Megalithic landscapes of Carnac and South Morbihan

Understand

Megalithic terms

Menhir, cromlech, dolmen, tumulus, mound, cairn, alignment… The wealth of megalithic terms is indicative of a scientific process dedicated to providing accurate, precise knowledge. Each refers to a particular architectural style and expresses a use, meaning or function. Today, all research tends to suggest that tumuli and dolmens were used for burials and that standing stones (menhirs, alignments, enclosures, etc.) served a religious and symbolic function.

Megalith

[from the Greek mega = large and lithos = stone]: the word megalith describes arrangements of large stones and solid rocks (menhirs, dolmens, cromlechs, and so on.). These constructions are to be found all over the world (in Western Europe, Asia, Africa, Southern America and the Pacific) from different periods of history (between 6500 BC  and the end of the first millennium AD). The particularity of this architectural form in western France, and particularly in Morbihan, is that it is one of the oldest in the world, from the Neolithic Era (c. 5500 BC) – well before the pyramids in Egypt or the first Celts. 

Menhir

[from the Breton men (or maen) = stone and hir = long. A menhir can also be called a peulvan or peulven = stone pillar], menhir being a popular term which gained widespread acceptance in the eighteenth century to designate a large or small “long stone”, rough or dressed, set up in a vertical position. These may also be referred to as “monoliths”. 

Menhirs can be arranged singly or in groups. When erected in one or more rows, they form an “alignment”: this may extend over several kilometres. 

[Illustration: The Le Ménec, Kermario and Kerlescan alignments in Carnac and Le Petit Ménec in La Trinité-Sur-Mer formed the most impressive sanctuary of their day, extending over a distance of 5 kilometres from west to east. Today, there are still over 3000 aligned stones, arranged in decreasing order of size and facing a particular direction]

Kerzhéro alignements (municipality of Erdeven)]. 

Dolmen

[from the Breton toal = table, an doal = a table and men (or maen) = stone]: a burial monument formed by vertical stones (orthostats) with horizontal slabs (tables) resting on them. Dolmens, as found today, are the remains or skeleton of fuller burial structures. They were originally covered by a tumulus which has since eroded with time through the action of nature and humans.

There is a wide variety of dolmens in Morbihan: the tombs without corridors are thought to be the oldest. They had no access to the burial chamber, which was sealed once the body had been buried. Access corridors were gradually added, enabling tombs to be re-opened. This has led to the theory that the earlier ones once were for the elite only. Corridor tombs would generally have been for collective use and can comprise more than one chamber. Any monument in which there is no longer any distinction between the corridor and burial chamber, so that they form a single element, is called a covered passage or “burial passage”.

Megalithic enclosures

megalithic enclosures are standing stones arranged in differing sizes and forms: usually in a circle (cromlech), semi-circle, quadrilateral or horseshoe shape.

[Illustrations: 

  • Kergonan enclosure (municipality of Ile aux Moines)
  • Er Lannic (municipality of Arzon) is a cromlech located opposite Gavrinis Island at Larmor-Baden. This horseshoe-shaped enclosure appears and disappears as the tide ebbs and flows.
  • Crucuno quadrilateral enclosure at Plouharnel

Cromlech

[an English word borrowed from old Welsh: crom = bend, bent, twisted and lech = flat stone]: cromlech (sometimes written cromlec’h) is a term often used in everyday language to refer to circular enclosures of standing stones. Some scientists deem this term to be used improperly, as it is often used for quadrilaterals, ovals and semicircles as well as circles. 

[At each end of Le Ménec alignment in Carnac there is a cromlech]

Tumulus

(pl. tumuli) [a Latin word from tumere = to be swollen; elevation, eminence]: a tumulus is a mound; an envelope covering one or more graves, generally round or oval in shape. When the envelope consists solely of earth it is referred to simply as a “mound”; when it includes stones it is known as a “cairn”.

 [Tumuli can vary in size. In Morbihan there are tumuli such as the “Carnacean” type (also known as “giant tumuli” due to their imposing size), which are found in the region of Carnac, such as Saint-Michel Tumulus in Carnac: 120m long, 60m wide and 12m high. Similarly, the Mané-er-Hroëk tumulus in Locmariaquer stands 10m tall, 100m long and 60m wide]

Tertre

[from the Latin termes = boundary, limit or mound]: a mound of earth, generally covering a grave.

[There are mounds protecting the Saint-Michel and Le Moustoir tumuli in Carnac, Mané-er-Hroeck and Mané-Lud tumuli in Locmariaquer and Tumiac tumulus in Arzon].

Cairn

[from the Gaelic carn = pile of stones]: a monument built from dry stones sheltering a grave.

Stele

[from the Latin stela]: a monolith, one or more sides of which are engraved with symbols.