Castlerigg Stone Circle, Cumbria

I was fascinated by an email I received from Susannah Walker in the UK a few days ago. But first, a little background. For many years, a small photo has sat on my desk. It was taken by my late mother, and has the name of the circle in her handwriting on the back. But I had done no more than acknowledge it as one of the thousand or so stone circles in Britain.

castlerigg-front castlerigg-back

Susannah wrote: I have been fascinated to hear about your book, The Memory Code and am very much looking forward to reading it when I go on holiday in a few weeks time.

Even reading the reviews, however, made me think of Castlerigg Stone Circle in Cumbria. When I visited it last year, I noticed that the shapes of each of the stones mirrored the silhouette of the hills behind it, making the circle a representation of the wider landscape around. It clearly seemed to be deliberate, and your theory seems to be the perfect answer as to why. (As this article shows, I’m not the first person to have spotted this!).

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Castlerigg Stone Circle

Click on the image above or here to go to the Visit Cumbria site on Castlerigg.

Susannah’s observation of the way the stones reflect the surrounding landscape is one of the Ten Indicators I use to assess whether a monument was possibly used primarily as a memory space. The descriptions online also note many of the other Indicators: astronomical alignments, a sequence of memory locations (the stones), and even the public and restricted spaces with the rectangular ‘sanctuary’ within the circle. Being Neolithic, there is no sign of a wealthy elite, and a great deal of effort has been invested for no obvious utilitarian purpose.

I love Castlerigg. Thank you, Susannah for making me take more notice of the precious photograph which has been on the desk all this time.

Orality – why it is so important for prehistoric archaeologists

Primary orality is what you have when you don’t have literacy.

It is often commented that prehistoric cultures didn’t leave a written record. What is almost never mentioned is that cultures which had no contact with writing did have an alternative. They had orality. Most aspects of orality have been literally overwritten by writing, but they do leave a trace in the archaeological record.

Oral cultures employ a wide range of techniques to retain a vast amount of information in memory because they don’t write it down. The research on primary orality talks about the way song, stories, dance and mythology encode vast stores of information in memorable forms.

What is important for archaeologists is that primary oral cultures also used material devices to aid memory: from the landscape and art through an incredible range of enigmatic portable objects. It is these material signs which can be detected in the archaeological record.

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Lukasa from the Brooklyn Museum

For example, the African Luba use a memory board known as a lukasa, among many mnemonic devices. It is used in a very similar way to the Australian churinga/tjuringa. These devices are restricted to knowledgeable elders. Their prehistoric equivalent should be found in ceremonial sites, but almost never in domestic settings.

Songs, dances, stories and mythological representations are not simply for entertainment nor are they purely superstitious. They are an essential way of recording masses of pragmatic information. Performance spaces should exhibit a public/restricted dichotomy as is found in all indigenous cultures.

It is too often assumed that knowledge is simply handed on through stories told around the campfire or casually taught, parent to child, out on the daily gather and hunt. In years of research, I have never found a single culture which operated that way. All cultures teach in formal settings – oral and literate.

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To understand the nature of orality, I started with some of the oldest continuous cultures on the planet, the 300 or so Australian Aboriginal language groups.

The Yolngu of Arnhem Land share their knowledge at the annual Garma Festival. They offer some of the best understanding of orality because they have explained it on their terms.

Indigenous survival depends on masses of practical knowledge. There are many commonalities about the memory methods used by oral cultures from the mobile Australian to the more sedentary Native American, African and Pacific cultures.

It is those commonalities which can offer another tool for archaeologists interpreting ancient ceremonial sites: orality.