08 September 2011

Prehistoric Installation Art (Maybe?)

It’s all Merlin’s fault. Well, according to local legend. No one is certain why the megaliths in Carnac, on the Morbihan coast of Brittany, exist or how they got there. But a popular theory is that they are an attacking Roman legion who Merlin (the Sorcerer, not the blogger) turned to stone – hence, their arrangement in straight lines. It’s evident, as soon as you arrive in the town, why this is such a baffling place. As soon as you spot a field full of stones, another directly follows, then another and another. You can walk for almost an hour with megaliths constantly in site. It's already curious enough that pre-Celtic people arranged enormous local rock without the use of machinery, but they did so in staggering numbers. In fact, the 3000 plus standing stones in Carnac are the largest such collection in the world.
The handling of these sites is a hot button issue for locals. There are people who think that it should be more open. There are people who think that it should be left more alone. A lot of this is a desire not to return to the extreme tampering of the past. The formations date back to 3000 – 4000 BC, so it’s understandable that they haven’t been left completely alone in their 6000 year life span.
The stone formations in Carnac were literally rearranged to allow for the construction of a road and overturned pieces were re-erected carelessly. Before that, granite was quarried out of necessity and tomb structures were re-purposed as sheep shelters. Nowadays, sheep are back on the scene as part of a current management experiment that utilizes their grazing as weed control.
Over in nearby Locmariaquer, three impressive structures within a stone’s throw (ha!) of one another have been made into a sort of open-air museum. You pay to get in and are then free to walk around. Among them is the Table de Marchauds. Its engravings are cool despite the cheesy lighting design. The large slab of stone that acts as a roof has a partial engraving of an ox. The rest of the animal can be found on two other stones, one of which is miles away. The trio, put together, would be one heck of a monolith – but I think it’s even more amazing that they reused the broken pieces. An example of man’s first attempts to recycle.The star of Locmariaquer’s show is the Grand Menhir Brise, which is the largest prehistoric monolith in the West. The granite standing stone now lies in four pieces, which some believe is a result of purposeful toppling and others think was an accident or casualty of time. In a way, its division makes it more breathtaking. Each piece seems so immovable on its own that you can’t possibly imagine it being erected as a whole, measuring over 20 meters long and weighing 220 tons. (It also makes for a better picture, I think).
My favorite part of our megalith day trip was visiting Géant de Manio. It was the tallest, standing menhir we saw (21 feet tall), hence its christening as “giant.” For the record, it was actually discovered on its side and was re-erected in 1900 – but I didn’t know that at the time. Tucked back into the woods, it didn’t seem like it was part of a master plan or grand design like the rest of the structures. It was sort of like the difference between finding a grave stone in the forest as opposed to in a cemetery. There’s almost something meditative about walking up to it and feeling your own meager strength and physical means versus its mass. Its solitude makes it even more perplexing. Why this? Why here? And how??

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