Popular Science Monthly/Volume 75/August 1909/The Druid Stones of Brittany

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By Professor J. S. KINGSLEY


THE writer makes no pretense of being an archeologist, but finding few accounts of the wonderful megalithic monuments of Brittany in English, he has written this account of his visit to them as thread on which to string a few pictures. Those huge stones erected by human hands—no one knows by whom or why or when—which are called megalithic monuments, occur throughout western Europe, from the "Huns' beds" east of the Zuider Zee, through Britain, France and Spain and into northern Africa, across the Strait of Gibraltar, but nowhere are they as numerous or striking as in Brittany. The tourist is familiar with that strange circle of standing stones at Stonehenge and, to a less extent with "Kit's Coty House" in Kent and the circle at Avebury, but Morbihan is far out of the usual track and hence is seen by comparatively few of our people.

The department of Morbihan lies on the southern shore of Brittany, three hundred miles in a straight line west of Paris, and considerably farther as the trains run. The part of it where these megaliths abound is, perhaps, twenty miles, east and west, and ten north and south. It contains no large cities—Vannes, the capital, has not twenty-five thousand inhabitants—it has no churches or art galleries starred in Badeker; its sole attractions are its delightful inhabitants who still adhere to their ancient costumes, and the monuments.

Archeologists divide these standing stones into different categories, according to the way they are arranged, and each kind has its name derived from either the Keltic or the French. There are menhirs (Keltic, long stones) which stand upright in the soil, usually upon the smaller end. Menhirs may be isolated, scattered here and there through the region, or they may be arranged in lines or rows (alignments) stretching across the fields. In certain places the menhirs form square or semicircular enclosures called cromlechs (Keltic, curved stones). Again, the megaliths have been built into chambers, the walls composed of upright stones placed close together, and roofed in by one or more large blocks of stone. These are the dolmens[1] (table stones), the enlarged chamber being usually reached by a narrower passage, though occasionally the entrance is in one side of the chamber. In some cases instead of a true dolmen there is a narrow passage alone, an allée couaverte. Various subdivisions of these types are recognized, but they may be ignored here.

It was to see these megaliths that we took the all-day journey (really only 148 miles) across Brittany. It was early morning when we left the wonderful rock of St. Michel's Mount and the omelettes of the now reconciled Poulards, with whose quarrels all travelers are familiar. Half an hour by tram took us to Pontorson. Why do places like Pontorson exist? Our two hours were one continual struggle with station agent, hack drivers and porters, all of whom were insistent that we should drive out to Mt. St. Michel. "One franc a person" but we knew their ways; half way there would be a demand for a pourboire which would make the original fare look like twenty cents. Besides, we had just come from the Mount, and why should we go back? At Dol another wait, this time long enough to get an early lunch, before we could get a cross-country train for Rennes. Up to that day Rennes had been associated in our minds with the Dreyfus trial of a few years ago. Two hours here were sufficient to assure us that Bädeker did not slander the town when he wrote that with its 75,000 inhabitants, "its spacious modern streets are generally dull, lifeless and deserted."

Next a wait of an hour at Redon before taking the last train of the day—the Nantes-l'Orient express for Auray, which we reached just in time for dinner at the most comfortable and hospitable Pavilion hotel.

One may go in various ways from the railway to the monuments, but there is a best way—by carriage. There is the route from Vannes, taking a boat down through the sea of Morbihan to Locmariaquer. It is a picturesque route through a land-locked arm of the sea, studded with islands, like a miniature Casco Bay. But it is not to be depended upon, as the sailing of the steamers varies with the tides. It is cheaper to take the train from Auray to Carnac station on the little road to Quiberon, and then the little tram to Carnac village and to Erdeven. This brings one within easy walking distance of the principal alignments; but to reach the other monuments a carriage is convenient; even necessary, if one is to see the important menhirs, dolmens, etc., of Locmariaquer. Besides, the foot traveler will have to have a guide, otherwise he will waste much time and probably will miss much that he ought to see. Bädeker's map is on too small a scale to be of much assistance. The total drive from Auray to all of the standing stones is about thirty-five miles, but by cutting out some which apparently were repetitions of others, we made our round trip about twenty-five miles. The country traversed is best described in the terms of physical geography as a peneplain and the shore to the south as a drowned coast. It is nearly level, with no hills rising markedly above the rest of the country. We saw the first of the monuments about six miles out of Auray and our first glimpse was rather disappointing. A couple of hundred feet to the left of the road was the first dolmen, a dozen stones, about five feet high, standing upright in a pasture, and roofed in by two large stones lying across them. It recalled a child's house on a large scale, built out of the lichen-covered stones of the field. By its side stood a square stone monument announcing that this dolmen of Keriaval is the property of the French Republic, and that any one injuring it in any way will be prosecuted. It may be said that by each group in the entire district is a similar stone. On the other side of the road are three dolmens, close together, standing scarcely above the surrounding soil but excavated inside so that one may stand upright in the interior.

It would serve no useful purpose to give our itinerary in detail, but a clearer idea of these strange structures may be given by a general description of the monuments as a whole, specifying here and there those of more particular interest from size or other features.

Possibly the most striking of all are the alignments. Certainly they are the most difficult to explain. Of these there are several groups, each distinct from its fellows, and yet the whole series being in the same belt. Many of the stones have tumbled down and some have been utilized in building walls and houses. Thus the little church of St. Cornély at Carnac is built entirely of menhirs, broken up into blocks of convenient size, while the curious crown that surmounts its west portal was carved out of a single menhir. Le Rouzic, whom I shall often quote, says that the series of alignments once extended from a point to the west of the village of Carnac, five miles east to the Crac'h River, while other series occur further west, near Erdeven.

PSM V75 D130 Dolmen of kerieval.png

Fig. 1. Dolmen of Kériaval, half way between Auray and Carnac.

PSM V75 D131 Interior of kerioned dolmen near kerieval.png

Fig. 2. Interior of the Dolmen of Kerioned, across the road from Kériaval.

We visited the three alignments near Carnac—Ménec to the west, Kermario in the middle and Kerlescan to the east. Of these Ménec is the most extensive and the best preserved, but the menhirs in the others are larger. That these alignments are distinct from each other and are not parts of a single one is shown by several facts. They are separated by considerable intervals, the gap betweei Ménec and Kermario being a thousand feet; between Kermario and Kerlescan over a quarter of a mile. Again, the rows in the different alignments run in different directions—Ménec N. 70° E., Kermario N. 57° E., and Kerlescan S. 85° E. In each alignment the rows begin with enormous stones at the west end and gradually taper down to merely good-sized rocks at the easterly ends. Then Ménec and Kerlescan begin at the

PSM V75 D132 Panorama of the alignment of menec near carnac.png

Fig. 3. Panorama of the Alignment of Ménec, near Carnac, from the westerly end. The cromlech Is Just behind the position of the camera, but could not be included in the view on account of a house and farm buildings. The alignment of

western ends with a cromlech, and LeRouzic is confident that there was originally a cromlech at the western end of Kermario, but that it has disappeared.

The alignment of Ménec may be taken as typical. It lies in an undulating pasture, with farm buildings here and there, and is crossed at about the middle by a country road. Through this field, from the slight elevation at the west, down through the hollow of the road, and disappearing over the rise at the east, stretch eleven rows of menhirs, the rows being approximately parallel and about thirty feet apart, and the whole a little over three hundred feet wide while in length they extend 3,800 feet, or over two thirds of a mile. Some of the menhirs have tumbled down; here and there we note one built into the walls separating the fields but still occupying its original position. In all there are 1,099 stones still standing in Ménec. At the eastern end they are small, rising but two or three feet above the soil, but at the western end are the giants, three or four feet in diameter and thirteen feet high.

The cromlech of Ménec consists of 70 stones, about five feet high on the average, which sweep in a semicircle around the farm buildings at the west end of the alignment, the chord of the curve including only the southern half of the lines proper.

Only dry facts need be given concerning the other alignments we saw. In Kermario there are 982 menhirs in ten rows, extending over

PSM V75 D133 Kermarion with mont st michel on the right.png

Kermario is behind the woods at the farther end of the lines. At the extreme right of the view is the Mont St. Michel, a sepulchral monument or galgal, entirely artificial (see p. 134).

an area about 320 by 3,700 feet. The largest menhir, which has fallen, is 21 feet in total length, while the smallest stands but a foot and a half above the ground. In Kerlescan the cromlech of 39 stones is quadrangular in outline with rounded corners, while the alignment proper consists of 540 menhirs in thirteen rows in an area 2,700 feet long with an interruption of 600 feet where the little village of Kerlescan is situated. The largest of the stones is thirteen feet in height, the smallest only two feet above the surface of the ground.

While dolmens and isolated menhirs occur all around Carnac; the most striking of them are on the next peninsula to the east, near the little village of Locmariaquer. Here one must leave the road and go into the fields to see the monuments. Suddenly a one-armed man sprang up beside the carriage and led the way among farm outhouses, gardens and across vegetable patches, to the most remarkable of all these remains, which continually bring up the question, How could they have been erected? Largest of all is the gigantic menhir, "menhir groach," in the village itself, now fallen and broken into five pieces. According to Le Rouzic, who has measured it carefully and who has taken the specific gravity of the stone, it was originally 68 feet in length and weighed 382 tons. Le Rouzic also says that the time and cause of its fall are unknown, and cites a drawing of 1727 to show that at that time it was in its present condition. On the other hand, I have seen a little pamphlet

PSM V75 D134 Alignment of kermario.png

Fig. 4. Alignment of Kermario.

which states that it was struck by lightning, overthrown and broken in the sixteenth century. There is apparently little doubt that once this immense stone stood vertically, but the engineering problem of its erection is not easily solved. One can hardly believe, with Le Rouzic, that the lever and inclined plane were sufficient; yet what other mechanical aids could have been available?

PSM V75 D134 Grand menhir at locmariaquer.png

Fig. 5. Menhir Groach or grand menhir. Locmariaquer.

At Locmariaquer is also the largest of the dolmens, the "dolmen des marchands." I regret that I took no measurements of its size, especially since none are given in the works at hand. I can only depend upon my memory, aided by pictures, for my estimates. At its southern end is a passage about four feet wide and high enough for a tall man to stand erect. This is walled by vertical slabs of stone and roofed in with the same material. The passage leads to a larger chamber which is at least seven feet wide and high by possibly ten or twelve in length. The end opposite the entrance is formed of a single stone, shaped like

PSM V75 D135 Dolmen des marchands locmariaquer.png

Fig. 6. Dolmen des Marchands, Locmariaquer.

the smaller end of an egg and remarkable from the fact that its surface is covered with groups of parallel curved lines, a feature found but rarely in this region. Smaller stones, about six feet high, make up the sides of the chamber, while at the opening of the passage into the chamber are a pair of seven-foot stones, like door posts. The roof is supported on these three larger stones, like an enormous three-legged table. The table top is an immense block of granite, about ten feet wide, fifteen feet long and four feet in thickness. The problem of putting this roof in position is not so difficult as that of the erection of the giant menhir just described. We may imagine the ancient workers filling all around the vertical stones of the dolmen with soil and then sliding or rolling the covering stone into position. But even this calls for an expenditure of an enormous amount of human strength. Near this "table of the merchants" is another dolmen, "mané rétual" less perfect and less easily studied than its fellow, since it has not been excavated. Its covering stone, however, is larger, or was before one end was broken off. Judging from the size of a man in a picture which I bought it was forty feet in length, eight in breadth and two or three in thickness.

Some of the other dolmens in the vicinity are nearly as large as these, and some vary by having lateral chambers given off, either from the main chamber or from the passage. None, however, are their equals in the size of the roofing stones, but in most instances the roof is formed of several stones. I recall measuring one roughly as it lay across the dolmen at Locmariaquer—as between eleven and twelve feet in length.

The rock of which these monuments are formed is the common granite of the region. The blocks were probably weathered out from the underlying bed rock by the elements and needed no quarrying on the part of the unknown engineers.

Speculations as to the time at which these monuments were erected, the people who put them in position and the purposes for which they were intended are numerous in the literature of the subject, some of them as fantastic and absurd as those which ascribe the antiquities of

PSM V75 D136 Dolmen of mane retual locmariaquer.png

Fig. 7. Dolmen of Mané Rétual, Locmariaquer, foreshortened so as to include all of the roofing stones.

Yucatan to the followers of St. Thomas of apostolic times. Usually they are attributed to that mysterious people, the "Druids," whoever they may have been. Certain it is that they long antedated the conquest of Gaul by the Romans, while the relics found in connection with some of them would seem to indicate that they may date back to the second stone age, the neolithic period of the archeologist.

Human interments often occurred at the isolated menhirs and associated with these are found only simple pottery and instruments formed solely of stone and bone. Not a trace of bronze or iron, except where it was clearly of a later and intrusive character. Arrow and spear points, ceremonial stones, etc., closely resembling those of our American Indians, would point far back in the history of western Europe. Yet this is not conclusive, for these objects occur only in connection with human interments and one must make allowance for the well-known conservatism of the priestly class. Among other peoples the objects buried with the dead retained the primitive character long after the race had developed other forms in its daily life. So it may have been here. The fact that these burials were accompanied only by objects of the stone age is not conclusive proof that the people were ignorant of bronze or even of iron.

It is an interesting fact that the passages leading to the chambers of the dolmens are invariably so placed that the openings lie between the points of the rising and the setting of the sun at the summer solstice, possibly indicating that the builders were to a certain extent sun worshippers. From certain considerations of orientation the English astronomer, Lockyer, has figured out the date of the building of Stonehenge as about 1680 b.c., with a limit of probable error of two centuries either way. If his arguments be valid, there is a probability that the monuments of Carnac and Locmariaquer are at least as old. With such a throwing back of the age of these monuments there is more and more uncertainty as to who built them. The "Druids," who just appear on the pages of written history, were Keltish, but what evidence have we that Kelts dwelt in Brittany or Great Britain a thousand or fifteen hundred years before Christ? We know that other races dwelt in these regions before the immigrant Kelt. Did the Kelt erect these stones or did he find them where they still stand when he came? and did he simply adapt his religious rites to them? Who can say?

We are on a little more certain ground when we come to the purposes of the standing stones, or at least of some of them. As implied above, the isolated menhirs, usually placed on some spot a little above the surrounding country, have, in many cases, been found to stand near some burial, and hence it is probable that they are funeral monuments. Some may also have been boundary stones. The dolmens are also mortuary in character. Apparently every dolmen and allée couverte was formerly buried with earth or rocks, the whole forming a large mound—a tumulus or galgal. With the ages the earth in many cases has been removed, either by man or by the elements, leaving the strange "tables" as we see them. In other cases the tumulus still persists and many of these have been explored by modern archeologists, all revealing, in the interior, either a dolmen, an allée couverte, or smaller cairns of stones,

PSM V75 D138 Dolmen of kerveresse locmariaquer.png

Fig. 8. Dolmen of Kerveresse, Locmariaquer.

each with human bones, frequently mingled with those of the horse and cow.

The way in which one tumulus near Carnac has been explored is interesting. This forms a large mound, over 260 feet long, oval in outline, rising fifty or sixty feet above the surrounding plain, and locally known as Mont St. Michel. On one end of the level summit is a small chapel of St. Michel while on the space in front is an interesting cross of fifteenth century workmanship. As open cuttings would have been expensive (and even impossible in the neighborhood of the chapel), the tumulus has been explored by driving small tunnels through it in every direction. These have later been walled up and roofed in with stone, so that, by the aid of a candle, one may visit all the points of interest in the interior, just as one-would explore one of our Indiana or Kentucky caves, seeing all the features found—in this case two dolmens and numerous cairns—as nearly as possible in their original condition.

It would be a tedious task to enumerate, even by name, all of the objects found in these explorations, which were begun in 1862 by the Société Polymathique of Vannes, continued, for the fifteen years ending with his death in 1881, by the Scotchman, James Miln, and since that time by Le Rouzic. The material collected by Miln forms a small but very important museum which he bequeathed to the Commune of Carnac, and which must be visited in order to have a full knowledge of these strange megaliths. Le Rouzic, the present curator, is enthusiastic in his field, gladly welcoming the student, and spending much time in explaining his treasures.

In the first place these plainly show that, whether the orientation of the dolmens has any significance or not, the tumuli were mortuary in character. Sometimes the body was buried while still in the flesh; in other instances cremation had occurred. At times there were isolated interments; at others the bones are found in large numbers, as if there were collective burials. Along with the human bones occur those of the horse and cow, while burnt clay vases, necklaces of pierced stones and stone implements—celts, arrow and spear points, etc.—accompany the remains. Some of the vessels were apparently new, while others show signs of culinary use. Many of the stone implements have a perfection of surface and edge that would imply that they were never used but were merely votive offerings, ceremonial in character. It is interesting to note that even to this day the peasants of Morbihan prize the arrow and spear points as talismans and call them "men-garun"—thunder stones.

But what are the alignments? Here we are in the region of speculation—pure guessing. One may pass by with mere mention the view that they, with the cromlech at the end, are gigantic phallic symbols. Le Bouzic thinks them funereal without being sepulchral in character. He thinks that they might have been connected with the religious rites. The spaces between the rows would afford passages for the faithful assembled for the celebration of the ceremonies, possibly in connection with the collective burials in the tumuli, while the cromlech was the place set apart for the priests.

Whether we can ever arrive at an exact interpretation of these monuments or not, whether we ever know when or by whom they were erected, whether we solve the problems involved in the handling of these immense stones; these thousands of rocks—originally 15,000 or 20,000 in number—scattered over the plains of Morbihan will form one of the most striking of the monuments of antiquity. Possibly we shall get nothing better or more definite, certainly nothing more poetical, than the medieval legend of Saint Cornély which I paraphrase from the version given by Le Rouzic.

Saint Corné1y was Pope of Rome, from which place he was driven by the pagan soldiers, who pursued him as he fled before them, accompanied by two cows which bore his baggage and belongings when he was tired. One evening he arrived at the village of Moustoir (two miles north of Carnac). Here he fain would have stopped, but hearing a young girl there abusing her mother, he could not stay. So he went on until he came to a little hill (Mont St. Michel) where he had a view in all directions. In front was was the sea, behind the soldiers in martial array. Further flight was impossible. What could he do? He stretched forth his hand and immediately the soldiers, rank and file as they stood, were changed to stone. Hence it is that one sees the long lines of standing stones to the north of the village of Carnac, and hence it is that the village church is dedicated to St. Cornély. Pilgrims of all countries flocked to Carnac to invoke the aid of the saint for their ailing beasts, and he, mindful of the aid his cows had given him in his flight, granted their requests. To this day ghosts may be seen at night wandering among the lines of stones, the "soldiers of St. Cornély," while the image of the saint and his cows are carved on the front of the church. The query at once arises, have we here a survival from the old worship of Mithras?

  1. In England the dolmens are frequently called cromlechs.