Menhirs, also called standing stones or liths, are large, upright stones which are placed by human hands. They can be alone or in groups. When alone, they are referred to as monoliths, and when they’re arranged into circles or groups they’re called megalithic monuments. They’re often carved with pictures of faces or weapons, and the theories about them are multitude. There are more than 50,000 menhirs in Great Britain, Ireland, and Brittany alone. A lot of them are six or seven thousand years old.
When you think of a standing stone or megalithic monument, the first thing that pops into your head is probably Stonehenge, the famous, ancient stone ruin. Archaeologists think that it was built somewhere around 1800 BC almost four thousand years ago in the Bronze Age. When Stonehenge was new, it probably looked something like this. Now, however, after thousands of years of wear and tear and a few years of careful restoration, it looks like this. Here’s a few more pictures: From the side, from the air, and from the inside.
Nobody’s sure why Stonehenge was built. The most popular theory is that it was built by Druids as a place of worship, but the Druids didn’t come into being until about 300 BC, long after Stonehenge was already old. The theory that it was a Roman temple is also negated by the date, because the Romans didn’t arrive until 55 BC. Maybe it was a way to accurately judge calendar dates, by watching the stars and keeping track of where they were relative to the circle, or a monument to celebrate an alliance. We’ll never know for sure.
Another famous group of stones is the Carnac stones, a group of more than 3,000 standing stones from 4500 BC. In mythology, they’re supposed to be a Roman legion that Merlin turned into stone. They are a collection of alignments, or long, straight lines of stone, dolmens, which are stone tombs made by placing three or more standing stones to support a capstone, or stone roof, tumuli, which are long mounds of earth for burial, and single menhir. The stones are grouped in three major alignments, the Menec, Kermario, and Kerlescan alignments. They probably used to be one big group, but were separated when people started taking stones to build with.
Standing stones aren’t always European. In the Inuit culture, stone cairns called inuksuk range from Alaska to Greenland. They may have been used as a point of reference, as a way to mark food caches, a camp marker, or to corner caribou against. They weren’t always cairns, the most common were actually singular stones standing upright like menhirs. The word inuksuk means “thing which performs the function of a person,” interestingly enough.
There were also structures called inunnguaq which are stacked in a vaguely humanoid form.
Inuksuk are still made today, for art and as a symbol of guidance and peace. This sculpture, by David Ruben Piqtoukun, stands in the Canadian Embassy. During the 2010 Winter Olympics, the symbol on the logo was an inuksuk.
There are many other ancient stones, from the Ariyannur Umbrellas to Medicine Wheels, from Kurgan Stelae to the obelisks of Ancient Egypt. They capture the imagination, as near-permanent relics of times that we can only guess at. What legacy will we leave that will still be there in 5,000 years?