Notable for its abundance of megalithic art from the European Neolithic age. It is on a small island in the Gulf of Morbihan in Brittany, France. The main tomb was built around 4200-4000 BC, and finished off thereafter. Its use use ceased around 3000 BC, when the entrance was sealed off. Over time, landscapes transformed and the passage was blocked hidden off.
Name and discovery
In 1835, when the broken down, and hidden entryway to the internal chamber was discovered. First excavations took place. It has continued on by archaeologists who specialize in restoration, of Breton antiquities. And, machinery and lab equipment was brought in to analyze data. That to many continues to this day.
The name Gavrinis is believed to be derived from the Breton words gavr (goat) and enez (island). There are also documents from 1184 and 1202, stating the island was named as Guirv Enes and/or Guerg Enes. Respectively signifying “wrath”. An old Breton word.
Famous megalithic grave that was comparable to others
At the time of its construction, 3500 BC, the island was still connected with the mainland. Gavrinis became famous for its megalithic monument from the Neolithic period. Similarly, in Breton. Megaliths of Carnac and Locmariaquer have been compared. And, some of the stone carving styles, stacking and architecture, are closely connected with the monuments of Brú na Boínne (Ireland) and Maes Howe (Orkney). The rich internal decorations make Gavrinis a treasure of European megalithic and neolithic art. Because it was sealed off, it is also in good preservation.
History of research
The first excavations took place in 1835, when the internal chamber was discovered. Further excavation is in the planning stages.
The stone mound has a diameter of about 50m. The mass of stones forming the cairn is internally structured by a series of walls, subdividing it into separate “ranks”. It is characteristic of Neolithic dry stone architecture.
Between 4500 and 3000bc, these dolmen-type chambers, reached by passages, were common. Located at the centre of the mound and measuring about 2.5m across. A single rectangular (nearly square) slab is built as a burial chamber. It is about 50 large stone slabs. The biggest of these, a ceiling slab is nearly 17 tons (34,000lbs). During this period. Constructed in Normandy and Poitou, in Ireland, Britain, and the Iberian Peninsula. Similar monuments were built during this time period.
Modern day replica or museum
The chamber is reached from outside by a 14m-long corridor or passage. Of the 29 orthostat slabs that form the sides of the passage, 23 are decorated with carved symbols and patterns. Some of the symbols appear to represent non-abstract objects, such as axes and croziers or staffs. A common horn-like motif may symbolize cattle, and a shape conventionally called the shield. It may actually be a very stylized human figure. More abstract motifs include zigzag lines, lozenges, and snake-like lines.
Reuse of stones; and, complicated drawings
Like an artist that may screw up on a drawing, or is unhappy with the way it looks. In 1984, scientists discovered the external side of some slabs, were also decorated, but in a different style from their internal faces. These decorations must have been applied before the cairn was erected. It is unknown if these hidden slab drawings may have had a secret meaning or just the tradition of upcycling.
Notably a top ceiling slab bore the depiction of a bull, and the horns of a further animal.
The entrance to the grave monuments had a carving that is often been interpreted as an axe (Twohig 1981), but it could be of greater importance. In 2000, another famous scientist (Whittle), claimed it may represent a whale, or “mythic animal”. Believe it or not. Whereever these slabs originated from. It can be joined with the ceiling stones of two other monuments. The Table des Marchands dolmen and the Er Vinglé tomb, in Locmariaquer. About 4 km away. These three joining slabs were not small. Whoever moved them had great strength. At 14 meters in length. They appears to have once formed a massive standing stone. Though now its decoration has been deliberately obscured.
Replication available for viewing
The replications of the decorated stone art slabs can be re-visited in the museum at the megalithic necropolis of Bougon (Deux-Sèvres). Be sure to check it out!
Bibliography: Charles-Tanguy Le Roux, “Gavrinis et les îles du Morbihan”, Guides archéologiques de la France, Paris, Ministère de la Culture, 1985.
Twohig, E.S., 1981. The Megalithic Art of Western Europe, Oxford: Clarendon
Whittle, Alisdair, “Very Like a Whale: Menhirs,Motifs and Myths in the Mesolithic-Neolithic Transition of Northwest Europe”, Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 10, 2000, pp 243–259.