The function of Menhirs has provoked more debate than practically any other issue in European pre-history. Over the centuries they have variously been thought to have been used by Druids for human sacrifice, used as territorial markers or elements of a complex ideological system, or functioned as early calendars. Until the nineteenth century, antiquarians did not have substantial knowledge of prehistory; and their only reference points were provided by Classical literature. The developments of radiocarbon dating and tree-ring calibration have done much to further human knowledge in this area. The word menhir was adopted from French by 19th century archaeologists. It is a combination of two words found in the Breton language; men (stone), and hir (long). In Modern Welsh they are described as maen hir, or "long stone." In modern Breton, the word peulvan is used.
The shape of a menhir tends to be square, narrowing toward the top. Some have vertical grooves and certain of those at Carnac appear to have been partially smoothed.
Practically nothing is known of the social organization or religious beliefs of the people who erected the menhirs. We have no trace even of these peoples' language, however we do know that they buried their dead, and had the skills to grow cereal, farm, and make pottery, stone tools, and jewelry. Speculation as to their use remains speculation, however it is likely that many had a functionality involving fertility rites and seasonal cycles. Until recently, menhirs were associated with the Beaker people, who inhabited Europe during the later third millennium BC; the European late Neolithic and early Bronze Age. However, recent research into the age of megaliths in Brittany strongly suggests a far older origin, perhaps back to six to seven thousand years ago.
Many menhirs are carved with megalithic art. This often turned them into anthropomorphic stelae, although images of objects such as stone axes, ploughs, shepherd crooks and yokes were common. With the exception of the stone axe, none of these motifs are definite, and the name used to describe them is largely for convenience. Some menhirs were broken up and incorporated into later passage graves where they had new megalithic art carved with little regard for the previous pictures. It is not known if this re-use was deliberate or if the passage grave builders just saw menhirs as a convenient source of stone (Le Roux 1992).
In Scandinavia, menhirs are called bautasten or bautastenar and continued to be erected during the Pre-Roman Iron Age and later, usually over the ashes of the dead. They were raised both as solitary stones and in formations, such as the stone ships and few stone circles.
Sometimes, they were raised only as commemoration to great people, a tradition which was continued as the runestones.
The tradition was strongest in Bornholm, Gotland and Götaland and appears to have followed the Goths, during the 1st century, to the southern shore of the Baltic Sea, (now Northern Poland) where they are a characteristic of the Wielbark culture. In many areas, standing stones were systematically toppled by Christians; of the many former standing menhirs of northern Germany, scarcely one stands today.
The tradition is also mentioned in Hávamál.
Brittany stands out in the distribution of menhirs by virtue of both the density of monuments and the diversity of types. The largest surviving menhir in the world is located in Locmariaquer, Brittany, and is known as the Grand Menhir Brisé (Great Broken Menhir). Once nearly 20 meters high, today, it lies fractured into four pieces, but would have weighed near 330 tons when intact. It is placed third after the Thunder Stone in St. Petersburg and the Western Stone in the Western Wall as the heaviest object moved by humans without powered machinery.
Alignments of menhirs are common, the most famous being the Carnac stones in Brittany, where more than 3000 individual menhirs are arranged in four groups, and arrayed in rows stretching across four kilometres. Each set is organised with the tallest stones at the western end, and shorter ones at the eastern end. Some end with a semicircular cromlech, but many have since fallen or been destroyed.
The second largest concentration of menhirs in France is at the Cham des Bondons, located on high open limestone plain in the granitic Cévennes. The site is today protected by the Parc National des Cévennes. From the time pastoralism was established, the site was kept open by controlled burning and grazing.
Serge Cassen (ed.) Autour de la Table: explorations archeologiques et discours savants sur des architectures neolithiques a Locmariaquer, Morbihan (Table des Marchands et Grand Menhir). Synthese d'un programme de fouilles (J. L'Helgouac'h et S. Cassen, 1986-1994) et d'une Action Collective de Recherche (ACR) 2003-2006.(Book review)
Jun 01, 2011; SERGE CASSEN (ed.) Autour de la Table: explorations archeologiques et discours savants sur des architectures neolithiques a...
Serge Cassen. Exercice de stele: une archeologie des pierres dressees, reflexion autour des menhirs de Carnac.(Book review)
Mar 01, 2010; SERGE CASSEN. Exercice de stele: une archeologie des pierres dressees, reflexion autour des Menhirs de Carnac. 158 pages,...