Rockin’ Out in Brittany

I was just getting to know my roommates in France back in 2011. I was sharing stories about the places I had been in France with my roommates. I had done the other super touristic things besides Paris: the D-Day beaches, Mont St. Michel (the second most visited site in France), and St. Malo. These places are all located along the Northern Coast of France. You are so close to England and Ireland, there are ferries that make the trip back and forth daily to different shore points between all the countries.

Mont St. Michel, Brittany, France

The weather in Brittany is quick changing. One moment it can be sunny, the next, pouring rain, and in another ten minutes, the sun has returned with a rainbow in the passing clouds. There are seemingly endless miles of shoreline, lighthouses, and history. This was an area populated by the Celts, Bretons (people from Brittany), Romans, and frequently ravaged by the Vikings. After visiting the coastal sites, on our return trip to Angers, we made a pit stop at a rock site known at La Roche-aux-Fées, or Fairy Rock. Once I recounted this story, my roommate began rolling over with laughter. Oh la la la la.

Interior of a Dolem, or Prehistoric Tomb

Once he was done laughing, I was asked if I had visited Rennes, or seen any of the other famous Neolithic rock sites in Brittany.  You have probably heard of a much more famous one not located in France, Stonehenge. Apparently La Roche-aux-Fées, was more well-known than I had imagined, but only for how underwhelming an experience it is.  Despite the fact that the stones came from several kilometers away, the stones date from 2500 to 3000 years ago, and that they weigh several tons, they are still just stones sitting in a field. This site is known as a dolmen site, because of the way the stones are positioned with other large stones sitting on top. It is also suspected to be a funerary site. Like Stonehenge, the people who lined these stones up had an immense astronomical knowledge, and the sun rises through the ‘doorway’ on the winter solstice.

The most famous site in Brittany are the Carnac stones, named for their proximity to a town of the same name. The rocks are nothing like seeing the giant mega-ton rocks of Stonehenge from the ground level, but seen from above, you get a better idea of how impressive this rock formation is. The Carnac Stones are also lined up according to some yearly astronomical occurences.

Carnac Stones, Brittany, France
Carnac Stones, Brittany, France

There are many other dolmens, and prehistoric rock sites scattered throughout Brittany, France, Ireland and England. They are all as mysterious as the others, but all seem to have ties to the sky. So the first time I visited the town of Rennes in Brittany, I was compelled to visit the Planetarium, and learn more about the sky myself. Our ancestors might have known something we don’t know anymore, because it is so hard to look up and see the starry skies in our modern cities.

I couldn’t remember the last time I had visited a Planetarium, and I wasn’t sure how my French would hold up with all the scientific vocabulary and descriptions. It turns out, many scientific names and words are the same across languages, it turns out scientists want to be able to understand each other. The presentation was amazing, and by the end I was crying. There was an animation that zooms out from our planet, and our solar system, outside of our galaxy and so far out, millions of light years away until all you see is what appears to be a field of stars. It isn’t a field of stars, it’s a field of thousands and thousands of galaxies, each that hold millions of stars.

Hubble Frontier Fields view of MACSJ0717.5+3745
Early Galaxies, from the Hubble, Image Credit: ESA/NASA

We are so small in the scheme of the rest of the universe, and with all those galaxies, we still know an incredibly small amount about it. You might be saying, but we can’t even see the stars in most places, and fortunately there are people working on preserving our night skies for future generations, called the International Dark-Sky Association.

It isn’t just in Brittany where our ancestors were looking up and moving impossibly large stones to mark the movements of the sky, but all over the world. Our ancestors in Persia and Babylon have been studied the skies for over 3000 years. And of course, there is the fact that every atom in our body was once star-dust. Our world is an incredible place, and so is our universe. I wonder if anything would change if we slowed down enough, to spend more time looking up and feeling small. Maybe we would start moving giant rocks around, too.

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