Day 216: So Many Menhirs

originally published August 3, 2012

Until Ms. Wiki packed me in her Magic Wayback DeLorean and sent me back into humanity’s pre-history, the word ‘menhir’ was not a part of my vocabulary. Even now – though you won’t see this – I’m observing that the word is not a part of Microsoft Word’s vocabulary either.

A menhir is a megalith, a large vertical standing stone. They protrude from the ground like great fossilized giant-turds. Stonehenge probably comes immediately to mind, but that monumental array of rocks is merely a drop in the huge-vertical-rock bucket. It’s believed there were over 50,000 menhirs scattered around Northern Europe at one time, with well over 10,000 still there today.

And we know almost nothing about them, except that they’re rocks. We also know they didn’t appear there naturally. In addition, if someone named their band ‘Menhir’, we know it would probably end up being one of those lame costume-wearing German heavy metal groups.

The menhirs are the basis for more debate between European Pre-History scholars than pretty much anything else. If you see a pair of Euro-historians yelling, punching, and pulling each other’s hair, it’s probably because they can’t agree on whether menhirs were used as calendars or territorial markers. You should probably pull up a chair and watch; those historians know how to scrap.

Another possible use for these massive rocks may have been Druidic rituals involving human sacrifice. The explanation is anchored in the blackwater lake of lost mystery, mainly because people before the 19th century had no idea how to go about looking for these answers. Humanity has subsisted through most of its time on the world stage by passing on its history through stories, fables and legends. It’s a seven or eight-thousand-year-old game of Telephone.

The Beaker people is a term used to describe a wide-spread civilization that existed in Europe during the late Neolithic and early Bronze Ages. This is not to say that they were a thriving, wide-spread network of united loin-cloth wearers, but there is a remarkable similarity among the style of pottery found from that era, scattered throughout the continent. It was believed that the menhirs could be attributed to them.

Radiocarbon dating and tree ring science – and this is the second time this week I’ve had an article that relies on tree-ring science; this could be a sign – indicate that some of these menhirs could be as much as seven thousand years old. Seven-thousand years ago people were standing giant rocks up in the dirt, and I can’t even get a Baconator with the extra onions I asked for. Society was a lot more efficient back then.

Some of the menhirs are thought to be giant grave stones. They are carved with axes, ploughs, and other toys from the era. They also may have been used to commemorate the living, like some Bronze Age version of an Academy Award. Others were broken up and used to form passage graves – narrow walkways lined with large stone chunks that lead to one or more burial chambers.

Whether or not specific menhirs were smashed up to become specific graves (“This was his favorite rock slab; let’s destroy it and pile it around his body.”), no one knows. The menhirs may have simply served as convenient sources for stone.

In the Middle Ages, people believed that the stones had been built by giants prior to their eradication during the biblical flood that made Noah a household name. Sounds like the kind of thing people would have taken too seriously back then… and they did! One of the reasons we only have around 10,000 menhirs in Northern Europe now instead of 50,000 is because early Christians tried to deface or destroy any structure that could have been linked to any religion that wasn’t Christianity.

The motherlode of menhirs can be found in the Brittany section of France. Geographically, Brittany takes up about as much of France as California does of America – about 5% of the total area. The place is filled with over 1200 menhirs. It’s a wonder anyone can walk around Brittany without tripping over one of these things.

Brittany is home to the Broken Menhir of Er Grah, the largest slab of stone to have ever been carried and set upright by Neolothic man. The thing was 67 feet high, and now lays in four gigantic pieces on the French countryside.

The U’wa people of Colombia set up a bunch of menhirs in their distant past also. The U’wa who are still around believe the stones to be the ancients of their clans, people who have been turned into the “stone piers of the world.” I don’t know if they actually believe this, or if it’s something they tell tourists so that they can sell them miniature menhirs made in Taiwan from cheap plastic.

In Mudumala, somewhere in the northern, or possibly non-northern part of India, archeologists found a site containing about 80 menhirs as high as 14 feet. These ones support the calendar theory, as the sun aligns with various rows of stones on the equinox and solstice days. Also, a number of the stones are decorated with pictures of Zelda Wisdom bulldog costume pics, so yes, it seems they were being used as calendars in India.

The Devil’s Arrows are three lined-up menhirs in North Yorkshire, England. They get their name from a 300-year-old legend that states that the Devil threw the stones, aiming at the nearby town of Aldborough, but they fell short and landed in a field near Boughbridge. This tale suggests either that the Devil is a notoriously bad shot (and therefore needn’t be feared) or that the dummies in Boughbridge are way too cocky, thinking that the Devil could never possibly set his sights on them. The fools.

Whatever the original intent of these menhirs – if indeed there is anything close to a consensus on intent – we’ll probably never know. We have no trace of the languages of these early people, and it’s not looking like we’ll be finding any new clues anytime soon. What we’re left with is over 10,000 mysteries penned by people who didn’t even know what a pen was. People worked themselves probably to death to stand these rocks up in the ground, and we’ll never know why.

Could it have all been the work of… visiting aliens?

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