Last updated

Large menhir located between Millstreet and Ballinagree, County Cork, Ireland Ballinagree.jpg
Large menhir located between Millstreet and Ballinagree, County Cork, Ireland
Cwm Rhaeadr Fawr maen hir (menhir) near Aber Falls, Gwynedd, Wales Celtic maen hir or cairn at Cwm Rhaeadr Fawr (valley near Aber Falls), Gwynedd, Wales 30.jpg
Cwm Rhaeadr Fawr maen hir (menhir) near Aber Falls, Gwynedd, Wales
Dry Tree menhir - a standing stone at Goonhilly Downs Cornwall Goonhilly Downs menhir.jpg
Dry Tree menhir – a standing stone at Goonhilly Downs Cornwall

A menhir ( /ˈmɛnhɪər/ ; [1] from Brittonic languages: maen or men, "stone" and hir or hîr, "long" [2] ), standing stone, orthostat, or lith is a large upright stone, emplaced in the ground by humans, typically dating from the European middle Bronze Age. They can be found individually as monoliths, or as part of a group of similar stones. Menhirs' size can vary considerably, but they often taper toward the top.


Menhirs are found across Europe, Africa, and Asia, with a concentration in Western Europe, notably in Ireland, Great Britain, and Brittany. Their purpose remains speculative, with theories ranging from druidic rituals to territorial markers or elements of an ideological system. Some menhirs feature engravings, including anthropomorphic figures and symbols, and are often associated with ancient religious ceremonies and burial chambers.


The word menhir was adopted from French by 19th-century archaeologists. The introduction of the word into general archaeological usage has been attributed to the 18th-century French military officer Théophile Corret de la Tour d'Auvergne. [3] It is a combination of two words of the Breton language: maen and hir. In modern Welsh, they are described as maen hir, or "long stone". In modern Breton, the word peulvan is used, with peul meaning "stake" or "post" and van which is a soft mutation of the word maen which means "stone". In Germany and Scandinavia the word Bauta is used (e.g., de:Bautastein and no:bautastein) and this occasionally makes its way into English with the term "bauta stone".

The Geant du Manio, a menhir in Carnac, Brittany Carnac Geant du Manio.jpg
The Géant du Manio, a menhir in Carnac, Brittany


Almost nothing is known of the social organization or religious beliefs of the people who erected the menhirs. Their language is also unknown. It is known, however, that they buried their dead and had the skills to grow crops, farm and make pottery, stone tools and jewelry. Identifying the purpose or use of menhirs remains speculative. Until recently, standing stones were associated with the Beaker people, who inhabited Europe during the European late Neolithic and early Bronze Age—later third millennium BC, c.2800–1800 BC. 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. [4]

During the European Middle Ages, standing stones were believed to have been built by the giants who lived before the biblical flood. Many of the megaliths were destroyed or defaced by early Christians; it is estimated that some 50,000 megaliths once stood in Northern Europe, where almost 10,000 now remain. [5] Menhirs have also been found in many other parts of the world.

Many menhirs are engraved with megalithic art, some with anthropomorphic features. Other common carvings are identified as images of stone axes, ploughs, shepherds' crooks, and yokes; and are named after these motifs. However, these identifications are not secure except for those of the stone axe images, and the names used to describe them are largely a matter of 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. [6]

Where menhirs appear in groups, often in a circular, oval, henge, or horseshoe formation, they are sometimes called megalithic monuments. These are sites of ancient religious ceremonies, sometimes containing burial chambers. [7] The exact function of menhirs has provoked more debate than practically any other issue in European prehistory. 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, used as mnemonic systems for oral cultures, [8] or functioning as early calendars. [9] 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 dendrochronology have significantly advanced scientific knowledge in this area.

Geographical distribution

Menhirs are widely distributed across Europe, Africa, and Asia, but are most numerous in Western Europe; particularly in Ireland, Great Britain, and Brittany, where there are about 50,000 examples, [10] and northwestern France, where there are some 1,200 further examples. [11] Standing stones are usually difficult to date. They were constructed during many different periods across prehistory as part of the larger megalithic cultures in Europe and near areas. Some menhirs stand next to buildings that have an early or current religious significance. One example is the South Zeal Menhir in Devon, which formed the basis for a 12th-century monastery built by lay monks. The monastery later became the Oxenham Arms hotel, at South Zeal, and the standing stone remains in place in the snug bar at the hotel. [12]

It is believed that practitioners of megalithic religions travelled via the sea, as the mass majority of menhirs are located on coasts, islands, and peninsulas. [13]

The French comic book series Asterix features the character Obelix, who is known for carrying menhirs, as a sculptor and deliveryman. [14]

See also


  1. "menhir" . Oxford English Dictionary (Online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/OED/8737336948 . Retrieved 25 September 2023.(Subscription or participating institution membership required.)
  2. Anon. "Menhir". The Free Dictionary. Farlex, Inc. Retrieved 15 December 2010.
  3. Landru, Philippe (23 August 2008). "La Tour d'Auvergne (Théophile Malo Corret de la Tour d'Auvergne : 1743–1800)" . Retrieved 24 January 2018.
  4. Aviva, Elyn; White, Gary (October 1998). "Mysterious Megaliths: The Standing Stones of Carnac, Brittany, France". World and I . Vol. 13.
  5. Olsen, Brad (February 2004). "Carbnac". Sacred Places Around the World: 108 Destinations By Brad Olsen. Consortium of Collective Consciousness. p. 232. ISBN   1-888729-10-4 . Retrieved 21 February 2010.
  6. Le Roux, C. T. (1992). "The Art of Gavrinis Presented in its Armorican Context and in Comparison with Ireland". Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland. 122: 79–108.
  7. Roberts, Chris (2006). Heavy Words Lightly Thrown: The Reason Behind Rhyme. Thorndike Press. ISBN   0-7862-8517-6.
  8. Kelly, Lynne (2015). Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies: Orality, Memory, and the Transmission of Culture. Cambridge University Press. ISBN   978-1107059375. OCLC   910935575.
  9. Patton, Mark. (1993). Statements in Stone: Monuments and Society in Neolithic Brittany. New York: Routledge. p. 4.
  10. Greene, Janice (2006). Strange But True Stories. Saddleback Pub. ISBN   1-59905-010-2 . Retrieved 25 August 2011.
  11. Oliphant, Margaret (1992). The Atlas Of The Ancient World. p. 81.
  12. "Oxenham Arms—Standing Stone (Menhir)". The Megalithic Portal. Retrieved 11 June 2022.
  13. Carrington, Dorothy (2015). Granite Island: Portrait of Corsica. Penguin UK. ISBN   978-0-14-191819-8 . Retrieved 26 December 2020.
  14. "Reach for the sky with Astérix". 17 October 2023.

Further reading

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Dolmen</span> Type of single-chamber megalithic tomb

A dolmen or portal tomb is a type of single-chamber megalithic tomb, usually consisting of two or more upright megaliths supporting a large flat horizontal capstone or "table". Most date from the Late Neolithic period and were sometimes covered with earth or smaller stones to form a tumulus. Small pad-stones may be wedged between the cap and supporting stones to achieve a level appearance. In many instances, the covering has eroded away, leaving only the stone "skeleton".

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Megalith</span> Large stone used to build a structure or monument

A megalith is a large stone that has been used to construct a prehistoric structure or monument, either alone or together with other stones. There are over 35,000 in Europe alone, located widely from Sweden to the Mediterranean sea.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Henge</span> Type of Neolithic earthwork

A henge loosely describes one of three related types of Neolithic earthwork. The essential characteristic of all three is that they feature a ring-shaped bank and ditch, with the ditch inside the bank. Because the internal ditches would have served defensive purposes poorly, henges are not considered to have been defensive constructions. The three henge types are as follows, with the figure in brackets being the approximate diameter of the central flat area:

  1. Henge. The word henge refers to a particular type of earthwork of the Neolithic period, typically consisting of a roughly circular or oval-shaped bank with an internal ditch surrounding a central flat area of more than 20 m (66 ft) in diameter. There is typically little if any evidence of occupation in a henge, although they may contain ritual structures such as stone circles, timber circles and coves. Henge monument is sometimes used as a synonym for henge. Henges sometimes, but by no means always, featured stone or timber circles, and circle henge is sometimes used to describe these structures. The three largest stone circles in Britain are each within a henge. Examples of henges without significant internal monuments are the three henges of Thornborough Henges. Although having given its name to the word henge, Stonehenge is atypical in that the ditch is outside the main earthwork bank.
  2. Hengiform monument. Like an ordinary henge, except the central flat area is between 5 and 20 m (16–66 ft) in diameter, they comprise a modest earthwork with a fairly wide outer bank. The terms mini-henge or Dorchester henge are sometimes used as synonyms for hengiform monument. An example is the Neolithic site at Wormy Hillock Henge.
  3. Henge enclosure. A Neolithic ring earthwork with the ditch inside the bank, with the central flat area having abundant evidence of occupation and usually being more than 300 m (980 ft) in diameter. Some true henges are as large as this, but lack evidence of domestic occupation. Super-henge or superhenge is sometimes used as a synonym for a henge enclosure. However, sometimes the term is used to indicate size alone rather than use, e.g. "Marden henge ... is the least understood of the four British 'superhenges' ".
<span class="mw-page-title-main">Carnac</span> Commune in Brittany, France, known for its Neolithic standing stones.

Carnac is a commune beside the Gulf of Morbihan on the south coast of Brittany in the Morbihan department in north-western France.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Stone circle</span> Ring of standing stones

A stone circle is a ring of standing stones. Most are found in Northwestern Europe – especially in Britain, Ireland, and Brittany – and typically date from the Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age, with most being built from 3000 BC. The best known examples include those at the henge monument at Avebury, the Rollright Stones, and elements within the ring of standing stones at Stonehenge. Scattered examples exist from other parts of Europe. Later, during the Iron Age, stone circles were built in southern Scandinavia.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Trilithon</span> Structure consisting of three stones

A trilithon or trilith is a structure consisting of two large vertical stones (posts) supporting a third stone set horizontally across the top (lintel). It is commonly used in the context of megalithic monuments. The most famous trilithons are those of Stonehenge in England.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Alexander Thom</span>

Alexander Thom was a Scottish engineer most famous for his theory of the Megalithic yard, categorisation of stone circles and his studies of Stonehenge and other archaeological sites.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Megalithic art</span> Use of large stones as an artistic medium

Megalithic art refers to art either painted or carved onto megaliths in prehistoric Europe. Elizabeth Shee Twohig has coined the term Megalithic art in her study of 'The Megalithic Art of Western Europe'. Her original definition of Megalithic art focused on paintings or carvings found on the structural elements, like the kerbstones, orthostats, or capstones of megalithic tombs, but recent investigations have included decorations on stelae and menhirs.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Stone row</span> Linear row of standing stones

A stone row or stone alignment is a linear arrangement of megalithic standing stones set at intervals along a common axis or series of axes, usually dating from the later Neolithic or Bronze Age. Rows may be individual or grouped, and three or more aligned stones can constitute a row.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Carnac stones</span> Set of megalithic sites in Brittany, France

The Carnac stones are an exceptionally dense collection of megalithic sites near the south coast of Brittany in northwestern France, consisting of stone alignments (rows), dolmens, tumuli and single menhirs. More than 3,000 prehistoric standing stones were hewn from local granite and erected by the pre-Celtic people of Brittany and form the largest such collection in the world. Most of the stones are within the Breton municipality of Carnac, but some to the east are within neighboring La Trinité-sur-Mer. The stones were erected at some stage during the Neolithic period, probably around 3300 BC, but some may date to as early as 4500 BC.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Rudston Monolith</span> Standing stone in Rudston, East Riding of Yorkshire, England

The Rudston Monolith at over 25 feet (7.6 m) is the tallest megalith in the United Kingdom. It is situated in the churchyard in the village of Rudston in the East Riding of Yorkshire.

This article describes several characteristic architectural elements typical of European megalithic structures.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Gavrinis</span> French island and megalithic monument

Gavrinis is a small island in the Gulf of Morbihan in Brittany, France. It contains the Gavrinis tomb, a Neolithic passage tomb built around 4200–4000 BC, making it one of the world's oldest surviving buildings. Stones inside the passage and chamber are covered in megalithic art. It is likened to other Neolithic passage tombs such as Barnenez in Brittany and Newgrange in Ireland.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Locmariaquer megaliths</span> Large broken menhir in Locmariaquer, France

The Locmariaquer megaliths are a complex of Neolithic constructions in Locmariaquer, Brittany. They comprise the elaborate Er-Grah tumulus passage grave, a dolmen known as the Table des Marchand and "The Broken Menhir of Er Grah", the largest known single block of stone to have been transported and erected by Neolithic people.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Menhir de Champ-Dolent</span> Upright standing stone by Dol-de-Bretagne, France

The Menhir de Champ-Dolent is a menhir, or upright standing stone, located in a field outside the town of Dol-de-Bretagne. It is the second largest standing stone in Brittany and is over 9 metres high.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Stone circles in the British Isles and Brittany</span> Megalithic tradition of monuments

The stone circles in the British Isles and Brittany are a megalithic tradition of monuments consisting of standing stones arranged in rings. These were constructed from 3300 to 900 BCE in Britain, Ireland and Brittany. It has been estimated that around 4,000 of these monuments were originally constructed in this part of north-western Europe during this period. Around 1,300 of them are recorded, the others having been destroyed.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">British megalith architecture</span> Study of those ancient cultures that built megalithic sites on the British Isles

British megalith architecture is the study of those ancient cultures that built megalithic sites on the British Isles, including the research and documentation of these sites. The classification sometimes used of these cultures based on geological criteria is problematic.

Tisbury Stone Circle and Henge was a stone circle and henge in Tisbury, Wiltshire. Archaeologists believe that it was likely erected during the Bronze Age.