European Standing Stones: The Mute Witnesses of Forgotten Times
If we reach far back into the distant past of our ancestors, as far back as the Neolithic and the Bronze Age, we can get a critical glimpse into the lives and traditions of Europe’s ancient inhabitants. Those old tribes, the warriors and stargazers, they had many things in common. Their beliefs and myths were all closely woven together, and their traditions and practices too. Some of the most iconic aspects of the ancient European peoples are their standing stones. Widely known as menhirs and sometimes as monoliths, European standing stones are a small part of a much wider tradition – megalithism .
Today, we are exploring these indomitable European standing stones. Dotting rural and lonesome landscapes, they are to this day remnants of old Europe that have survived a ruthless passage of time since the day they were raised – so many moons ago.
The European Standing Stones as Part of a Greater Tradition
Before delving deeper into the world of standing stones, we need to reflect on the wider tradition of megalithic construction to which they belong. Megalithism was one of the most widespread prehistoric traditions and is generally related to burial practices and religious purposes. Megaliths are imposing stone constructions, often made from enormous slabs of stone with weights averaging at 10 tons.
These constructions can be either solitary – as is the case with standing stones – or grouped into intriguing burial chambers, passage tombs, stone circles, and barrows. Such stone constructions used to over Europe. Today there are over 35,000 remaining only in Europe, with many, many more all over the world. This points us to a highly widespread culture of stone building that dominated the prehistoric world.
- 6 of the Most Magnificent Stone Circles of the British Isles
- Beltany Stone Circle: Bronze Age Megalithic Site is a Gem in Ireland’s Ancient Landscape
A majority of these constructions were raised during the Neolithic period, with a few from earlier, Mesolithic times. They were still raised through the whole of the Chalcolithic period (the Copper Age), and well into the Bronze Age.
Stone circles, standing stones (menhirs), and dolmens are among the most popular and numerous of the megalithic creations. Dolmens usually signify unique megalithic structures made from two or more upright stone slabs, with a larger one (capstone) placed horizontally on top of them. This creates a sort of a symbolic house, in which burials were placed.
Kilclooney More Dolmen in Ireland. (Yggdrasill /Adobe Stock)
What remains a matter of heavy debate to this day is just how these megalithic structures were erected. It is often debated that creating such structures would be an overly laborious and near-impossible task for the Neolithic peoples – well before the advent of bronze or iron tools. How they went about transporting huge slabs of stone – some weighing over 10 tons – across uneven land, and erecting them in positions that challenge the laws of possibility, is still a puzzle to this day.
One such puzzling example is the famed archaeological site of Göbekli Tepe. Dated to circa 9,500 BC, this site is an amazing ritual complex filled with numerous standing stones and stone circles, many of them carved with precision and adorned with intricate reliefs and symbols.
Göbekli Tepe, Turkey. (Brian Weed /Adobe Stock)
But what makes it all the more astonishing is its age. It was erected in a time that predates pottery, metallurgy, the wheel, writing, and the Neolithic revolution (agriculture and animal husbandry). And that is just another missing piece of the puzzle relating to standing stones in general. Just how they could have been raised is a bit of a mind bender. But it also serves to remind us that they had immense significance for the ancient people who went to great lengths and efforts to erect these imposing stones – trying to reach some higher purpose.
During the Medieval period, there was a widespread belief that these standing stones, and other megalithic structures were raised by giants, who purportedly lived before the Biblical flood. That’s why many of the stones have local names relating to giants, such as: Giant’s Stone, Giant’s Grave, etc.
An Ancient Land: The Standing Stones of Brittany
One of the best locations in which standing stones can be observed today is Brittany – a region of modern France that is home to an old nation, Celtic in origin and rich in history. This land, and its shores, are dotted with standing stones, complex barrows, and astonishing megalithic constructions, which shows us that the area was clearly of great importance, or a heartland for megalith builder societies. Brittany is the home to the Carnac stones, a mind-bending ancient side of over 3,000 separate standing stones, closely aligned to produce a complex and mysterious ancient astronomical site.
The Kerloas Menhir is the biggest standing stone in Europe , and perhaps even in the world. It is located near the Aber Ildut estuary in central Brittany, on the shores of Lac de Lanneon. The stone’s modern location is different than the original one. It was moved from its first site some 2.5 km (1.55 miles) away in order to preserve it.
It stood at 10 meters tall (32.81 ft.), but had 2 meters (6.56 ft.) struck off it by a lightning strike about 200 years ago. As it was placed on top of a hill, the stone dominated the surrounding area and could have easily been seen from as much as 30 km (18.64 miles) away!
Kerloas Menhir. (mariof /Adobe Stock)
It is one of the finer European standing stones, not only due to its height, but also for its fine, tapered, elegant sides. A unique part of the Kerloas menhir are two adjacent stone lumps – located at parallel sides of the narrow portion of the stone. Many legends survive today related to the stone, and one custom is for all newlyweds to visit the stone and rub these lumps in hopes of fertility. The menhir is estimated to weigh an astonishing 150 tons and dates from somewhere between 6,000 and 2,000 BC.
The Broken Menhir of Er Grah is one of the wonders of ancient Europe – even though it lies broken today. Located in Locmariaquer in the Morbihan region of Brittany, this megalithic complex is truly an astonishing location. Amid these structures is the “great broken menhir” – an imposing stone that lies broken into several huge pieces.
Broken Menhir of Er Grah. (Jérôme Rommé /Adobe Stock)
When it was whole and standing, it is believed to have been erected around 4700 BC, and stood at an incredible 20.60 meters (67.59 ft) and weighed about 330 tons – seemingly defying all laws of physics. Scholars agree that it was broken around 4000 BC – seven centuries after its erection. The sheer dimensions of the stone are a big source of debate among the leading scholars of today.
The fact it was raised in the Neolithic period and with such dimensions and weight, baffles the laws of logic. Originally, it stood in unison with 18 more separate standing stones. Extensive archaeological research confirmed that the stone was in fact upright and toppled over – most likely due to an earthquake. It is a jaw dropping site of Neolithic Europe.
Menhir de Champ-Dolent is the grand jewel in Brittany’s crown of standing stones. Located in the fields near the town of Dol-de-Bretagne, near the shores of the sea, this stone dominates the surrounding lands. It is the tallest standing stone in Brittany today, measuring around 9.5 meters (31.19 ft.) above ground, with an approximate weight of 100 tons.
Menhir de Champ-Dolent. (shorty25 /Adobe Stock)
The characteristic features of this menhir are its oval shape and worked, smooth surface. Many legends surround this stone, with one saying that it is slowly sinking into the ground. Once it fully sinks, the world will supposedly end. Good thing we still have about 9.5 meters to go! With its measurements, the great Menhir of Champ-Dolent is a stunning site to behold. It is another mysterious example of European standing stones – one that we will perhaps never solve.
- Rare Stone Steles With Unknown Figures Found At Neolithic Site in Switzerland
- Li’s Gravestones: Raised in Memory of the Long Forgotten Dead
The Old Isles: Standing Stones in the British Isles
Without a doubt, the British Isles are among the best locations for all things related to the most ancient aspects of Europe, and this region is dotted with many megalithic sites. Of course, the best known are Stonehenge, Avesbury, and the Callanish stones. Dolmens and menhirs are not far behind, as they dot the solitary rural landscapes of Wales, Ireland, and Scotland, resisting the passage of time.
The Rudston Monolith is a magnificent standing stone – and the tallest one in the United Kingdom. Located in the East Riding of Yorkshire, in the village of Rudston’s churchyard, this stone measures about 7.6 meters (25 ft.) in height. Made from gritstone, this stone is noted for its worked slender sides, and weighs around 40 tons.
Rudston Monolith. (CC0)
At one point, its tip broke off. With it, it would measure around 8.5 meters (28 ft.) Sources say that the nearest source from where the stone could be quarried is 16 km (9.94 miles) north of the spot it stands today. This once again suggests that it would be a near-impossible undertaking to move this massive European standing stone to its location. Furthermore, one of the most prominent of the early English antiquarians and researchers, Sir William Stukeley, reported that “the dimensions of the monolith within the ground are the same as those above it.”
Clach an Trushal is Scotland’s tallest standing stone. Called Clach an Truiseil in Scottish Gaelic, meaning “Stone of Compassion”, this lovely stone is located in the village of Ballantrushal, on the west coast of the Isle of Lewis. Some say that it is the last remaining standing stone from a stone circle, and was undoubtedly erected some 5,000 years ago. This stone is about 5.8 meters (19 ft.) tall. It is a part of an important standing stone region, with the stone circle of Steinacleit nearby, and the iconic Callanish stones just 32.19 km (20 miles) to the south west.
Clach an Trushal. (Fulcanelli /Adobe Stock)
Maen Llia is one of the few standing stones that dot the lands of Wales. This solitary stone adorns the picturesque moors of the Brecon Beacons National Park, located in Powys in Wales. This thick, stout stone is 3.7 meters (12.14 ft.) tall and has a roughly diamond shape. It is seemingly situated in an important region, as there is a low, badly preserved henge nearby. Another of Wales’ important standing stones, Maen Madoc, is also nearby, some 3.5 km (2.17 miles) away. It is said that Maen Llia once bore an inscription, which has since faded away.
Europe’s Lost Heritage: Standing Stones of Germany and the Iberian Peninsula
Once there were many, many more megalithic structures dotting the European lands. Some were still in ritual use even in the late Iron Age. But with the onset of Christianity, these European standing stones faded out into legends and myths, and many were demonized by the Church.
Some of the European standing stones were purposely destroyed, or buried, or used in the construction of other buildings. Often churches were built on these sites. But those that remain are certainly rich in history, and deserve a mention. Here are a couple more notable standing stones in Europe.
Riesenstein, also known as the Giant’s Stone, is one of the finest and best-preserved standing stones in Germany. Located in Hesse in Germany, near the village of Wolfershausen, it is a fine example of megalithic tradition. Although not as tall as some of the stones we mentioned, it is no less majestic.
Riesenstein. (Tecty/CC BY SA 4.0)
It measures about 4.7 meters (15.42 ft.) in height and its mass above the earth is 37 tons. It was erected before 3,000 BC, as discoveries of skulls at its base show that it was in use during that period and before. Interestingly, all the legends connected to this stone are related to giants . The different tales all say that the stone got there after being thrown by a giant who lived at a nearby hill. Hence it is known by locals as the Giant’s Stone.
Menir da Meada is the tallest standing stone in the Iberian Peninsula – which itself is dotted with many megalithic structures, much like Brittany to its north. This menhir is situated in Portugal, close to the Castelo de Vide. It is 7.15 meters (23.46 ft.) tall and has an iconic slender and tapered look of the Iberian menhirs.
- Evidence of Ancient Megalithic Culture in Massachusetts Revealed For the First Time
- Grange Stone Circle: A Place of Ritual Gatherings, Sacrifice and Worship from Prehistoric Times to the Modern Day
Menir da Meada. (StockPhotosArt /Adobe Stock)
Just like other menhirs of this peninsula, this one too has a phallic representation, which probably signifies a ritual and perhaps fertility symbolism. The local legends point to this as well. Oddly enough, many of the Iberian menhirs were toppled and broken in two. The same thing happened to the Menir da Meada, but it was repaired.
Will European Standing Stones Remain a Testament to the Distant Past?
It is a certainty that the distant past of Europe is veiled in a thick fog of mystery. Our early ancestors were much more advanced than most people would think and they had a complex understanding of the technologies needed to move large stones and set them erect into place.
But some of these European standing stones defy all logic – and their construction can only be guessed at. Even so, they remain an immortal heritage of an ancient, bygone era. And perhaps that was a part of the reason behind their construction – to create a lasting memory to be preserved for thousands of years.
Top Image: European standing stones: Rudston Monolith (CC0), Maen Llia (Tony Martin Long /Adobe Stock), Maen Madoc (Alan Bowring/CC BY SA 2.0), Kerloas Menhir (mariof /Adobe Stock), Riesenstein (Tecty/CC BY SA 4.0), Menir da Meada. (StockPhotosArt /Adobe Stock)
Arnold, C. 1997. Stone Age Farmers Beside the Sea: Scotland's Prehistoric Village of Skara Brae. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Briard, J. 1990. Dolmens et Menhirs de Bretagne. Editions Jean-Paul Gisserot.
Browne, D. and Hughes, S. 2003. The Archaeology of Welsh Uplands. Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales.
Midgley, M. 2008. The Megaliths of Northern Europe. Routledge.
Thom, A. and Thom A. 1978. Megalithic Remains in Britain and Brittany. Clarendon Press.
Varner, G. 2004. Menhirs, Dolmens, and Circles of Stone: The Folklore and Magic of Sacred Stone. Algora Publishing.