHS, although megalithic sites are already represented. Probably some of the minor sites in the area will also be included in the nomination. Dolmen and menhirs can be found in many regions of Europe, but the number and density in Morbihan is astonishing. I have not yet visited other megalithic sites, such as Newgrange or at Malta, so it's hard to say whether the burial mounds in Locmariaquer or Gavrinis would be significant additions to the WH list. At least the number and quality of the engravings in Gavrinis seem to be outstanding.
Morbihan is a bit off the beaten track for a World Heritage enthusiast. Other WHS - Mont Saint-Michel, Loire, Vauban - are more than 150 kilometres from Carnac, which is quite a lot in a well represented country like France. But it was a worthwhile detour and we enjoyed the two days that we spent between neolithic stones.
Date posted: November 2015
Have you been to Sites mégalithiques de Carnac? Share your experiences!