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Standing stones

The mystery of the megalith

Amongst the oldest and most intriguing examples of early man’s engineering prowess, megaliths are found in many parts of the world. They have various origins and shapes but all are deeply mysterious – very little is known about any of them: who made them, why and what was their precise cultural significance.

Today most are legally protected, although their own sheer bulk and stature have proved a valuable defence over the years. But in some parts of the world standing stones have been neglected, sometimes used for sheltering livestock, surrounded by scrub or with crops planted around them.

Over the centuries, a complex terminology has evolved involving myriad terms and definitions. This short article is not the time or place to embark on this! Here’s the quick introduction to the basics.

Carnac Standing Stones
Carnac Standing Stones

Megalith

This is simply a large stone used to form part of a monument without use of mortar.


Dolmen

Constructed as a tomb, comprising large stones with a large stone forming a roof, these were originally covered by earth. Today the earth covering of most has washed away leaving just the stone framework visible.


Menhir

Quite simply, a large, single stone, often tapering towards the top. Remember the large menhir carried around on his back by Asterix’s friend Obélix? Otherwise known as standing stones, they are often arranged in circles or horseshoes and, especially in Brittany, in long ribbon-like lines.


Tumulus

Often associated with standing stones, a tumulus is an earth mound covering a grave to form a burial mound or barrow.


What are they?

Although little is known about the people who created them, it is believed that standing stones were established as boundary markers, religious icons, tools of government and forms of memorial to past events.

Many appear to have astronomical importance and purpose, perhaps for worshipping or celebrating solar and lunar events.  

In Europe many megaliths formed a simple portal tomb: large upright stones with flat capstones across the top. Human remains have been found at many, indicating religious connotations and possible sacrificial ceremonies.

In Britain and Ireland the stone circle is more common – well known examples being Stonehenge, Avebury and Ring of Brodgar. These also have astronomical purpose, with Stonehenge famously linked to the summer solstice. 

Brittany Menhirs
Brittany Menhirs

A global phenomenon

Standing stones of various kinds are found all over the world, across countries and cultures with no apparent connections. Theories have been put forward that there was once a global megalithic culture but these have been mostly rejected – distances are considered too vast and cultures too primitive to have facilitated this.

They are scattered throughout Europe, from Norway and Sweden in the north to Sardinia in the south. Eastern Turkey has striking examples, especially those on the eastern border which date from 9,000 BC, with more in Iran, Israel, Syria, Jordan and elsewhere in the Middle East.

There are standing stones in Brazil, Mongolia, Ethiopia, China, Korea and throughout Indonesia. The iconic Easter Island stones, carved into eerie, expressionless humanoid faces are particularly mysterious.

Menhirs in Carnac
Menhirs in Carnac

Spotlight on Carnac

Carnac is a popular seaside resort in the Morbihan department of Brittany, famous for its sandy beaches and Breton charm. It is also renowned for its 3,000 standing stones which pre-date Stonehenge by over 100 years.

Dating from at least 3,300 BC they are mostly arranged in long, tapering lines of over 1 km and are located in 3 main alignments. This is the greatest concentration of standing stones on the planet and it is quite extraordinary.

Despite local myths claiming the granite stones were once a Roman legion turned to stone by the wizard Merlin, they are believed to have religious or astronomical significance.

Access can sometimes be restricted, so do your research or take a guided tour or head to the St Michel tumulus for a great overview. When the soft golden evening light catches these magnificent, mysterious stones they do seem to take on a magical aura. Let’s hope they’re still standing in another 3,000 years time.

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