Standing Stones:
Stonehenge, Carnac and the World of Megaliths

Jean-Pierre Mohen

translated from the French
Thames and Hudson 1999
A book review by Danny Yee © 2008
I bought Standing Stones at the "Maison des mégalithes" at Carnac, where it was the most substantial of the many books on megaliths aimed at tourists. It combines great photographs with a short but informative overview of megaliths, covering their place in prehistory, history, and folklore and myth.

Mohen begins with megaliths in legend, touching on pagan, Christian, and romantic views of megaliths, and their emergence in pseudohistory.

"The Druidism that Stukeley invented is a completely original idea. It has nothing to do with the actual Druids, Gallic priests known to Caesar in the 1st century BC — and was created a full millennium and a half after the last ceremonial use of the megaliths."

He traces the rise of antiquarian and scholarly interest in megaliths, and the development of broader public attention.

"Interest in megaliths spread from experts to the public as picture postcards were produced; they were especially popular around the year 1900."

He gives a brief history of the forms of megaliths over three thousand years.

"Three criteria — a tumulus, communal burial rites, and large stones — distinguish megalithic architecture."

He uses megalithic graves and tombs as evidence for — or at least grounds for speculating about — rites, religion, and social structures. (In something of a digression, he also looks at the evidence for successful Neolithic trepanning.)

"Whenever a large enough sampling is available, especially in the latter period of the Neolithic, it is possible to posit an elementary parentage structure. The collective grave corresponds to an exogamous group, and each of the subgroups to endogamous units."

And he looks at the hypotheses about the construction of the megaliths and modern attempts to test them, speculation about their geometry and their astronomical, political and religious purposes, and conservation issues.

The final section, "Documents", contains excerpts from writings on the megaliths: William Stukeley on the origins of megaliths, Gustave Flaubert on the excesses of "Celtic archaeology", an extract from Thomas Hardy's Tess of the d'Urbervilles, Gerald Hawkins on Stonehenge's astronomical significance, Prosper Mérimée on the Gavrinis images, and Mohen himself on megalithic art and on modern attempts to move large blocks of stone.

This is all rather limited in depth, as most of Standing Stones is taken up by photographs. The bulk of these illustrate the text, but there are also ten separate double page photo sets, illustrating Mediterranean megaliths — "Statue-menhirs and the torres of Corsica and the Balearic Islands", "Sardinia's giant tombs", and "Temples and hypogea of Malta" — megalithic traditions outside Europe — "The megaliths of Senegal", "The stones of the Toradja", and "Tombs and gods of the Americas" — and megaliths in art — paintings by Caspar David Friedrich, Johan Christian Dahl, John Constable and J.M.W. Turner.

Standing Stones is a nicely put together volume in the best Thames and Hudson tradition. It has little about specific sites, even Stonehenge and Carnac, and is of no use as a guidebook, but it makes a lively and attractive introduction to the megaliths of western Europe.

February 2008

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%T Standing Stones
%S Stonehenge, Carnac and the World of Megaliths
%A Mohen, Jean-Pierre
%M French
%I Thames and Hudson
%D 1999
%O paperback, colour photographs, index
%G ISBN 0500300909
%P 175pp