On Brittany’s southern coast, situated near Locmariaquer, there is an object of significant archaeological interest. Four enormous stone blocks are all that remain of Le Grand Menhir Brisé (‘The Great Broken Standing Stone’) or Men er Hroeg (‘The Fairy’s Stone’) as it is also known, the largest monolith ever erected in prehistoric times; were it intact and upright, it would stand 20.3 metres tall and the combined weight of all four segments is approximately 280 tons. The fact that this monument belongs to the earliest part of the Neolithic in Brittany is even more remarkable as one can only imagine this gigantic object as having been the progeny of a culture with a lengthy experience in cutting, shaping and transporting stone.

The site where the stone was obtained is not certain but as it is composed of coarse-grained granite (orthagneiss), the most likely source is 12 Kilometres to the north - an outcrop in the Auray River estuary. If this is so, it is likely that most transport occurred by water, although even then a significant workforce and a larger measure of ingenuity would have been required to transport the object at all - by way of comparison, it is seven times as heavy as the largest of the stones at Stonehenge and well over twice as long. Other sources claim that the stone came from the Quiberon Peninsula.

The sheer size of the monument raises questions as to whether it was ever erected at all, although theories relating to its destruction suggest that it was. Hearsay and rumour indicates that it was erected (albeit by unknown means), although it was toppled by a natural disaster of some kind within the past 2000 years. The French archaeologist Jean L’Helgouach, however, points to wedge-shaped markings in the breaks between the stones to conclude that some human agency was responsible. The first stage of destruction, he claims, was in driving a ring of wedges into the stone. This amputated the upper two thirds and left only the stump, which was then pulled out in a different direction (the upper three pieces face east, whereas the base faces west). If this is not so, then it is also possible that the stone broke in the process of raising it.

Similar sockets to that of this stone have been discovered nearby and suggest that it was not alone. Rather, it is thought that this stone was the last in a line of menhirs which stretched in a northward line for 55 metres. Only tiny fragments remain of these other monuments and it is believed that the pieces were hauled away and used for other Neolithic monuments (as it has been demonstrated that La Table des Marchand and Gavrinis are actually pieces of the same stone). Whether these were intended to serve a religious purpose or not is unclear; similar monuments (such as those derived from pieces of those felled) denote grave sites.

Although a superficial glance would suggest that the stone is unshaped, close inspection reveals the marks of pounding implements which were employed to smooth the surface of the stone. It is likely that this phase took place after the monument was erected, as the base is still rough. A highly damaged carving still survives near the broken end of the second largest fragment and although it is popularly thought to be a stone axe in a wooden haft, the dimensions of the ‘axe’ make this an uncertain assessment. The carving is so weathered that no theory can be conclusively proven although it is thought that the carving may have been painted.

Tourists with an interest in archaeology can sate their craving here (between 10AM and 5PM) for the cost of 4 Euros, except at Easter time when there is a narrower window (12:30-2:00 PM). Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your standpoint), little is actually known of this monument by virtue of its historical remoteness and mystifying aspect.

The Seventy Wonders of the Ancient World: the Ancient Monuments and How They Were Built, Thames & Hudson.

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