In the Footsteps of France’s First Farmers

When it comes to the Europe’s Neolithic period – that time in prehistory associated with the origins of farming in Europe – Stonehenge in southern England is perhaps the best known. The area surrounding Stonehenge is rich with all sorts of other monuments from this period, including such sites as Avebury, Silbury Hill and various barrows and burial chambers. An equally impressive area of Neolithic monuments can be visited in the Morbihan area of southern Brittany, France. These megalithic monuments include for example the stone alignments at Carnac, the burial cairn and art of Gavrinis, and the enormous menhir at Locmariaquer.

Carnac is a series of over 300 standing stones, spread over 4 kilometres, making up about 40 hectares. Associated excavations suggest these stone alignments are dated to between 4500 and 2500 B.C, a period that saw the beginning of sedentary existence and farming in western Europe. This makes the stones amongst the first of the monumental structures built in western Europe. The alignments of Carnac (made up of Kermario, Le Menec, Kerlescan and Le Pett Menec) are generally considered to have had a religious function. It is thought that the alignments of standing stones indicated the way to a sacred enclosure.

There is free access to the alignments from March to October, and a wonderful visitor centre at Kermario.

Gavrinis is a small island that is only reachable by boat, as it is located out in the Gulf of Morbihan. Today it is uninhabited, measuring only 750 by 400 meters, but it is the site of a large megalithic, decorated burial cairn dating to the Neolithic period, and thought to be the same age as the Carnac alignments. At the time of the cairn’s construction, around 3500 years before the present, the ‘island’ was connected to the Breton mainland – the cairn having been built on a granite hill. Since then, the sea level has risen, turning the hill into an island.

The mound of granite rocks that makes up the cairn has a diameter of about 50 meters – and covers a single rectangular slab-built burial chamber. The chamber is at the centre of the mound, about 2.5 meters wide, and is reached by a 14 meter long passage. The chamber is made up of 50 carefully placed slabs – at least on of which is thought to weigh up to 17 tons, and the passage is made up of 29 slabs, 23 of which are ‘decorated’ with engraved geometric patterns.

Gavrinis is open to the public from the end of March to the end of October, and you get a boat to the island from the old fishing village of Larmor-Baden. Times vary but you will not go wrong if you plan your trip in the afternoon; in the summer there are morning crossings as well.

The Great Menhir of Er Grah in the fishing port of Locmariaquer is thought to have been erected around 4700 years B.C., and is the largest known, single block of stone to have been transported and erected by Neolithic people. The menhir is 20.6 m high, and weighs 280 tonnes. It is thought to have fallen over and broken during an earthquake. The stone comes from a few kilometres away, and originally there would have been quite a few of them. But, as with many of these stone monuments the large stones have been re-used by everyone from the Romans to more recent farmers.

There is usually free access to the menhir and various cairns and dolmens in Locmariaquer. There is a Locmariaquer archeological information centre that is open throughout the year at varying times depending on the season.

If you are visiting Brittany, or thinking about it, and you are interested in Europe’s archaeological heritage, the megalithic monuments in the Morbihan area of Brittany are well worth a visit. If archaeology is your passion – you could quite easily stay in the area for a couple of weeks and still not have seen everything.

The photographs in this post are used courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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About Thomas Dowson

Hello, I am Thomas Dowson - a freelance writer and archaeologist living in Normandy, France. My field of expertise is prehistoric art - such as the cave paintings in the Dordogne and South Africa. But I am becoming passionately interested in France more generally, and Normandy in particular, and what this country and one of its very well known regions has to offer people with all sorts of tastes and desires. In 2005 I exchanged a university archaeology lecture room for a Bed & Breakfast in Normandy. More recently I started the Archaeology Travel website; sharing my expertise and love of archaeology and travel with others who also want to explore the many different pasts around the World.