France's Stonehenge: The Carnac Stones and Other Megalithic Sites

The Carnac Stones lined up as far as the eye can see
The Carnac Stones lined up as far as the eye can see | © Martin Cígler / WikiCommons

Stonehenge is one of the most recognisable ancient monuments in the world, but this isn’t the only megalithic site mysteriously looming upon the landscape of Europe. There are many dotted around France, sometimes bigger and more mysterious than Stonehenge itself. We take a look at some of the most impressive French megalithic sites you’ve probably never even heard of.

The largest megalithic site in the world

Believe it or not, the largest megalithic site in the world is actually found in France. It is known as the Carnac Alignments and its stones are scattered across the coast of Brittany in a more extensive formation than Stonehenge.

There are over 2,800 standing stones lined up as far as the eye can see, spanning four kilometres across and 40 hectares in total. The tallest standing stone is four metres high. By way of comparison, Stonehenge has 83 rocks or lumps of stone visible today, many having been damaged over the years.

The Carnac Alignments are therefore one of the most authentic and well-preserved megalithic sites in Europe, as well as being the largest.

The Carnac Stones lined up as far as the eye can see

The mystery surrounding the site of Ménec

The site of Ménec is located on the west of the Carnac Alignments and is the most well-known megalithic site among the Carnac Stones. There are 11 rows consisting of 1,050 remnants and each one is shrouded in mystery.

The greatest puzzle is how the peoples of Neolithic western Europe could have physically moved these stones. To carry this weight across such a long distance (as far as 50 kilometres is often the estimate) seems almost unfathomable.

Aerial view of the Carnac Stones

But there’s also uncertainty surrounding what purpose they served. Some theories suggest they were used by druids in their rituals, while others have argued that they were erected in alignment with the stars.

It’s difficult to know exactly when the Carnac Stones were erected, though most historians agree it was around 4500 BC. While these mysterious relics are very well-known among the French, they are basically unheard of outside of France.

The Carnac Stones are very well-known in France

How to visit the Carnac Stones

The Carnac Stones are free to visit from October to March. But from April to September, you can only visit them as part of a paid guided tour. This is to avoid overcrowding in France’s busiest tourist season and to ensure that they remain some of the best-preserved stones in Europe.

The site at Ménec has a car park, and given the isolated location of the stones, it’s definitely best to visit by car. There’s an information point at Ménec called the Maison des Mégalithes, which is a helpful place to find out more about these neolithic alignments. They can also organise visits and workshops.

After visiting the stones, make sure to stop by the Museum of Prehistory to plunge even deeper into their historical significance.

The Carnac Stones

The broken stones of Le Grand Menhir Brisé

Le Grand Menhir Brisé is one of three structures at a different site in Locmariaquer, France. It’s located beside the Er Grah tumulus and the Table des Marchands, both built around 3300 BC, and was once the largest known standing stone in the whole of Europe.

It is thought that Le Grand Menhir Brisé was part of a larger 19-stone alignment, but today, it is broken into four pieces. These pieces lie in the exact place where they fell, being far too heavy for any human force to move since. The stones would have weighed about 355 tonnes when complete and have stood over 20 metres high.

Le Grand Menhir Brisé was hand-crafted by ancient tribes

This epic structure is unusual because no one has yet uncovered why it was toppled down and broken, especially given the unimaginable effort it would have taken to erect it. Some theories suggest it was deliberately pulled down and broken by later civilisations, while others suggest an earthquake or tremor might be the culprit.

Le Grand Menhir Brisé was hand-crafted into its present shape by ancient tribes and an axe-plough figure was once visible in the centre of the fragment. You can still see some traces of this handiwork etched into the stone if you look close enough.

There are many other megalithic sites in France

While the Carnac Stones might be the largest megalithic site, the Ménec site the most mysterious and the broken structure of Le Grand Menhir Brisé the most puzzling, there are many other megalithic sites in France, too.

For example, the Alignments du Moulin near the town of Redon are curious because of the alternating types of stone that are used. Rather than just sticking with one type of stone like many megalithic sites, there’s an element of design with white quartz blocks positioned alongside grey stones and a range of other shades.

The spectacle spans 200 metres long and 40 metres wide and was classified as a historic monument in 1978. What’s also interesting is how one of the large stones towards the western end has been used as part of a burial chamber, allegedly for a historically important but now forgotten figure.

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