Tech UPTechnologyThe island of Gavrinis: the unknown Neolithic Sistine Chapel

The island of Gavrinis: the unknown Neolithic Sistine Chapel

It takes a boat just 15 minutes to cross from the port of Larmor-Baden to the uninhabited island of Gavrinis, in the south of French Brittany. This enclave of the Gulf of Morbihan does not exceed 30 hectares. But its 750 meters long and 400 meters wide are enough to house a Neolithic megalithic construction. The cairn, as this type of burial mound is known, has earned the description of Neolithic Sistine Chapel due to its profuse and beautiful interior decoration. 


Exterior of the monument on the island of Gavrinis | Wikipedia.

The monument was erected around 3500 BC. C. and it is a corridor tomb . It is a fairly common megalithic construction, which consists of a burial chamber that is accessed through a corridor, all covered by a mound of stones and earth. Of course, these buildings evolved during the Neolithic and in Gavrinis we find one of the most outstanding examples of late megalithism in Europe. 

The burial mound reaches eight meters in height and is about fifty meters in diameter. Three imposing stones form the entrance to a 14 meter long corridor. Only the lanterns allow to admire the decoration that extends along the 29 large slabs that make up the corridor. It seems that a giant had left his fingerprint there, since the rocks are engraved with parallel lines that curve, among which figures of polished axes, bows, arrows, snakes, boats and goats can be distinguished . In fact, the name of the island comes from the Breton gavi , which means “goat”, and enez , which means “island”. It could take up to eight months to engrave the inscriptions that run through each slab. So much effort made sense for the important piece of the monument. 

The corridor leads to a burial chamber just under two meters high and 6.5 square meters in area. It is covered by a 17-ton stone. It was on these slabs that recognizable engraved motifs beyond the lines were discovered. Some of them, as is the case of a bovid, appear in the middle or only a fragment could be seen. What did this “half” decoration respond to? The archaeologists discovered that the material of this construction had been reused . We know that the cover of the burial chamber comes from a menhir, which was cut into three pieces, one of which ended up in Gavrinis and the other in the cover of the Table des Marchand chamber, another megalithic monument found in Locmariaquer, in the coast off the island of Gavrinis. 

Gavrinis interior decoracion

Decoration on the flagstones of the corridor | Wikipedia

The first news about the cairn of Gavrinis reach us from the twelfth century. Some Templar monks built a farm and a chapel on the island and eventually found the great stones of the burial mound. They came to excavate it from above to enter and satisfy their curiosity. However, it would not be until the 19th century when the first description would arrive. Canon Joseph Mahé spoke of the burial mound in his work “Essai sur les Antiquités du Morbihan”. At that time, the island had a private owner, Mr. Cauzique , who became mayor of Crach, a town that shared the gulf with the island. Cauzique was interested in the burial mound and since then a series of archaeological expeditions have begun that have been forming the basis of knowledge about this megalithic monument. 

In 1835, Prosper Mérimée , who was not only the author of the famous novel “Carmen”, but also a historian and archaeologist, spoke of the enclave in his work “Journey in the West of France”:

“What distinguishes the Gavrinis monument from all the dolmens I have seen is that almost all the stones that make up its walls are carved and covered with bizarre drawings. They are curves, straight lines, broken, traced and combined in hundreds of different ways […] Among a multitude of strokes […] a small number can be distinguished that, due to their regularity and singular disposition, could resemble writing characters […] There are even chevrons, zigzags and other lines impossible to describe”.

Different expeditions have followed one another until today, among which the one in 2013 stands out, when the tomb was completely digitized . 

It is already known that the megalithic monuments of Prehistory are prone to receive countless crazy theories. The scientific consensus defends that it is a ritual burial , as defined by the very concept of these constructions: burial mounds. It is thought that it could have been a collective burial, but the acidity of the island’s granite soil has prevented buried bodies from being preserved, if there were any, of course. In addition to the religious and ritual function, it is not ruled out that they could mark territories and rights over them . 

However, to this day the reason that led the builders to break a menhir and reuse its decorated rock in different megalithic monuments remains a mystery. 


García, I. 2022. The Neolithic Sistine Chapel or the incredible funerary site of the island of La Cabra. .

González, E. 2016. The Gavrinis burial mound. . 

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