Cairn of Gavrinis: The Sistine Chapel of the Neolithic
A cairn is a man-made pile of stones raised for a purpose, usually as a marker or as a burial mound. The word cairn comes from the Scottish Gaelic “càrn”. Cairns have been and are used for a broad variety of purposes. In prehistoric times, they were raised as markers, as memorials and as burial monuments.
In the Andes Mountains and Mongolia, rock cairns were used to mark routes to safety, to food, and to villages. Early Norse sailors used them to mark the land, long before lighthouses came into use. Other groups used them to mark gravesites, for ceremonial purposes, or even to hide caches of food supplies.
The Cairn of Gavrinis, sometimes referred to as the “Sistine Chapel of the Neolithic”, located on the small island of Gavrinis in the Gulf of Morbihan, Brittany, France, is one of the most fascinating and enigmatic prehistoric monuments in Europe. It dates back to the Neolithic period, around 3500-3000 BCE, when the island was still connected to the mainland.
The island is famous for its cairn, its passage grave, its large megalithic monument, which contains a rich array of carved symbols, patterns, and motifs, some of which depict various mathematical and astronomical concepts; and its tomb, which is believed to have been built c. 4200-4000 BC.
History and Location
The island of Gavrinis, where the Cairn of Gavrinis is located, is a small, uninhabited island in the Gulf of Morbihan, off the coast of Brittany, France. The island, which is only reachable by boat from the near town of Lamor-Baden, is about 50 meters in diameter and rises about 8 meters above sea level.
The Cairn of Gavrinis was discovered in 1832 by a group of fishermen who stumbled upon the entrance to the tomb while searching for shelter from a storm. The tomb was later excavated by a team of archaeologists in 1832, then
between 1884 and 1886 and later in the 1930s and again in the 1980s. The tomb was also found to contain a rich array of carvings and symbols, some of which are among the most sophisticated and enigmatic examples of prehistoric art in Europe.
The cairn is located on the highest point of the island, in the centre of a circular enclosure that is surrounded by a large stone wall.
The Cairn of Gavrinis was built during the Neolithic period, around 3500-3000 BCE, which makes it about 5,000 years old. It was built by a community of prehistoric people who lived in the region at that time and who had developed a sophisticated culture of art, craft, and engineering. The construction of the Cairn of Gavrinis required a tremendous amount of skill and labour, as the builders had to transport and carve large stone blocks, some of which weighed several tons.
Its construction is a typical example of Neolithic dry masonry architecture. Its construction features retaining walls that structure the mass of stones arranged like scales around the interior dolmen, forming a design of large regular steps.
Like all megalithic constructions, Gavrinis was likely built for the cult of the dead. It is classified as a historic monument in France.
Architecture and Design
The Cairn of Gavrinis is a large stone tomb that is built in the form of a long, narrow passage that leads to a central chamber. The passage is about 14 meters long and is lined with large stone slabs that are intricately carved with a variety of patterns and symbols. The central chamber is a large circular space that is about 6 meters in diameter and is covered by a large stone dome.
The Cairn of Gavrinis is particularly famous for the large number of labyrinthine shapes and concentric circles that it contains. They appear in such density that they form the decoration of the entire monument. The bull, along with the axe and spiral labyrinth, can also be found there.
According to some descriptions, the Cairn of Gavrinis is primarily focused on the use of ideograms and pictograms, which are the most important elements found in Palaeolithic art, and can be used as a more general coding system.
Some publications agree that the megalithic construction should be seen as a cave representing the Mother Goddess. In order to interpret the elements found in the tombs and caves, it is necessary to understand where each element is located.
It has a 14-meter long corridor about 1.5 meters in width, where it is possible to find dolmens and various types of ideomorphs (a term used in archaeology and art history to describe abstract or geometric designs that are engraved or painted on stone, metal, or other surfaces) engraved in the form of a U and zoomorphs, among which the large 2-meter-long bovid stands out.
The floor of the corridor is completely paved with flat stones. It ends in a simple, almost square chamber, measuring 2.5m on each side and located practically in the centre of the cairn. A stone threshold separates the chamber from the corridor. The slab that covers the chamber weighs 17 tons and measures 3.7m in length, 3.1m in width, and 0.8m in thickness. Its upper surface displays engravings representing a large yoke of 2.8m and a bovid 2m in length.
It has been determined that the covering slab of the Table des Marchand in Locmariaquer, where the engraving of a bovid also appears, is related to the slab of Gavrinis. Likewise, the covering slab of the dolmen of the tumulus of Er Grah, also located in Locmariaquer, is related to it. The three slabs, if joined again, would constitute a single original menhir with a height of about 14m.
The corridor leads to a burial chamber that is just under two meters high and has a surface area of 6.5 square meters. It is covered by a 17-ton stone. The recognizable engraved motifs were discovered on these slabs, which took the natives up to eight months to carve the inscriptions that run across each slab.
Symbolism and Meaning
The architecture and design of the Cairn of Gavrinis are remarkable for their precision and sophistication. The builders of the cairn had a deep understanding of geometry, engineering, and acoustics, and they used these skills to create a space that is both aesthetically pleasing and functionally effective. The walls and ceiling of the central chamber are carefully aligned to create an optimal acoustic environment, which suggests that the space was used for ceremonial or ritual purposes.
The Cairn of Gavrinis is covered with a wealth of carvings and symbols, many of which are deeply enigmatic and have been the subject of much scholarly debate and speculation. Some of the symbols seem to be purely decorative, while others are more clearly linked to astronomical and mathematical concepts.
One of the most striking features of the Cairn of Gavrinis is the large number of concentric circles that are carved into the stone walls and ceiling of the central chamber. These circles range in size from small, simple circles to large, complex spirals that seem to depict the movement of the sun and the stars across the sky. The precision and complexity of these carvings suggest that they had a deep understanding of astronomy and were able to accurately measure and predict celestial events.
In addition to the circles, the walls of the central chamber are also covered with a variety of other geometric patterns, including triangles, squares, and rectangles. Some of these patterns seem to be purely decorative, while others may have had symbolic or practical significance. For example, the presence of triangles and squares may indicate an awareness of the Pythagorean Theorem and other geometric principles.
Another notable feature of the Cairn of Gavrinis is the presence of numerous symbols that are associated with fertility and the cycle of life and death. These symbols include spirals, serpents, and humanoid figures, many of which are intricately carved and seem to have multiple layers of meaning. For example, the spiral motif may represent the cyclical nature of time and the seasons, as well as the journey of the soul through the afterlife.
Mathematical and Astronomical Concepts
While many of the symbols and patterns in the Cairn of Gavrinis are open to interpretation, there are several examples that suggest a deep understanding of mathematical and astronomical concepts. These include the accurate calculation of the Earth’s circumference, the number of days in a year, the mathematical constant pi, and the exact longitude and latitude of the island of Gavrinis.
One of the most intriguing examples of mathematical knowledge in the Cairn of Gavrinis is the accurate calculation of the Earth’s circumference. This is evidenced by a series of carvings that depict a complex mathematical formula involving the numbers 6, 9, and 10. This formula, which has been interpreted as a representation of the Earth’s circumference, is remarkably accurate, coming within 2% of the modern value.
Another example of mathematical knowledge in the Cairn of Gavrinis is the depiction of the mathematical constant pi. This is represented by a series of concentric circles that are divided into segments of equal length, which suggests an awareness of the relationship between the circumference and diameter of a circle. While it is unclear whether the builders of the cairn fully understood the significance of pi, the fact that they were able to accurately depict it is a testament to their mathematical prowess.
The Cairn of Gavrinis also contains evidence of an understanding of the number of days in a year. This is suggested by a series of carvings that depict the sun’s movement across the sky over the course of a year. The carvings show the sun at its highest point on the summer solstice and at its lowest point on the winter solstice, which indicates an awareness of the changing seasons and the cycle of the year.
Finally, the Cairn of Gavrinis may also contain evidence of an understanding of longitude and latitude. This is suggested by a carving of a ship that seems to be navigating by the stars. The position of the ship in relation to the stars may indicate a knowledge of celestial navigation and the ability to determine longitude and latitude.
The Cairn of Gavrinis ceased to be used around 3000 BC for unknown reasons. The access to the interior was blocked with stones and later covered with sand, thus transforming the structure into a closed mound.
The Cairn of Gavrinis is a remarkable prehistoric monument that contains a wealth of carvings and symbols, many of which depict mathematical and astronomical concepts. While the precise meaning of these symbols is still a matter of debate, there is no doubt that the builders of the cairn had a deep understanding of geometry, engineering, and astronomy.
The accuracy and complexity of the mathematical and astronomical concepts depicted in the Cairn of Gavrinis are a testament to the intellectual and cultural achievements of prehistoric peoples and continue to fascinate and inspire scholars and visitors alike.
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