Stonehenge – they moved their memory palace from Wales!

Thank you to the many people who sent me links to the various reports of this discovery and commented on how wonderfully it suited my theory on the purpose of Stonehenge.

“Stonehenge was a Welsh monument from its very beginning. If we can find the original monument in Wales from which it was built, we will finally be able to solve the mystery of why Stonehenge was built and why some of its stones were brought so far.” Mike Parker Pearson, archaeologist who led the study.

Click on image to go to University College London website and the full story.

I could not be more delighted by this discovery. In my recent Cambridge University Press book, Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies, and in my forthcoming book, The Memory Code, I offer a new theory for the purpose of Stonehenge and monuments around the world. The new findings in Wales fit the theory a treat.

My research is on the way non-literate cultures memorized vast amounts of practical information when they had no way of writing it down. All oral cultures used a combination of memory techniques and physical devices – their survival depended on accurate retention of practical information on plants, animals, navigation, genealogies, astronomy and timekeeping, seasonality, resource management, intertribal agreements and so on. The memory technology employed universally is the ‘method of loci’ or the ‘art of memory’, the use a sequence of physical locations to act as a set of mnemonic subheadings to the knowledge system. The information for each location is then stored in song and mythology, stories and dance – all kept in memory.

Stonehenge was built in the transition from a mobile hunter gatherer society to a settled farming community. Mobile cultures used a range of landscape locations to store information, such as the Australian Aboriginal songlines. The ancient Greeks and Romans used their buildings and streetscapes in the same way, attaching information to each location and then recalling it by walking, or imagining themselves walking through their memory sites. Modern memory champions refer to their sequence of locations as memory palaces.

What happened when hunter gatherer cultures started to stay in one place, an essential development if they are ever to farm? They were no longer moving between their landscape locations over the annual cycle but didn’t yet have a built environment. The simplest thing to do was to replicate their landscape sequence locally, such as with a circle of stones or posts.

The original monument at Stonehenge is now considered to have been a circle of stones or posts, possibly the Welsh bluestones. The huge stones in the centre, the familiar sarsens, didn’t come to the monument for 500 years after the first circles.

I have argued in my PhD thesis and both books, that the bluestones were particularly suitable as memory locations because of the variety of textures and colours in their material made them visually so variable which is great for encoding information. I thought that the builders brought the stones and knowledge of the method of loci from Wales.

If Parker Pearson and his team are right, then they brought their entire memory palace!

I could not have hoped for a better development.


The Memory Code will be published by Allen & Unwin in July 2016 in Australia and later in the UK by Atlantic Books.


Archaeological interpretation needs to include knowledge systems

ancient-cult-sitesI am not denying that ancient people, like many modern people, believed in lots of superstitions. What I am arguing as loudly as I can is that they wouldn’t have survived without a massive store of practical information. All my ethnographic research points to the memorising of pragmatic knowledge was, and in some cases still is, a critical practice of non-literate cultures at their ‘ritual sites’.

The report is about really interesting sites in Israel and the quality of the archaeology is obviously superb. I just have one small niggle.

Reports, such as the one linked above, invariably talk about cults and fertility rites and death rituals but never about knowledge systems. My research shows clearly that a large proportion of esoteric rituals serve to repeat the knowledge on which survival depends – vast stores of animal and plant information, navigational knowledge, geology, water sources, laws, weather and seasonal indicators and so on. People aren’t only interested in sex and dying.

The descriptions given in this article fit all that I would expect from a knowledge sites, they describe restricted spaces, reference to the landscape, a great deal of effort without obvious reason, decorated objects, evidence of sequence and space for performances. Each small group would require these knowledge spaces, with clusters representing those used for larger gatherings.

In Australian Aboriginal terms, these are referred to as bora grounds and corroboree sites. Evidence from all of the 300 or so language groups in Australia is that the transfer of practical knowledge was key to the purpose of these sites.


Why rituals and belief? Why not knowledge?

I guess this is going to be my hobby horse over the next few years: Why are enigmatic objects always associated with ‘beliefs’ and nebulous ‘rituals’? Why not knowledge?

Past Horizons is an archaeological journal often reporting very interesting finds. In a report about various objects from a mesolithic site in Poland, all of which can be interpreted as part of knowledge systems, the site is described as “a rare glimpse into the world of Mesolithic beliefs”.            




[click on image to go to the full article.]

There is ‘magic’ and ‘shamanistic ritual objects’ but no mention of knowledge systems.

There is the implication that prehistoric people lived in a fog of superstition. I don’t deny that contemporary non-literate cultures have spiritual beliefs integrated with the knowledge system. It is the emphasis I object to.  My research in primary orality indicates strongly that a great deal of ritual performance and ceremonial song is linked to repeating pragmatic and rational knowledge. This includes astronomical observations used to  retain a calendar closely related to resource availability – be it from hunting, gathering or farming. Star patterns are often used as representations of mythological characters whose stories also encode rational knowledge.

At the end of the Past Horizons article is reference to another research paper on mesolithic astronomy. I assumed that it also referred to rituals and shamans and magic supporting the tone of the previous part of the article. That surprised, given the list of contributors:


Among other familiar names is that of Clive Ruggles. Always rational and demanding significant evidence for any claim, Ruggles is my major influence in archaeoastronomy. I read the article (linked to the image above) and there is not a mention of superstition. There’s just lots of really interesting reporting and discussion.

Am I getting pedantic? I don’t think so. But it takes a whole book to present my argument fully. Knowledge and power in prehistoric societies comes out with Cambridge University Press in Fall (US) 2015. Until then, I just grumble.