The Menhirs of Monteneuf- what are they for? We don't know. Brilliant!
The Menhirs of Monteneuf
The tension between access and preservation
As one of the many who regard neolithic monuments as sacred, I have found visitors centers and the management of the sites intrusive and obstructive. The visitors blurb, often to be seen blowing away on the wind as the car parks empty, describe the sites as magical and enigmatic but all too often the management of what are primarily archaeological sites can leave the visitor feeling underwhelmed. Sites may be fenced off, with little or no access to the stones, leaving you wistfully gazing from a distance. Strictly preserved sites will have you herded into the visitor center to watch a film, which whilst informative, isn't quite the same as actually being there. If this is as close as you're going to get to a Menhir, you mights as well stay at home and watch a documentary. However, such special places need to be protected. The balance between allowing public access and preservation is tricky and can end up pleasing no one. The Menhirs of Monteneuf are managed in a quirky, sensitive way, with more than a nod to Pagan Spiritual needs.
Nature gently reclaiming the archaeological site
Recent history of the Menhirs of Monteneuf
Monteneuf used to have only one menhir, a clandestine meeting place for lovers. Then, 20 years ago, a forest fire revealed a further 399 menhirs. The stones had all been toppled and displaced. Written records showed that the site had been destroyed by the Catholic church in the 11th century. The Mayor of Monteneuf recognized the significance of the site, a true hero since there has been at least one attempt in Brittany to cover up newly discovered stones , (no pun intended.)
A new site near Carnac, known as Kerdruelland, was nearly over-looked because the owner of the land wanted to build holiday bungalows and knew the implications when he unearthed a menhir. He covered it back up but someone saw and reported him. The resulting archaeological dig revealed one of the most important stone alignment sites in France as the toppled stones where all sitting on the original soil. (Menhirs usually have the soil eroded around them.) The site was hailed as Frances' new Stonehenge and the landowner never got his bungalows.
It is probably a safe bet that Brittany is covered in fallen stone alignments and the Menhirs of Monteneuf were only found by an accident of nature. Christianity has over the centuries either built over the top of Neolithic monuments, covered them with Christian symbols or demolished them and used the stone in other buildings, Even then, the locations where the sites had been were considered dangerous and the belief in fairies used to discourage people from visiting the remaining stones. They became abandoned places used only by star crossed lovers, married women who could not conceive and Druids. (Despite the best efforts of the church,the Druid religion has a strong history in this part of France.)
Archaeologists have been working on the site since it's discovery, re-erecting some of the stones into their original positions. There are no plans to reinstate the rest as this would destroy archaeological evidence. After it's initial survey, nature has be allowed to partially reclaim the site, until better technology is developed to gather information without disturbing the site. A small visitor center has been constructed next to a pretty car park, with a meandering path which leads the visitor around the site. Information points, linked to a leaflet guide, encourage the visitor to take their time and take the place in, (more of this below.) Funds used to develop the site for tourists have been spent wisely, although those looking for an answer to the eternal question: 'What's the site for?', will leave Monteneuf frustrated. During ,and in the weeks leading up to the summer solstice, activities are provided. These focus on how the stones were cut from the quarry, which is part of the site, and how they were moved. Several hypothesis are explored with practical demonstrations, (experimental archaeology). A reconstruction of a Neolithic dwelling is also used to explore life in this era. It should be noted that no evidence for living accommodation has ever been found at this site, Off season, which is when I visited, the visitor is provided with the leaflet, English as well as French for those who need it, and left to get on with exploring the site. Best of all, full access is given to the site, there are no barriers.
Share a moment at Monteneuf
Neolithic stone axes and tools
Cup and Ring Marks - monument decoration
Spiral motif, decorating a tomb off the coast of Brittany
The archaeological evidence so far
The stones began to be erected 6,500 years ago. The alignment may have taken 1,500 years to complete. Whatever their purpose, people were committed enough to sustain the project for such a mind boggling length of time, that it would indicate that the site and the location were of huge significance to the Neolithic people in the surrounding area, (or even further afield). The destruction of the site makes it difficult for the archaeologist to distinguish between stones which were actually erected and those at the extraction stage from the quarry. (The stone schist's were cut out of rocky outcrops on site and because the alignment had been effectively demolished, a lot of the original locations of the erected stones have been lost.) However, the data so far suggests that the site may have been updated and enlarged for up to 1,500 years.
No evidence of people living on the site has been uncovered yet. This is consistent with other stone alignments in Brittany. The landscape may hinder the gathering of such evidence; in Neolithic times, Monteneuf was part of a moor, an open vista, whereas now it is covered in both thick woodland and farming land. Evidence may be concealed by one and erased by the other. Evidence from other archaeological projects in the area suggest that sometime before or during the period of the monument building at Monteneuf, human society changed from being essentially hunter-gathers to farmers. These new societies kept livestock; goats, pigs, cattle and sheep, and grew wild wheat, barley and beans. They were adept in many crafts including making cloth, pottery and jewelry. An impressive array of tools made out of wood, horn and stone were at their disposal, with some items being exported long distances from different countries. Axe heads made from jadeite have been found in Brittany, the closest deposits of which can only be found in the Alps. So evidence would suggest a sophisticated society, in which some members were well traveled. Travel and migration would also explain the coincidence of structures like the Menhirs of Monteneuf being built in the same era, in more that one country, (by this I mean our present division of Europe into countries.) Archaeologists are confident they have evidence to support all of the above. However, what such sites were used for may have experts scratching their heads for some time to come.
Gavrinis passage tomb (Brittany)
Summer Solstice at Stonehenge
Castlerigg stone circle
Stone alignments and circles and the Landscape
The age of these monuments means that their purpose remains shrouded in mystery. Burial mounds and tombs have an obvious purpose, with grave goods and other physical evidence. Alignments, however, are surprisingly bare of 'finds' and so are open to all kinds of interpretation. Archaeological explanations vary, according to the date they were first mooted. Victorian amateur archaeologists tended to focus on theories involving human sacrifice and general beastliness. Then experts noticed stones having alignments to the sun and the moon. Later still, experts used vague phrases like 'ritual purposes', which basically meant that they thought the sites had a religious or community purpose but could not with any accuracy say what the purpose was. It could be suggested that each hypothesis says more about the experts than the actual site itself. The last few decades have described sites as places where the equivalent of a Neolithic Rave took place, with lots of dancing, drinking, feasting and of course; sex. Today, expert analysis has turned from such thoughts, and is examining the landscape itself.
It might seem blindingly obvious now but the context of the site in relation to the landscape surrounding it, was overlooked for an embarrassingly long time. Landscape archaeology is now given a great deal more attention because it gives a more rational and less lurid insight into the minds of the alignment creators, (in a visual sense.) A good example of this is Castlerigg standing stones, near Keswick in Cumbria, England. If you stand in the center of the stone circle and turn round 360 degrees, you will see that the horizon, made of beautiful hills jutting up against the skyline, is being mimicked by the stones in the circle. There is no doubt that you are in a very special place. You are basically looking through the eyes of it's creators. This still doesn't answer what was going on in their heads when they built it, other than marking it out with a human hand. And that is the landscape archaeologists point, it's an ancient culture putting their stamp on the land because that particular place is special and sometimes, as with Castlerigg, we can see it too. It literally takes your breath away. At other sites, it is more difficult to see what they saw. Sometimes it's mineral deposits, changing the color of a spring. Bodies of water were very popular, not just the sea, small springs and water sources could mark the land as important. Ancient groves of trees were also deemed special. Other sites may, (unromantic as it may seem,) mark open quarry sites. Frequently, the site already has the building material lying about as in Monteneuf.
Experts have suggested that the purpose of such sites probably changed over time and the different cultures which inhabited the area modified the megaliths to suite their own purposes. This is especially true of the structures used for burial, where they were sometimes taken down and incorporated in new structures. Today's use of the Monteneuf site by Pagans is consistent with this. We seem drawn to such places, giving them our own meanings.
The 'original' menhir, where lovers met in the dead of night.
The atmosphere at Monteneuf
Well now we get to the tricky bit. On the way there, I was ecstatic. It was my birthday and the visit was my long anticipated treat. Total access to the site, an off peak visit and not a soul in the place, it should have been bliss. We spent an hour wandering silently about, soaking the place in. Then, we took out the guide leaflet and dutifully followed the route, pausing at the information points and reading them out loud. We then settled down to a picnic, with a great view of the site. We packed up and left only when a large organised group of walkers arrived. I make it a rule to do no research on a site before visiting, it gives me something to look forward to after the event. My husband was very quiet on the journey home and I knew why. For us (and I'm not saying for one moment that anyone else will have this experience) the place felt 'wrong'. It wasn't that it's context is no longer clear because the landscape is now so different and it's hard to make sense of the layout of the stones. It was wrong in a different way.
No birds sang during our time at the stones. In the car park, they had been singing their little heads off but on the site: nothing. Apart from the sound of a couple of cars driving past, there was silence. I visited the battle site of Culloden once (Culloden Moor, Inverness). For some reason Moneteneuf reminded me of it. It sounds rather dramatic but there you are, it felt like a battlefield, with an overwhelming sense of suffering. It reminded my husband of somewhere far worse, where he had been stationed in Germany during his time in the forces. It would be really dramatic if I named that location, so I'm not going to. Neither of us mentioned it until the journey home because we each thought it would spoil it for the other half. So there you have it, a dream location for the passionate pagan but an atmosphere that was a little too interesting, if you catch my meaning. Perhaps the Victorian obsession with beastliness was right after all.
What's the Verdict? No idea what it was for but know what it's for now!
Monteneuf is a brilliantly thought out site and I can thoroughly recommend a visit. Where else can you stand by a stone and be absolutely sure that people have been standing next to it for 6,500 years? Most sites are not so liberal as to allow you free access. We noticed little offerings in the form of flowers,fir cones, nuts and fruit had been placed on some of the stones, (it was Mabon.) The quirky mix of archaeology, tourist attraction and sacred site was a refreshing change from some of the more materialistic approaches I have encountered over the year. It provided a warm welcome to everyone and for those of the Pagan persuasion, there was an acceptance I hadn't encountered before. The focus of events around the solstices and the every day visits from people who feel spiritually connected to the place were treated as normal. There was no hint of the contempt I've come across at other sites, where I had encountered a "rolling of the eyes' at pagan visitors by the site managers. I have heard the word 'mumbojumbo' muttered on several occasions in the UK and a general tut-tutting when visiting archeological sites. Such people would be branded bigots were it any other religion. At Monteneuf however, all are welcome provided they are not lighting fires (which is against the law) or leaving rubbish lying about. I especially liked the little votive offerings, which were dotted around the site. Without seeing those who left them, I felt a connection to the pagan community. A very up lifting experience, which more than made up for the residual oppressiveness.
If you've visited the site, feel free to post your experiences in the comments section. In fact, feel free to post comments, even if you haven't.
2014 Broceliande archaeological site visitors guide
Burl Aubry 2005 The stone circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany Yale University Press
Kindred Glennie 2004 Earth wisdom Hay House publishing ltd London
Litchfield John 2006 Frances New Stonehenge: secrets of a Neolithic time machine The Independent
Loveday Roy 2006 Inscribed across the landscape Tempus publishing Ltd
Paterson Jacqueline Memory 2002 Tree wisdom the definitive guidebook Harper Colins Ltd
Thomas Julian 2013 The birth of Neolithic Britain: An interpretive account Oxford University Press
Monument Menhirs of Monteneuf Brittany
You're not lost, this Site is known by 3 names: Menhirs of Monteneuf, The Pierre Droites and the Broceliande archaeological site.
The Neolithic visitor poll
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© 2015 Kathryn Leyland-Jones