Monday, April 13, 2009

The Carnac Stones

A dramatic battle is raging over the future - and the soul - of the conglomeration of neolithic standing stones at Carnac in Brittany, the largest site of its kind in the world. A coalition of amateur archaeologists, small farmers, environmentalists and Breton nationalists, led by a folk musician and a round-the-world yachtsman, has seized control of the central group of Carnac menhirs, or standing stones.

The 3,000 hunks of granite, erected 6,000 years ago (or more) in rows spread over two and a half miles, form a vast monument to the mysteries of early humanity, comparable in importance to Stonehenge. The protestors fear that the site's owner - the French state - plans to turn them into a theme park, or what they call a "Menhirland". The state accuses the protesters of having desecrated the place they love.

Since 1991, the principal groups of Carnac stones have been fenced in by ugly, green-mesh enclosures, similar to the controversial barrier erected around Stonehenge. Three weeks ago, the protesters stormed the main visitor centre, found the keys to the fences and threw all the stone alignments open to the public for free (to the delight of tourists).

French government officials have now recaptured and padlocked two of the three main groups of stones. But they say that the protesters have already caused permanent damage to the site by allowing tourists to wander among the menhirs at will.

Nonsense, say the demonstrators, who still hold the visitor centre and access to Kermario, the most central group of neolithic alignments. They say that it was the state that damaged the site by its misguided management in the 1980s (including using bulldozers to move stones around).

If Paris cares about the menhirs, they asked, why has it allowed scores of other groups of stones in the Carnac area - there are 80 sites and over 14,000 stones within a 10-mile radius - to fall into ruin? Why has the state changed its zoning rules to permit development near the main alignments, while trying to evict small farmers who have co-existed with the stones for years?

"They have plans, only half-disclosed, to commercialise the stones," said Eugène Riguidel, 62, a round-the-world yachtsman and environmental activist, who is vice-president of Menhirs Libres, the group leading the protest.

"They want to clear residents away from the site, make it antiseptic, build a large, paying car park and visitor centre and then probably hotels. We want the stones - all the stones - to be cherished, to be protected, but not to be fenced in with enclosures which destroy the beauty and atmosphere of this magical place."

The French government says that "Menhirland" is a myth. The site was fenced because unrestricted access by one million visitors a year was destroying vegetation and threatening to destabilise the stones. Officials say the government's plan, published in 1996 (and rejected by 87 per cent of local people) aims to restore the site's grandeur, not to turn it into a theme park.

Christian Obeltz, 40, a folk musician and amateur archaeologist, who is the other vice-president of Menhirs Libres, retorted: "If they really cherish the stones, why is there such a tiny sum in their plans [£15,000] for archaeological exploration to try to understand who built the alignments and why?"

Astonishingly, there has been little thorough exploration of Carnac since the pioneering work of the Scottish archaeologist James Miln in the 1860s, who carried out extensive excavations in the area.

At that time, fewer than 700 of the nearly 3,000 stones at the main Carnac sites were still standing. Early photographs and drawings suggest that parts of today's neat alignments may be incorrect. They were originally more haphazard. Also, it appears that some of the stones were re-erected upside down.

Others were quarried in the 1930s to fill gaps in the lines. Some were shifted to make way for roads. A few, scandalously, were shoved into new positions, to make way for the ugly fences in 1991.

"There is a huge amount of work that needs to be done to understand the site and restore its integrity," Mr Obeltz said. "Otherwise, we will just be selling the tourists myths and legends and a simplified, regularised Carnac, something which fails to comprehend the real immensity and mystery of the place."

The battle of Carnac has settled, for the time being, into a typically French stand-off. The French authorities show no willingness to evict the protesters from the site. Nor have they shown any intention to listen to their criticism.

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