Post and stone circles – everywhere

These barrels mark the places where a massive timber circle once stood. Just like timber and stone circles all over the UK, Ireland and Western Europe. But where is it?


So where is the plaza with this familiar form of monument? Louisiana. USA. Constructed by hunter gatherer fishers amid their mounds and massive earth works (note the scale on the plan below!), the Poverty Point culture never farmed.


Plan of the earthworks, mounds and post circles at the World Heritage Site of Poverty Point, Louisiana. Image (c) Lynne Kelly.

The Poverty Point Site consists of massive earthworks built  3,400 years ago: five mounds shown around six C-shaped ridges enclosing a huge plaza. Within the plaza, 25 – 30 timber circles were built, but were not all standing at the same time. Like all knowledge sites, it was constantly changed.

The geometric design of Poverty Point is unique – there is nothing like it anywhere else. It is a masterpiece. When constructed, the Poverty Point earthworks were the largest in North America, the major political, trading and ceremonial centre of its day.

Why did people in America’s southeast build monuments so reminiscent of those built by Neolithic cultures in the UK, Ireland and Western Europe?

Because this is the best way to create the necessary memory spaces if an oral culture is to settle and replicate a knowledge system once based in the broad landscape.

The image of the barrels marking the post circle from Jenny Ellerbe can be found on the Poverty Point World Heritage Initiative document which can be downloaded from the site – just click on the image below. The plan of the site has been adapted from that document as well.

poverty-point-websiteIt wasn’t only in Louisiana that post circles were built by Native Americans. One circle which has been reconstructed is in Illinois, at the mound building site of Cahokia. The ancient Native American city was active long after Poverty Point, from about 600 to 1400 AD. Archaeologists even name the timber circle Woodhenge after a wooden post circle in Wiltshire, England.

Woodhenge: The reconstructed post circle at Cahokia, southern Illinois.

The oral cultures in North America and the European Neolithic were so far apart in both space and time that they almost certainly had no contact with each other. It is no coincidence that they used very similar structures at the ceremonial sites. These are practical monuments which served a very practical purpose. They are memory spaces used to aid memory of all the practical, scientific, historic and spiritual knowledge of the culture.


Uluru as a set of memory locations

I’ve talked about the method of loci – a set of locations in the landscape used as memory aids – the most effective memory aid known. I believe that the singing tracks of the Australian cultures, the sacred trails of the Native Americans and sacred paths found in cultures around the world served the needs of memory in exactly the same way.

Uluru, Central Australia. Photo: Ian Rowland.

The massive natural Central Australian monolith, Uluru, is easily visualised as mythological landscape with a path encircling the entire rock. The pathway around Uluru is nearly nine kilometres long. The many crevices and indentations around the base are each linked with stories. As I detail in my research and forthcoming books, the songs and stories of non-literate cultures are the means by which a vast store of information is retained, much of which is knowledge of plant and animal classifications and characteristics, navigation, weather, tides, a calendar, a pharmacopoeia, rules and ethics, genealogies all integrated with history and religion.

Australian anthropologist, Charles Mountford, described how almost every feature on the surface of Uluru (at that time referred to as Ayers Rock), is named, acting as a mnemonic for mythological story.


It is so easy to imagine walking the rock, each crevice and point reminding you of a story and the encoded knowledge. Over years of learning, the amount of knowledge encoded in this sequence of locations would become vast.

The Anangu traditional owners describe Uluru as part of their knowledge system, Tjukurpa, which they explain has many deep, complex meanings including the law for caring for each other and their Country, the relationships between people, plants, animals and the physical features of the land, the past, the present and the future.

It is not necessary for the Anangu knowledge specialists to be walking the rock to recall the stories. The sequence of sites is so well-known after years of learning that they can travel and part of the perimeter in their memories whenever they want. This is the art of memory exactly as described by the ancient Greeks.



Art: from orality to literacy

Art has a vastly different purpose in non-literate cultures than it does in literate ones.

Art in oral cultures is primarily a memory aid to the knowledge system while art in literate cultures is primarily aesthetic. A rash statement? I hope it’s one which generates debate.

 Australian Aboriginal art, which may have been traditional or may have been produced for the Western market.


Spider by Linda McRae, Possum by Ron King-Smith.

Too often I read that non-representational art in the archaeological context must have been for religious rituals, and interpretation is left at that. If the ‘primitive’ art is recognisable as an animal or scene, it is often assumed to be simply a repsresentation.

If the art is abstract, it is assumed to be due to some nebulous ritual. Except when interpreted by archaeologists who are very familiar with an indigenous culture, motifs are rarely, if ever, described in terms of the complex knowledge systems known from non-literate cultures such as the Australian Aboriginal and American Pueblo peoples.


Spiral petroglyph, Petroglyph National Monument, Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA.

There are a wide range of resources which document the way non-literate cultures use abstract motifs as memory aids to the knowledge system. Often, the same abstract sign can signify a range of meanings depending on the context, ceremony and person reading the signs. It is essential that interpretation of traditional art of non-literate cultures, historic or archaeological, be considered in terms of the way in which art aids the way a vast corpus of knowledge is memorised.

Two books, among many, have been hugely influential in my thinking on this topic.


Ancestral Connections: Art and an Aboriginal System of Knowledge. Howard Morphy is a leading writer about the Yongu of northwest Arnhem Land, one of the Aboriginal cultures which has retained a great deal of their traditional knowledge and been willing to convey it to anthropologists such as Morphy. Among many other aspects, Morphy explains how a single set of abstract images can lead to a multiplicity of interpretations by the Elders depending on the situation.


Memory: Luba Art and the Making of History covers the extraordinarily beautiful art of the African Luba people. It is claimed that their success as a culture in terms of longevity and range, was due to their memory devices, including the memory board known as a lukasa. Mary Nooter Roberts and Allen F. Roberts have edited this book on the Luba and their memory systems as well as written extensively on the topic themselves. Although the Roberts focus on the historical knowledge, they also refer to knowledge in a variety of genres including the pragmatic information which is my particular interest.

This topic fascinates me. I will be coming back to it many times in the future!


Socrates on the risks of writing

socrates-death-detail  Every new invention has its critics.

Socrates warned against the spread of writing and the subsequent loss of the ability to memorise.

Plato’s Phaedrus, written in about 370 BC, takes the form of a dialogue between Socrates and Phaedrus, an Athenian aristocrat.

Socrates quoted the God Thamus, on the topic of writing:

For this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practise their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them.

Thamus went on to say:

You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom, for they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise.

Socrates lived at the time when writing was taking hold in ancient Greece. Ironically, we only know what he believed because his pupil, Plato, wrote it down.

We now trust everything to our electronic devices. The entire world of information is at our fingertips, so why bother remembering anything when you can just look it up? Are we paying for the information age with wisdom?

Obviously, as an author, I am totally in favour of writing, of literacy. But I also think that we have lost some of the great aspects of orality, the way knowledge is memorised by non-literate people, including indigenous cultures and the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers.

We can no longer hold even a fraction of all that is known in memory – we need books and computers to do that. We need literacy. However, I believe that if we taught the memory arts in school, that students would have a stronger framework on which to build their book learning in every subject.

I want to see orality skills taught alongside literacy.



Memorising and understanding history

I have been asked so many fascinating questions since I started this blog. One is about the way memorising can help understanding. I can best explain with an example from one of my experiments. This about a general understanding of history starting from knowing very little indeed.


My history walk involves walking from home to the corner (1000 BC to 0 AD), then in four 500-year sides of the block until 1900. (OK, mathematical pedants, the last one isn’t 500 years). Each side is then be divided into 25 year spans. So I can date any event I have encoded in the walk to within about 15 years just by remembering where the location is. I can encode an exact date if I want to, but usually I don’t bother. Ten years here or there is good enough for the understanding I want. I have no intention of attempting to be a quiz champion!

This is more about a general understanding of history than in depth historical study.

I could try memorising a timeline chart. Or even constructing one, but I now it will end up overloaded with text. My walk through time can have a huge amount added and it doesn’t get crowded, because I only extract what I want to think about.

Now let me go and stand somewhere. I’m (mentally, not physically) over on Templeton Street, about half way up the third block. It is the year 1200.


I have just walked past King Richard I, with a lion in his tree. (All Richards are located in trees, the lion gives me Lionheart.) But he’s a quarter of a house behind me, so about 10 years ago. Right on the corner is King John. So he has just come onto the British Throne. Robin Hood is there, too. Up the lane is Great Zimbabwe at its peak, the amazing civilisation in Zimbabwe which is now only ruins. The Ancestral Puebloan cultures have been going for centuries at their amazing sites at Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde over in America’s southwest. I can see that Chaco is starting into a decline. Oh, and Genghis Khan is on the rampage. (He’s the tall rusty garden ornament with evil looking claws.)

As I walk the next thirty metres or so, I greet Albertus Marcus, see the Magna Carta being written, witness the demise of King John and Henry III take the throne, greet Thomas Aquinas and watch the Mongols invade Russia. Looking ahead I can see that the next few decades will see the start of the Ottoman Empire. We’re still in the Song Dynasty over in China (that started down at the church gate where I imagined hearing hymn singing in Chinese), and Marco Polo is heading out there (China, not the Castlemaine church).

Glancing up to the corner at 1500, I can see a lot of wars ahead, but also the Renaissance coming, Vasco de Gama reaching India and Christopher Columbus heading out to the New World … with so much in between.

So at this moment, here on the corner of Randall Lane in Templeton Street, it is 1200 AD and I can just look around me and see all the locations I have encoded. I can see the whole world, what has been and what is coming. I don’t have to memorise any dates, or the order of events. It’s all embedded in the landscape.

Can you imagine the questions arising in my mind? Why did little Spain and England head off and take over so much? Why did the Puebloans stay in their own domain and not take over? Thousands of questions and the Big Picture in which to think about them. This leads to adding more and more into the Big Picture, be it more information on any of the events and people I already have encoded, or adding more events, countries and people. I have hooks for everything already fixed in the spaces. I just have to hook the data onto the trees, doors, gates, walls, ornaments, cracks in the pavement, marks on the road … plenty for everything.

I haven’t studied history since the early years of secondary school. My historical knowledge was appalling when I started this task. Now I can’t get enough of it!

This sort of analysis happens with all my memory spaces, massive and miniature. More of those in future posts.

Does that start to answer the question about the way understanding and higher level thinking is linked to memory systems?

Memorising the periodic table


I have been asked how you would use the memory arts to memorise the periodic table. I would use what is known as the Method of Loci or the Art of Memory. This method is attributed to the ancient Greek and Roman orators. But this same method is used by all indigenous cultures, known as memory trails, paths and, in Australian Aboriginal parlance, Songlines or Dreaming Tracks.

Please note that I am only using the mnemonic aspect of the Songlines and in no way suggesting that this is all there is to these sacred songs and tracks through the landscape. More of that in a later post.

You will need the list of elements in writing because we don’t have elders to accompany us and teach us.

1. You need to set up 118 locations for the 118 elements. I would use your home and nearby garden or street.

2. Choose the starting point for walking around your home. We’ll allocate ten elements per room.

3. The door is 0 and the window (or some other midpoint) is 5. I always use the door and window so I am never confused.

4. Choose 4 locations between the door (0 or 10 or 20 or … depending on what room you are up to) and window. Four more back to the door.

5. Allocate element number 1 to the first position – (location 0 is wasted here). Hydrogen. Now comes the fun part. Stand at that point and make up a hydrogen story. The weirder, sexier, more grotesque, more politically incorrect it is, the better. Say I am at a bookcase. Then blow up the bookcase with a hydrogen bomb. You have started your first story.

6. Move to the next point. Say a cupboard. Fill your cupboard with Helium balloons for a very wild birthday party about to happen. You cannot lose any element because each has a location.

7. Keep going to each location. Don’t hurry. That is critical. Don’t hurry. In fact, when the medieval monks were talking about meditating, often they were talking about the images created for memorising virtues and vices!

8. If you want to add in other details, add them to the story. Say I have Mercury to encode at the kitchen bench. My bench is now all shiny and silvery with a liquid metal. I am also killing off all my guests with mercury poisoning. I will now hug them all as they die. Hg – the symbol for mercury.

9. What about an element which is totally unfamiliar? Say, Seaborgium. You find some kind of pun or association in the word. I would imagine borgs at the seaside. The important thing is that everyone needs to make their own associations or they are harder to remember.

10. You want the structure of the table? Lots of ways – maybe just remember the shape, it isn’t very difficult. But I would probably do a sing – a new line song. I’d make it up with the last elements of the lines, A Noble Gas Song: Helium, Neon, Argon, Krypton … just sing it away to yourself while cooking or showering.

11. You now have the elements in place. You don’t need to memorise numbers. That is done for you. You can jump to any atomic number because there’s a key location, a door or window, within three jumps of any element. You can start adding in identifiers for their state, like alcohol as part of the story for all liquids. Your creativity is only limited by your imagination.

12. The usual criticism of this method when it is first explained is that it is too cumbersome. You have to remember more than if you just memorised the elements. You will never hear that from anyone who has tried it.

Do the first ten elements and let me know how you go. The more you do it, the faster you will get at making up stories and creating images. And the wilder your images will get. Whenever you are sitting around waiting, or bored out of your mind at a meeting, just mentally walk around your house collecting the elements. They’ll soon be in place and will never be forgotten. Trust me!

This is an excellent article on The Periodic Table, including Tom Lehrer’s famous song – with animation.

Memorising birds

White-winged chough. Photo: Damian Kelly.

I have now memorised the 408 birds of my state, Victoria, in taxonomic order. That means I can name each of the 82 scientific family names and all the birds in that family – all from memory. I am using a combination of methods used by indigenous cultures starting with encoding the families onto my memory board, an adaptation of the African lukasa.

I am then using stories and puns and weird images to encode the members of the families.

My memory board – a perfect size to hold in one hand
A whistling kite (family Accipitridae) being chased by an Australasian raven (Corvidae). Photo: Damian Kelly.

Now that the structure is in place and I know all the birds, I am adding more information, much as indigenous cultures do as they move to higher levels of initiation. I’m adding memory aids to identification, distribution and other characteristics. I will soon be a walking field guide with a knowledge base which is becoming constantly more comprehensive.

A year ago, I would have sworn I couldn’t do this. Now it is fun and I am convinced I can memorise anything which can be structured in some way.

This is just one of the experiments in my 40 memory experiments.