My 130 Ancestors

I received this comment on the My Books page today:

I’ve seen you over at the mnemotechnics forum. I wonder if there is a place where you’ve listed your 52 ‘ancestors’ for playing cards? I love the idea of my 52 characters being useful memorable items themselves – and possible pegs for further info.

Graham is talking about two of my memory experiments which I referred to in a discussion over on the mnemotechnics forum. These are the two experiments as I describe them on the page called My 25 Memory Experiments.

They are in chronological order because that adds more information to the memorisation. I’d be intrigued to know which characters people would chose, which they’d leave out and which they would add who I have not mentioned.

Standard card deck – 52 Ancestors


Part of the card deck. I use the old fashioned royal faces on the right.

The world memory champions memorise shuffled card decks by giving a character to each one and creating stories. My ancestors are in chronological order. I start with Homer and go to Oliver Cromwell, to be followed by the Tarot Ancestors below. I consider the method to being akin to the stories told by indigenous cultures of the pantheon of mythological characters.

For example, Attila the Hun is the 7 of Hearts. I call him Atilda the Honey. I imagine a tilda (~) as the horizontal bar of the 7, and he is a honey because it’s Hearts and all lovely. It is so ludicrous a nickname that it is memorable.

Having given historical characters to each card in my deck, I am using them to memorise  their roles, expanding to the historical events, contemporaries and the context of their lives. They are memory hooks for far more than just their lives. This has gone very well and I am now extremely interested in these people. Having a hook enables me to remember more about them than before. It now overlaps with History Journey and Countries. But it is not confusing, just each mnemonic device aiding the other.

Tarot deck – another 78 Ancestors


Half the tarot deck

The 78 cards of a tarot deck are heavily illustrated, lending themselves to the creation of stories. I have encoded another 78 historical characters, from Blaise Pascal to Linus Torvalds. I’m now adding more layers of data to the structure.

The fact that image may not bear any relationship to the character is no problem. I just have to get imaginative to make the link.

I have chosen people who I think give me the best chance of covering a great deal of the influences on my culture. I am sure others would have chosen differently. I wonder how much my personal biases show.

A Homer 800 BC
2 Pythagorus 570 BC
3 Confucius 551 BC
4 Herodotus 484 BC
5 Socrates 470BC
6 Plato 428? BC
7 Aristotle 384 BC
8 Alexander the Great 356 BC
9 Euclid ~300 BC
10 Archimedes 287 BC
J Cicero 106 BC
Q Julius Caesar 100 BC
K Cleopatra 69 BC
A Augustus 63 BC
2 Jesus 4 BC
3 Pliny the Elder 23
4 Ptolemy 90
5 Constantine the Great 272
6 Augustine of Hippo 354
7 Attila 406
8 Mohammed 570
9 Charlemagne 742
10 Averroës 1126
J William the Conqueror 1028
Q Genghis Khan 1162
K Thomas Aquinas 1225
A Dante Alighieri 1265
2 William of Ockham 1287
3 Petrarch 1304
4 Geoffrey Chaucer 1343
5 Johannes Gutenberg 1398
6 Mehmed the Conqueror 1432
7 Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui or Pachacutec 1438
8 Christopher Columbus 1450
9 Leonardo da Vinci 1458
10 Erasmus 1466
J Niccolo Machiavelli 1469
Q Nicholaus Copernicus 1473
K Michelangelo 1475
A Sir Thomas More 1478
2 Martin Luther 1483
3 Henry VIII 1491
4 Charles V, Holy Roman Emporer 1500
5 John Calvin 1509
6 Miguel de Cervantes 1547
7 Francis Bacon 1561
8 William Shakespeare 1564
9 Galileo Galilei 1564
10 Johannes Kepler 1571
J Thomas Hobbes 1588
Q Rene Descartes 1596
K Oliver Cromwell 1599
Pentacles     1
1 Blaise Pascal 1623
2 Louis XIV of France 1638
3 Isaac Newton 1642
4 Gottfried Leibnitz 1646
5 Johann Sebastian Bach 1685
6 Voltaire 1694
7 Benjamin Franklin 1706
8 Carl Linnaeus 1707
9 Leonhard Euler 1707
10 Jean-Jacques Rousseau 1712
knave Denis Diderot 1713
jack Adam Smith 1723
queen Immanuel Kant 1724
king James Cook 1728
chalices         1
1 George Washington 1732
2 Paul Revere 1735
3 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe 1749
4 Edward Jenner 1749
5 Louis XVI of France 1754
6 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart 1756
7 Napoleon 1769
8 Ludvig von Beethoven 1770
9 Jane Austen 1775
10 Johann Carl Friedrich Gauss 1777
knave Charles Babbage 1791
jack Michael Faraday 1791
queen Charles Lyell 1797
king John Stuart Mill 1806
wands           1
1 Abraham Lincoln 1809
2 Charles Darwin 1809
3 Otto von Bismarck 1815
4 Karl Marx 1818
5 Queen Victoria 1819
6 Florence Nightingale 1820
7 Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevski 1821
8 Gregor Mendel 1822
9 Louis Pasteur 1822
10 Leo Tolstoy 1828
knave James Clerk Maxwell 1831
jack Lewis Carroll 1832
queen Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky 1840
king Frederich Nietzsche 1844
swords         1
1 Thomas Edison 1847
2 Alexander Bell 1847
3 Oscar Wilde 1854
4 Sigmund Freud 1856
5 Nikola Tesla 1856
6 JJ Thompson 1856
7 Emmeline Pankhurst 1858
8 Max Planc 1858
9 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle 1859
10 Marie Curie 1867
knave Gerturde Bell 1868
jack Mahatma Gandhi 1869
queen Vladimir Lenin 1870
king Ernest Rutherford 1871
Arcana           0
0 Winston Churchill 1874
1 Joseph Stalin 1878
2 Albert Einstein 1879
3 Leon Trotsky 1879
4 Ataturk 1881
5 Benito Mussolini 1883
6 John M Keynes 1883
7 Neils Bohr 1885
8 Erwin Schrodinger 1887
9 Adolf Hitler 1889
10 Jawaharlal Nehru 1889
11 Agatha Christie 1890
12 Haile Selassie 1892
13 Mao Zedong 1893
14 Louis Leakey 1903
15 Werner Heisenberg 1901
16 Georges Simenon 1903
17 Indira Gandhi 1917
18 Rosalind Franklin 1920
19 Benoît B. Mandelbrot 1924
20 Martin Luther King 1929
21 Linus Torvalds 1969
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Posted in art of memory, memory, memory devices, Memory Spaces, mnemonics, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Speaking about orality – it’s all about memory


I have now finished all the speaking engagements for the year. I am delighted with all the new friends and the wonderful feedback. The video of my talk in Brisbane last weekend should be on YouTube soon.

Although people were really interested in the new ideas about Stonehenge and other archaeological sites, I was surprised that the topic which seemed to dominate many of the question sessions – memory and the incredible memory systems used by indigenous people.

Lots and lots of people wanted to know how best they could use the memory systems themselves in everyday life. They didn’t want to memorise shuffled decks of cards like modern memory champions. Nor did they care about memorising Pi to thousands of decimal places. They want to memorise practical information as I do – the countries of the world, prehistory, history, birds …. all in my 25 memory experiments.

I know that I have so much more to explore on this topic, far more than I can accomplish in what’s left of my life. I love the idea that others are asking questions which I have never before considered. I must admit that I was really chuffed by this response from a 14 year old who had also heard Noble Prize winner (and a hero of mine) Brian Schmidt. Kristopher wrote on Facebook:

So I’m back from the Brisbane Skeptics Society convention and I am absolutely amazed at the speakers and their topics. I especially like Brian Schmidt who’s a professional astronomer and wine maker. But who amazed me the most was Dr. Lynne Kelly who is currently researching Stonehenge and the other henges around it such as wood henge. Now she only explained briefly her theory because she only had a 30 minute talk but within that half hour she completely blew my mind. But what really amazed me was that she came up to me and asked for my help in finding flaws in or adding stuff to her theory. And when I asked her if she knew if the portable tablets were just directions to the sacred sights (her theory being that Stonehenge was built to help store memory like the indigenous did in Australia) and she apparently had not and asked me to keep in contact and now I am sitting here still amazed.

I shall answer lots of the questions that I noted down after the talks here over the next few weeks. Thank you to all the audiences – every single one was great!

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Knowledge, Power and Stonehenge

This blog is a response to questions from archaeologists from a talk I gave on Thursday. I addressed a crowd of over 200 at the Castlemaine Library on the topic of “Knowledge, Power and Stonehenge” based on my book. There were a number of archaeologists in the audience who were very positive in their response and have contacted me with questions that they didn’t get a chance to ask. Here are two of the questions:

Q: Last night you only briefly referred to the new stone arrangement reported from Durrington Walls. Can you expand on the way you see this setting fitting with the dichotomy you argued is seen in mnemonic monuments all over the world? (See the post below this one for more details of the new findings.)


Part of the stone row at Durrington Walls, Ludwig Boltzmann Institute.

In monuments used primarily for memory purposes, I am always looking for ordered sequences of stones, posts or mounds to replicate the sequence of landscape sites used by mobile cultures. When they get to city size and clear hierarchies, my theory no longer holds.

The ethnographic record from small-scale oral cultures all over the world is unequivocal. There are always both public and restricted performance sites in which knowledge is taught and exchanged. The restricted sites are essential for two reasons (among others): to retain power for those initiated into the higher levels of the knowledge system and to avoid the so-called ‘Chinese whispers’ effect. Knowledge is corrupted if it is shared willy-nilly. Knowledge needed to survive severe resource stress, for example, is always held at the highest restricted levels. In the Australian mobile hunter-gatherer case, the public / restricted performance site dichotomy can be seen with the public corroboree grounds and highly restricted bora grounds. In Pueblo cultures, between plazas and kivas. And so on.

In terms of the Stonehenge / Durrington Walls complex of monuments:  Stonehenge became a highly restricted site when the huge sarsens arrived about 500 years into its use and everything was enclosed in the centre. At the same time, the superhenge Durrington Walls was built, giving a new public performance space. There was also a fairly restricted set of posts near Durrington Walls, known as Woodhenge.

The news a few days ago reported that at Durrington Walls a sequence of up to 90 standing stones had been found around the edge of the henge. This is exactly the sort of sequence of memory locations I am finding all over the world. The Durrington stones appear, from the reports available, to be separated so that each is encountered singly, as required for memory locations. This gives a much more defined public memory site at Durrington Walls than it was before, with restricted sites at Woodhenge, and even more restricted at Stonehenge. This complex works as a single site. Stonehenge alone won’t fit the theory I outlined at the talk and in the book.

Q: I understood from your talk that you believed that the memory techniques used were a product of evolutionary convergence and different societies developed these methods separately, not that they are 60,000 odd years old and left Africa at the same time as humans; what is your basis for that position?


The image links to the Trust for African Rock Art.

I confused you! Sorry! I believe that the human ability to memorise in this way probably dates to at least 60,000 years ago and is a critical part of human evolution – but I haven’t done that research thoroughly enough to claim that yet. There were evolutionary biologists in the audience who are very excited about this aspect and love what I am saying.

It is the implementation using sequences of posts, stones or mounds for sets of sequenced memory locations which I believe was developed independently. These monument types don’t appear in the archaeological record until the last 10,000 years or so. I think the evidence is there for the landscape being used as a sequenced set of memory locations for much longer than 10,000 years, but it is the specific implementation of the method locally on settlement which I believe has been developed by different societies independently.


The image of the barrels marking one of the 27 post circles at Poverty Point, Louisiana, by Jenny Ellerbe. Used with permission.

The posts circles in the plaza at the mound site of Poverty Point in Louisiana, for example, weren’t copied from the British Neolithic despite their similarity in dimensions and the separation of the posts to stone and post circles in the British Neolithic. They developed this implementation because it is an incredibly effective method (the method of loci) that has never been bettered, and we all share the same brain structures.

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Mike Pitts – Digging Deeper blog on Durrington Walls standing stones

[This was supposed to be reblogged from Mike Pitts’s site, but my reblog has gone to my old site. I hope that a copy and paste is legal. The original site:]

This discovery is a fantastic fit for my theory on the purpose of the Stonehenge / Durrington Walls complex of monuments as just published in the Cambridge University Press book, Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies. I shall cover this addition in the new book to be published next year. Over to Mike Pitts:

Are we rewriting the history of Stonehenge – again?

Durrington Walls 2015 (1)Let’s see what we’ve got. I can’t claim to know much more about the newest Stonehenge story than any other journalist. The discovery of a stone row at Durrington Walls was first announced a year ago, almost to the day. We were given little data then, however, and I seemed to be the only one who noticed! So what do we know now?

  1. What do they say they have found?

Durrington Walls 2015 (2)Evidence that there was once a row of up to 90 standing stones about 3km north-east of Stonehenge, west of the road between Amesbury and Durrington,. The stones, probably local sarsens, ran for at least 330m. At the east end the row stops short of the line of a modern road, and apparently does not continue beyond; at the west end it continues to the edge of the survey area, so may extend further there.

At the eastern end up to 30 of these stones (the largest of which is 4.5m x 1.5m x 1m) are still there, having been pushed over and buried beneath the bank of the Durrington Walls henge. Elsewhere “the stones are fragmentary or represented by massive foundation pits”.

The row could be contemporary with the sarsens at Stonehenge, or be earlier in date.

Electromagnetic induction data showing central dry valley through the henge

This row followed a curving natural depression to the north, apparently artificially accentuated by a chalk-cut scarp. The scarp and stones delineated “a C-shaped ‘arena’ … [which] may have surrounded traces of springs and a dry valley leading from there into the Avon”, close by to the east.

  1. What is their evidence?

DuringtonGPR2The key evidence for this comes from “a cutting-edge geophysical and remote sensing survey at an unprecedented scale and resolution”. The survey began in July 2010, and (I gather from Nick Snashall, National Trust archaeologist) was concluded two weeks ago at Durrington Walls, after spending a total of about 120 days in the field. Techniques employed include magnetometry, ground-penetrating radar, electromagnetic induction, earth resistance survey and terrestrial 3D laser scanning.

This is the survey that caused much interest on TV last year, and earlier in the press in 2011: the Stonehenge Hidden Landscape Project, conducted by the Universities of Birmingham and Bradford, and the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Archaeological Prospection. The listed technologies refer to the entire survey. Images specially for Durrington Walls are attributed to ground penetrating radar (showing the whole stone row), electrical resistivity tomography (showing a buried stone) and electro-magnetic induction (showing landscape topography). The images are impressive, but not much detail has been released.

  1. How do they know the features are stones?

Durrington Walls 2015 (4)ed

On the evidence we have been given, the geophysical evidence for a row of large features is compelling. Less certain is what those features are, though again they seem to have evidence that suggests something solid is underground, and stone would be an obvious candidate.

They say the stones are probably sarsen for two reasons. First, there is a lone sarsen stone still on the surface in a field across the road, known as the Cuckoo Stone. Secondly, anything up to 4.5m long is just too big to be the other type of Stonehenge megalith, bluestone. They are joining up dots that are quite a long way apart, so really this is an open question.

  1. How do they know how old the row of stones is?

DuringtonGPR22The argument for the age of the row depends on evidence that the stones are buried beneath the henge bank. The digging of the ditch that threw up the original bank is quite loosely dated to around 2500BC. So if the stones were buried when the bank was first thrown up, they must have been lowered around or before 2500BC. The sarsen circle at Stonehenge is dated to about the same time.

We have not been shown evidence for why they think the stones are buried beneath the bank (rather than, for example, buried down through the bank), though we might expect that to show in GPR plots.

  1. What else might they be?

Durrington Walls 2015 (9)

Rows of large pits – often referred to as pit alignments, of unknown purpose – are not uncommon in prehistoric Britain, dating mostly between the early bronze age and iron age; so not as old as Stonehenge or Durrington Walls.

The area has been close to active military works since before the first world war, so an unknown military structure is not impossible. There seems to be no evidence for that, however, and old maps show nothing anywhere near the alignment.

  1. Will the history of Stonehenge have to be rewritten?

Durrington Walls 2015 (11)

Not yet.

There’s no denying they’ve found something, and any explanation that does not involve the long history of Stonehenge looks like special pleading. This is a genuine challenge to how we think about these sites, and potentially a major discovery and a stunning achievement for the research team.

Without excavation, however, we will never get to the bottom of what it is they have found – what the pits are, what the solid things are, and how old they are.

But for now, this is how they think it looked:

Phase 1 from above

Phase 1 oblique

Phase 1 on the ground

Phase 4

All illustrations in this post are from the Stonehenge Hidden Landscape Project

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Speaking engagements – indigenous memories and Stonehenge

I have just updated the speaking engagements for the year adding the new ones coming up. All details can be found here.

Although I am speaking about the whole of Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies, it is the aspects of the extraordinary indigenous memory systems and the link to Stonehenge which tends to be the aspects of most interest. So far!

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Scottish carved stone balls


I have written a blog for Cambridge University Press about Scottish carved stone balls. Just click on the image and it will take you to their site.

Holding these extraordinary objects was one of the great moments of my life. So here’s a photo of me with my pure-joy expression.

IMG_2638-balls-me-1000Photo: Damian Kelly, taken at the Hunterian Museum, University of Glasgow.

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Cambridge University Press – media release



3 July 2015 – Melbourne: Dr Lynne Kelly will launch Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies at the Co-op Bookshop, La Trobe University Melbourne Campus on Friday 3rd July, 2015 at 12pm.

Why did the Neolithic Britons build Stonehenge? Why were there so many other stone circles all over the UK and Ireland? In this exciting book, Dr Lynne Kelly offers a groundbreaking new theory for the purpose of Stonehenge and other stone circles in the UK, the great houses of Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, and the mound-building site of Poverty Point in Louisiana, in a way which applies to many other sites around the world.

Kelly argues that what has been left out of the interpretation until now is the way practical information is memorised in cultures which have no contact with writing. Drawing on methods used by Australian Aboriginal, Native American, African and Pacific cultures, the purpose of mysterious sites built by small tribes in the early stages of settlement all over the world suddenly make sense.

Identifying the memory technologies used, Kelly recognises the importance of memory spaces in prehistory in the form of performance sites, monuments and handheld devices. This book explains the complex memory methods and physical memory aids used by oral cultures who were totally dependent on their memories to store all the practical information on which their survival depended.

Primary oral cultures developed an extraordinary range of mnemonic technologies to store vast amounts of practical information and until now, the role of memory and formal knowledge systems has been underrepresented in the interpretation of enigmatic archaeological sites and objects.


Lynne Kelly, La Trobe University, Victoria

Lynne Kelly is an Honorary Research Associate in the Department of Arts, Communication and Critical Enquiry at La Trobe University, Melbourne. She is the author of ten books on education, one novel and three popular science titles. Kelly is interested in the question of how non-literate cultures memorise so much about their environment in the absence of writing, which has led her to research the mnemonic technologies of oral cultures.

To arrange an interview with the author or request a review copy, please contact Ebony Henry at Cambridge University Press on (03) 8671 1442 or


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The launch is finally coming

Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies will be launched next Friday, 3 July at LaTrobe University Bookshop at 12 midday. Plenty of refreshments!

I would love to see friends, family, colleagues and anyone interested in prehistory, indigenous memory systems, Stonehenge, Chaco Canyon, archaeology … maybe just all of you!

Just click to see the invitation.


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Speaking engagements – Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies

I have been asked where people can hear me talk about indigenous memory systems and my theories about prehistoric monuments including Stonehenge. Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies has only just been published by Cambridge University Press in the US and UK and is still a month or so away from being published here in Australia.

Saturday / Sunday 22-24 May 2015: Archaeology of Portable Objects SymposiumPrimary Orality and Portable Objects. Australian National University, Canberra.  An academic conference – already been and enjoyed immensely.

Friday 12 June 2015: Castlemaine Fields NaturalistsIndigenous knowledge of plants and animals: how do they remember so much stuff without a field guide?  Castlemaine Fields Nats. Write up on the presentation on the Connecting Country website. 7.30 pm.

Friday 3 July 2015: Launch, Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies, LaTrobe University Bookroom, Bundoora. 12 midday.

Saturday 8 August  2015: Bendigo Writers Festival, Author, Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies. Bendigo. Website: Bendigo Writers Festival.

Saturday, 15 August, Riddells Creek Landcare AGMHow did Aboriginal Australians manage their knowledge of plants and animals critical to their survival? What does this tell us about ancient monuments like Stonehenge?, Dromkeen, 1012 Gisborne-Kilmore Rd, Riddells Creek Vic, 3 pm.

Thursday, 10 September 2015: Castlemaine LibraryKnowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies, 6 pm.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015: Kyneton FreethinkersKnowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies, Albion Hotel meeting room, Kyneton.  7.30 pm.

Sunday, 20 September 2015: Newstead Science MattersWhy did the Neolithic Brits build Stonehenge? Newstead Community Centre. Details to follow.

Thursday, 8 October 2015: Kororoit Institute/Melbourne Emergence Special Public Meetup, University of Melbourne, The emergence of formal knowledge management systems in prehistory, more details to follow.

Friday – Sunday, 16-18 October 2015: Australian Skeptics National Convention, Memory spaces: adding rational intellect to Stonehenge, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane. Convention website and program is here.

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