Gavrinis chambered cairn

'Dagger' patterns on one of the
interior passage upright stones
at Gavrinis

Gavrinis has to be rated as one of the finest prehistoric constructions in Northern Europe. It also has to be one of the most attractive locations, sited as it is on a small island at the entrance to the Golfe du Morbihan in the south of Brittany. It is reckoned by conventional archaeological dating to be around 3500-4000BC. It is a raised cairn of large blocks of stone piled up in a stepped pattern (see picture) and today has the appearance of a squat pyramid. The external appearance has been both naturally eroded and reconstructed by various investigations in the past.

The scale of the construction is vast in proportion to the chamber and tunnel that lies within it. The entrance to the chamber seems almost ludicrously small in comparison to the huge bulk of the cairn itself. However, Gavrinis is justly famous for another reason, that of its spectacularly carved stones which line the interior passageway (see picture) and rear chamber. In Northern Europe there is nothing to compare with the scale, detail or quality of such patterns.

Gavrinis is now only accessible by boat from the nearby village of Lamor Baden. Today it is an island, although geologically it was most likely connected by a continuous land mass with the neighbouring structures of Carnac and Locmariequer when it was first completed. The site is now regularly tailored into a slick tourist enterprise complete with ushering guides. However, when we visited it we were able to slip away from the official tour and gather the flavour of the site without modern interpretation. This was made possible by the fact that the tour guide spoke only French, so we were free to see our own truth in the nature of the carvings. It was clear however by the guide’s gestures and the odd French word that we knew, that great assumptions had been cast into the realm of fact in order to satisfy the rational demands of the tourist.

The entrance to Gavrinis is lined with massive stone blocks in contrast to the smaller stones that pile up to form the cairn. The tunnel is approximately five foot high, so most people of average height have to stoop a little to get in. The width of the tunnel is wider than one would expect to allow the passage of just one person at a time. On entering the tunnel you are aware of being encased in massive blocks on all sides. They are layered on the passage floor, to the sides, and above you. The passage is between 30 and 40ft long (10-12m), but just four or five stones make up this wall. Their width and stature would, it seems, have been chosen for the sheer volume of space that they offer up to the artist or artists who carved them. Visually, in the dim glow of the fluorescent lights mounted above, you are immediately struck by the dynamism and scale of the carvings right from the very first entrance stone.

The carvings are clear and deep, though they are now in places far easier to see by the addition of smoke deposits which antiquarians and early visitors have laid down on the stones over time. There is little or no space on each stone left uncarved with beautiful and varied patterns. These seem to fall roughly into five classes, though no real conclusion can be drawn from this. There are what we may call radiants, half circles (rainbows), herringbone, dagger, and serpent shapes. Each stone is uniquely endowed and seems to focus on a particular theme, in as much as one seems to be covered with nothing but interlacing ‘rainbow’ shapes, and another with angular dagger and herringbone patterns.

To us though they defied intellectual interpretation and seemed more strongly to celebrate the shape and structure of the stones themselves. Lines flow and curve to follow natural key-lines in the stones, and then appear to pick up a theme and go wild with artistic tangents. The passageway within the cairn leads to a large rear chamber, again flanked by massive blocks standing wide and tall. The carvings continue around the chamber, with one stone in particular standing out from the others. On the west side of the chamber this stone exhibits ‘pockets’. These deep pockets recess into the stone in the form of three holes, but each open to the other to form a continuous recess behind them.

The holes themselves are plenty large enough for a hand to reach into. Their purpose is once again a mystery. Undoubtedly they have been used for centuries to hold candles for lighting the darkness within the cairn, yet nobody can be sure that this was their original purpose.

The experience of Gavrinis is similar any exposure of explosive creativity, infusing satisfaction and pleasure in what you are seeing, yet the experience is made more intense by the awesome structure and age of the gallery. One is left with the impression that for whatever reason or purpose, Gavrinis was constructed by people who were intent on celebrating and exploring the constructs and patterns of nature, possibly for no other reason than that they found them profound and intrinsically pleasing. It remains, some 6000 years after its construction, a place of magnetism and inspiration to the 20th century soul.

- © S. Dyer