For those looking to step back in time, the Cairn de Barnenez located in France’s Brittany is ideal. As one of the world’s oldest standing structures in the world, the Cairn de Barnenez is a marvel of Neolithic engineering and the largest mausoleum in Europe. Dubbed the “Prehistoric Parthenon” by André Malraux, the French writer and politician, this monument sits on the breathtaking Kernéléhen peninsula in northern Finistère.
Also known as the Barnenez Mound or Barnenez Tumulus, the Cairn de Barnenez was built during the early Neolithic period . What makes this tumulus so special is that the vast construction was made entirely from carefully piled stones which together formed eleven funeral chambers. Built in two distinct phases, its exact date of construction is still up for debate. Nevertheless, radiocarbon dating has led experts to believe that the Cairn de Barnenez was constructed around 5000 BC – a staggering 7,000 years ago.
Aerial view of the Cairn of Barnenez in Brittany, France. ( AUFORT Jérome / Adobe Stock)
Dual-Phase Construction at the Cairn de Barnenez
The Cairn de Barnenez is about 2,000 years older that the Great Pyramid of Giza , and only a little younger than the Tower of Jericho . While most archaeologists agree that the Cairn de Barnenez was built in two phases, their dates vary. Others claim that the trapezoid-shaped monument was built over several stages.
According to one source, the first phase of the monument’s construction is said to have lasted from 4850 BC to 4500 BC, whilst its second phase began in 4200 BC and ended in 3900 BC. Another source, on the other hand, claims that the construction of the first cairn began in 4500 BC, whilst the second started several centuries later.
Regardless of when it was built, the sheer scale of this ancient monument is a testament to the skill and determination of its builders. Measuring 72 meters in length (236 ft), between 20 and 25 meters in width (65 to 83 ft), and 9 meters tall (29 ft), the Cairn de Barnenez required an estimated 6,500 to 7,000 cubic meters of stone – weighing in at a staggering 12,000 to 14,000 metric tons.
General plan of the Cairn de Barnenez. (Uuetenava / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
Discovering the Building Blocks of Cairn de Barnenez
Not only can the different constructions be distinguished by their time period, but also by the kind of materials used. During the first phase, the builders utilized the abundant dolerite found in the surrounding area, adding a touch of local flair to their structures. The second phase introduced a new component, with the use of granite sourced from the nearby Île de Sterec.
But it isn’t just building materials used at the Cairn de Barnenez which differ between the phases. The first cairn comprised six chambers, while the second was made up of only five. Each of the ancient chambers at Cairn de Barnenez boasted a main chamber with a passageway leading to it, ranging from between 7 meters (22 ft) and 12 meters (39 ft) in length. The entrance of each of these chambers was strategically located on the southeastern side.
One of the passages at the Cairn de Barnenez. ( Fabien / Adobe Stock)
Inside the Cairn de Barnenez
The man-made nature of the Cairn de Barnenez had been known as early as the 19th century. Nevertheless, it was only around the middle of the following century that the true importance of this Neolithic monument was understood.
Up until the 1950s the Cairn de Barnenez was used by locals as a quarry, which resulted in the partial exposure of some of the chambers. Once people were aware of the monument’s archaeological value, excavation and restoration work were undertaken in the following years. This work was led by the famed archaeologist Pierre-Roland Giot.
Reproduction of the so-called Dolmen Goddess of Barnenez, one of the carved symbols found on the walls of the cairn passageways at Cairn de Barnenez. (Schorle / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
Objects found within the chambers of the Cairn de Barnenez include pottery shards (both from the Neolithic period and the Bronze Age), polished stone axes, as well as arrowheads. Some of these objects can be seen in the site’s visitor center. In addition, carvings and drawings have been discovered on the walls of many of the cairn’s passageways, representing motifs such as axe blades, bows and idols.
Despite being frequently called a mausoleum, there is no strong evidence that the Cairn de Barnenez contained objects connected to mortuary practices . There remains speculation as to the use ancient builders made of the prehistoric monument . Created during the early Neolithic, at a time when early humans began to abandon their hunter-gatherer lifestyles, the Cairn de Barnenez provides a much-needed window onto life 7,000 years ago.
Top image: The Cairn of Barnenez in Brittany, France. Source: Eve / Adobe Stock
By Wu Mingren