39 Prehistoric Megaliths At ‘The French Stonehenge’ Destroyed by Developers
DIY chain Mr. Bricolage is under fire for ‘accidentally’ destroying a vital part of the deeply ancient historical heritage of Brittany – ‘The French Stonehenge’. The unfortunate destruction of thirty-nine ancient standing stones at the renowned Neolithic site of Carnac in north-west France has caused widespread dismay.
The incredibly significant archaeological site in Brittany, encompasses thousands of standing stones spread across 27 communes, making it one of the most important prehistoric sites in Europe. These "menhirs," or single standing stones, constitute one of the largest collections of their kind in the world, famously depicted as the colossal rocks carried by Obelix in the beloved French comic series "Asterix & Obelix", reports The Local.
Believed to have been erected during the Neolithic period, some of these stones date back thousands of years, originating as early as 4,000 BC. However, the recent construction of a new DIY store on the outskirts of the heritage area has been detrimental to its preservation, to say the least. With so many stones, it seems it has proven difficult to keep account of them all.
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Bureaucracy and Architecture: A Colossal Oversight or a Designed Mess?
According to reports from regional newspaper Ouest-France, the DIY chain Mr Bricolage had obtained a building permit from the local town hall in August 2022 to construct their new store in the area. Construction has since commenced. The affected stones are located in the town of Montaubin, separate from the primary tourist locations of Ménec and Kermario, which are situated a little over 1.5km (1 mile) away.
Nevertheless, historical associations and nearby residents, such as Christian Obeltz, a researcher who manages the "Sites & Monuments" website, have expressed astonishment at how building permission could have been granted for a site listed as a heritage area to be preserved. The issue seems to stem from certain stones being excluded from recently updated planning maps, and the builders claim they were unaware that the site formed part of the heritage area.
Un alignement d’explications est nécessaire !
— Xavier Mauduit (@XavierMauduit) June 7, 2023
According to Ouest France, an archaeological survey conducted in 2014 led to the rejection of a previous planning permission as it could have impacted "elements of archaeological heritage." However, Stéphane Doriel, in charge of the building operation, informed Ouest France that they had not received any warning from government bodies or documents regarding the presence of the menhirs.
"I'm not an archaeologist, I don't know menhirs; low walls exist everywhere. If we'd known that, we'd obviously have done things differently", Doriel told Ouest France.
Doriel claimed that the previous permit was refused due to a wetland issue, not the stones.
The town's mayor, Olivier Lepick, also admitted to being unaware that the site was listed on the Heritage Atlas, despite reportedly presiding over the group that applied for UNESCO status for the prehistoric sites. Lepick claimed that efforts were made to comply with zoning regulations and suggested that there might have been an error in updating the zoning plans, particularly since the discovery of new stones occurred in 2015.
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After excavations carried out by Inrap in 2015, 39 small stelae were discovered on the Montauban site, including some of the oldest in Brittany. (INRAP/ West France Archives)
In France, zoning plans, known as PLU, have stringent regulations dictating what can be built in specific areas. However, in December 2020, changes were made to this process. The PLU replaced its predecessor, the 'Plan d'occupation des sols' (POS), which was previously the urban zoning document used throughout France. Lepick argued that the stones were correctly listed under the previous document but not under the new one, which explains how planning permission was granted erroneously.
However, Obeltz presents an alternate theory, suggesting that "elected officials in the area and the department are in a hurry to build up anything [around the archaeological area] because once it is classified with UNESCO, it won't be possible anymore."
Obeltz alludes to the upcoming application, set to be submitted in September 2023, to register the 397 megalithic sites around Carnac, spread across 27 communes, as a UNESCO World Heritage site. If approved, the area will be subject to even stricter regulations regarding construction.
The Carnac Stones: Tourism, Legend and History
Typically, when tourists visit the Carnac stones, they tend to flock to the Ménec and Kermario sites, which span approximately 6km (4 miles). Numerous theories and legends have circulated throughout Breton history to explain the alignment of these stones. One local legend even suggests that they are the petrified remnants of a Roman army.
The origin of the alignments at Carnac is often misrepresented by a popular but mythical tale. According to this legend, Saint Cornély, the patron saint of cattle, evaded a legion of Roman soldiers by seeking refuge inside the ear of an ox, and subsequently transforming the pursuing soldiers into stone. However, it is important to clarify that this charming story is not rooted in historical fact and fails to provide an accurate explanation for the true origins of the Carnac Alignments.
Built a 1,000 years before the more famous ‘Stonehenge’ (4,000 BC onwards), the construction of the site took place over several centuries, with ongoing additions and reconfigurations. Like its British neighbor, the purpose of the Carnac stones remain unclear, and are a subject of great speculation and debate. Various theories propose that they served as religious or ceremonial sites, markers of territory or land division, astronomical observatories, or memorials to ancestors, reports the BBC.
The importance of the main site at Carnac would seem obvious, but the tendrils of it that spread over such a wide area have also come into the equation. Recent consideration of the entire feature has radically altered to request preservation and protection of the Carnac Stones including all those in the associated area. Efforts have been made to secure UNESCO World Heritage status for the site, recognizing its exceptional universal value and the application for World Heritage status, encompassing the multiple megalithic sites near Carnac, is set to be submitted in September 2023.
Top image: 39 stones near the main attraction here at Carnac have been totally destroyed. Source: Karl Allen Lugmayer / Adobe Stock
By Sahir Pandey
CET. 2023. Prehistoric standing stones in western France destroyed during construction of DIY store. Available at: https://www.thelocal.fr/20230607/prehistoric-standing-stones-in-western-france-destroyed-during-construction-of-diy-store.
Tucker, H. 2022. The mystery of France's 'Stonehenge'. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/travel/article/20220914-carnac-alignments-brittanys-mysterious-standing-stones.
Sybille, L. 2023. In Carnac, 39 menhirs destroyed to build a DIY store: what happened? Available at: https://www.ouest-france.fr/culture/patrimoine/a-carnac-39-menhirs-detruits-pour-construire-un-magasin-que-sest-il-passe-ac3d997c-03bc-11ee-bfa0-5e45e3198685.