A menhir is a large upright standing stone. Menhirs may be found singly as monoliths, or as part of a group of similar stones. Their size can vary considerably; but their shape is generally uneven and squared, often tapering towards the top. Menhirs are widely distributed across Europe, Africa, and Asia, but are most numerous in Western Europe.
The word menhir as adopted from French by 19th century archaeologists. It is a combination of two Breton language words: men (stone), and hir (long).
Identifying the uses of menhirs remains speculation. However, it is likely that many uses involved fertility rites and seasonal cycles. Until recently, menhirs were associated with the Beaker people, who inhabited Europe during the later third millennium BC; the European late Neolithic and early Bronze Age [Ages of Humankind ]. However, recent research into the age of megaliths in Brittany strongly suggests a far older origin, perhaps back to six to seven thousand years ago.
Many menhirs are carved with megalithic art. This often turned them into anthropomorphic stelae, although images of objects such as stone axes, ploughs, shepherd crooks and yokes were common. With the exception of the stone axe, none of these motifs are definite, and the name used to describe them is largely for convenience.
Some menhirs were broken up and incorporated into later passage graves where they had new megalithic art carved with little regard for the previous pictures. It is not known if this re-use was deliberate or if the passage grave builders just saw menhirs as a convenient source of stone. In many areas, standing stones were systematically toppled by Christians.
In France, Brittany stands out in the distribution of menhirs by virtue of both the density of monuments and the diversity of types. The largest surviving menhir in the world is located in Locmariaquer, Brittany, and is known as the Grand Menhir Brisé (Great Broken Menhir). Once nearly 20 meters high, today, it lies fractured into four pieces, but would have weighed near 330 tons when intact.
Alignments of menhirs are common, the most famous being the Carnac stones in Brittany, where more than 3000 individual menhirs are arranged in four groups, and arrayed in rows stretching across four kilometres. Each set is organised with the tallest stones at the western end, and shorter ones at the eastern end. Some end with a semicircular cromlech, but many have since fallen or been destroyed.
The second largest concentration of menhirs in France is at the Cham des Bondons, located on high open limestone plain in the granitic Cévennes. The site is today protected by the Parc National des Cévennes. From the time pastoralism was established, the site was kept open by controlled burning and grazing.