Sunday, 4 September 2011

Mystery and magic of the ancient stones

The menhir de St Jean near Scaer, Brittany
FROM a side-road on the edge of town another turning leads to a twisting country lane. The kind of high-banked lane that suggests many centuries of use – and has you praying you don’t meet anything coming the other way.
Keeping your eyes alert for signs, you eventually spot one, half hidden in the undergrowth at the entrance to an even narrower track. It says simply: “Menhir”.
A few slow turns later you’re walking through long grass between overhanging trees. And then, on the edge of a field grown high with maize, there it is.
A single stone standing a little over seven metres tall – about four times my height – deep in the heart of what is now nowhere in particular. Quietly gathering lichen and moss, as it has for more than 6,000 years.
Legend has it that the stone was flung here in anger by a giant trying to stop his daughter fleeing with her lover.
The giant’s house, from which the stone supposedly came, stands on a hilltop about ten miles to the north. And the story, though probably already old when first written down, is of course nothing like as old as the true story of how the stones came to be where they are.
The “house” is now believed to have been an ancient tomb – “covered alley” or “passage grave” in archaeologists’ terms.
There is little mystery in how the stones it is built of got where they are, for there is a massive quarry nearby. But not much else can really be told about the people who built it, except a rough date of 4000 to 4500BC.
How did they move such huge blocks of stone across the countryside? How did they erect them, or construct tombs that would stand so long?
Perhaps most intriguingly, why did they do it at all?
The dolmen at Crucuno, near Carnac, is thousands of years older than the surrounding housesWhat function were the great menhirs supposed to serve? And were the covered alleys, or the dolmens, really tombs, or did they have some other purpose?
Radio-carbon dating can give us a good idea of roughly when they were erected, but everything else is pretty much speculation.
I remember visiting my first dolmen – essentially a large flat stone supported on uprights – in my early teens. The Bagneux dolmen, near Saumur on the Loire, is tall enough to stand up and walk around inside. The largest of its four cap-stones is about twice the weight of the heaviest stone at Stonehenge.
More recently, it has become something of an obsession wherever we go on holiday to seek out whatever prehistoric monuments may be found.
It has taken us to some magnificent stone circles, stone-age villages and burial sites in the Orkney isles, western Ireland, south Wales and northern England.
And this summer it took us to Brittany, that western outcrop of France where the whole ancient culture of stone monuments may have originated.
The alignments of standing stones at Carnac are well known and well visited. Much too well visited now in August, when only a privileged few of the thronging thousands are allowed inside the fence.
They are undeniably impressive. More than 2,500 stones, the tallest around three metres high, stand in several straight rows stretching literally for miles.
But they are neither the oldest, nor the most engaging, of Brittany’s ancient stones.
A map of Europe’s Neolithic monuments shows a dense scattering all across the continent’s western fringe – what are now thought of as the Celtic nations. In Brittany the dots merge into one solid block of colour.
Ancient sites, some of them individually awe-inspiring, are equally breathtaking in their profusion. What would be an attraction elsewhere is commonplace.
You can get away from the crowds to sit alone by a hilltop stone with a panoramic view and contemplate how the landscape, and the population, has changed and changed again in the millennia it has stood here.
And consider that while the people who erected it have long disappeared, along with their society, their culture, their building methods and intentions, they were basically the same as you and me.
A little shorter and stockier, perhaps. Maybe not so long-lived. But essentially people much like us.
About as intelligent, and surely at least as well organised. How otherwise could they have left the monuments they have, without even the technology of the wheel?
Pondering the hows and whys quickly leads to the realisation that our ways of doing things are not the only ones possible.
Capitalism and democracy are not the only ways to run a society – and Communism or Fascism are not the only alternatives.
Once it was assumed great Stone Age sites such as Stonehenge or Carnac were built with slave labour.
There now seems to be a near consensus among archaeologists that dolmens and stone circles were a co-operative enterprise.
I like that idea better, but both may say more about modern attitudes than ancient realities.
Like the still-prevalent assumption that ancient works had religious causes. Which may be true, or merely a fantasy based on lack of imagination.
Because so little can be known for sure, ancient sites are fertile grounds for imaginings. It’s part of why we like them.
So consider this.
The only place in the world with more dolmens than Brittany is Korea – 6,000 miles away at the other extreme edge of the world’s biggest land-mass.
Make what you will of that.

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