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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Castlemaine Fields Naturalists and Stonehenge

I am really looking forward to talking to the Castlemaine Fields Nats on the topic:
Indigenous knowledge of plants and animals: how do they remember so much stuff without a field guide? and how this led me to a new theory for the purpose of Stonehenge.

The wonderful Connecting Country organisation gives details of the talk on their site. Just click on the image to get there.


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The advance copies arrive


The wonderful moment when I first hold the book which represents years of obsessive pleasure.

Thank you to LaTrobe University, my PhD supervisor Professor Sue Martin, Cambridge University Press, family, friends and most of all, my husband, Damian. All that work to get the PhD was so very worth it.

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