current Research

 
 
 

This research is to be published by Cambridge University Press as Knowledge and power in prehistory: orality, memory and the transmission of culture.


My doctoral research at LaTrobe University built on the work I had already done on the way knowledge of animal behaviour is stored in oral cultures. The thesis has now been passed with lovely comments by world renowned archaeologists.

Having spent a lifetime trying to get the Victorian mammals, birds, snakes and spiders right - I knew very little of the insects, plants or the rest of the reptiles. And I had a library full of natural history books! I knew it was impossible to maintain such a bank of knowledge just by casually picking it up out on the daily gather and hunt, aided by chats around the fire at night. Yet this seems to be the assumption of so many who write about hunter-gatherer cultures. It doesn't take long listening to Australian Aboriginal cultures to learn that they have a very complex formal knowledge system, stored within the oral tradition. Knowledge is gained by intensive formal training, as is the case in oral cultures around the world.

The mnemonic methods, the memory aids, used by oral cultures all over the world includes primary orality - the way chants, songs, dances and mythology serve to encode all the formal knowledge of a culture. Critical information is taught through a system of initiation in all oral cultures. The vast array of physical mnemonic devices which are used to help remember the ceremonies are simply astounding!

Yet I was still seeing oral cultures represented on screen and in much academic writing, as some kind of quaint primitive creatures who lived in a permanent fog of superstition. If there is a female image, then it is a fertility goddess. Rituals are about appeasing the gods, even though many oral cultures don't have gods, as such, and therefore don't worship them. The nebulous rituals I saw were all about sacrifices, preferably human, and nothing to do with knowledge.

There is a massive mismatch between the way ancient rituals are represented and the way oral cultures conduct their ceremonies.

Five, ten, twenty thousand years ago - they were still Homo sapiens. Still the same species as us - with the same intellectual capacity. And we have absolute proof that knowledge systems, such as the Australian Aboriginal cultures, date back many thousands of years, even if the actual knowledge is constantly changing. Oral knowledge systems are all indexed in some way - proper information systems. They have to be - or the knowledge will be lost.

When I first read about oral tradition, I kept reading about history and religion. Almost nothing about science. When I read about the Songs at corroborees, I found that 70% are about animal behaviour, plant properties and other natural phenomena. The Navajo had a knowledge to three levels of classification of over 700 insects! All kept in memory - and then there are all the other animals. If oral cultures didn't have formal ways of remembering so much stuff, they would not have survived. Mythology is the best way known to encode knowledge. There is a robust body of research on that - under the topic of primary orality.

So I went to England, to the British Museum, to see if I could see clues to mnemonics for animal behaviour and plant properties in ancient cultures. Not surprisingly, it was everywhere. I went out to Stonehenge. There, I was told, was a circle of posts (or maybe the original bluestones) surrounded by a ditch and bank. It was similar to a thousand other stone circles across the British Isles. It was much later that the massive sarsens arrived. I thought: what a perfect way to set up a training site as mnemonic to the annual cycle of ceremonies to ensure the knowledge of the culture is retained. Sort of like a representation of the Aboriginal Songlines, but localied as the mobile hunter-gatherer culture started to settle. Just like the ancient Greek Method of Loci - still known to be the most effective way of remembering long screeds of material.

I went to the bookshop at Stonehenge, expecting to find knowledge systems mentioned in the books. I found the latest book I could which was written by a bone fide archaeologist. I happened to flip open at page 87, and the word "illiterate" jumped out at me. If anyone has done any work at all on oral cultures, they would use the term "non-literate" or "oral". Illiterate is used in anthropological language to refer to people who cannot read in a culture which has writing. I never hear our traditional Aboriginal cultures referred to as "illiterate". Neolithic Brits were not illiterate, they were certainly ‘non-literate’ - they were an oral culture.


Returning to Australia, I expected to find that the knowledge space theory for Stonehenge had been proposed and dismissed. I started working with the incredible LaTrobe academic librarian, Lisa Donnelly, and discovered it had never been proposed. I found that the idea had been alluded to by sociologists in the US, including Carl Couch and his colleague, Dr Shing-Ling (Sarina) Chen. Couch died in 1994, but Dr Chen has been an incredible help.

Without the recent archaeologist reports from Mike Parker Pearson and his team in the Stonehenge Riverside Project, I could not have put the whole theory together. Without Parker Pearson's linking of Stonehenge and the nearby superhenge of Durrington Walls, it wouldn't all work. The recent news of the bluestones forming a circle predating Stonehenge (Bluestonehenge) is totally consistent. The news of a pallisade surrounding Stonehenge, making it even more secretive, is perfect. My theory depends a great deal on the dichotomy of public and restricted knowledge found in all oral cultures. The increasing secrecy associated with the knowledge elite of sedentary non-literate cultures, when compared with mobile hunter-gatherer cultures, is clearly demonstrated in the changes over 1500 years in the Stonehenge complex of monuments.

My theory explains much that has not been explained before: why are the ditches so deep and flat-bottomed in the superhenges such as Durrington Walls and Avebury? Why are the ditches segmented, with sacred deposits varying around the segments? What is so important that people would be willing to put in so much effort with no sign of coercion? Why do the same symbols appear on Grooved Ware, the Scottish carved stone balls, and at passage ‘grave’ sites? It goes on and on. Add in primary orality, and these questions gain what seem to be very rational answers.

And if there is a massive gathering of people from all over the British Isles at midwinter - how did they know when to grab the pig and head for the party? Who was running the calendar? How? Who was maintaining knowledge of the laws? And of the land ownership? How did people know which plants they could eat, how to prepare them, what could be used for medicine and what are deadly poison? How did they know when certain eggs would be ready to collect, insect pupae available, webs for wound cover ... it goes on and on and on. All oral cultures have a knowledge elite. And knowledge was ALWAYS power!

A return to Britain and Ireland in 2010 enabled me to meet with Neolithic experts and discuss this theory. I was delighted with the positive reaction and the encouragement to publish as soon as possible. Unfortunately, to work through the orality to explain the archaeology takes a great deal more than a journal length paper.

The trip also enabled husband, Damian, and me to visit many Neolithic sites and examine Grooved Ware and carved stone balls in various museum collections. Then we went to Orkney, to look at the incredible Neolithic archaeology there. We fell in love with the place! I was given access to images of inscribed rock by the archaeologist heading the Ness of Brodgar dig, and again, all fits a treat. We’ll be visiting the dig at the Ness of Brodgar in August, 2013. That is an invitation I could never refuse.


Heaven is holding Neolithic carved stone balls - in this case at the Hunterian Museum at the University of Glasgow.


As well as the European Neolithic, I worked with archaeologists in America on mound building sites such as Watson Brake and Poverty Point, Louisiana, exploring evidence for the role of a knowledge elite.  I also worked with archaeologists  on the Ancestral Puebloan sites including the astounding Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. I fell in love with New Mexico and the Puebloan culture during my much-too-brief visit.

I am also constantly working with Australian Aboriginal cultures, and learning all I can of other oral cultures, such as American Indian, including the hunter-gatherer Inuit. I am focussing on the Pueblo and Navajo knowledge systems, because of the link to Chaco Canyon. I find the Pueblo methods of maintaining multiple corn varieties as pure strains over many centuries, despite the tendency to cross-pollination, absolutely brilliant and inspiring. Their survival depended on managing corn in an often harsh and unpredictable climate. And that management is all done through maintaining the Corn Mother rituals.

Navigational knowledge fascinates me. It is by using oral and material mnemonic technologies that the Australian cultures can navigate across a vast continent, the Pacific Navigators across vast open ocean and the Inuit across featureless ice - even when the ice is moving! Those long trade routes in the ancient past will have required some form of navigation given they had no roads nor charts.

The African Luba and Yoruba cultures also offer a great deal of rich mnemonic material and incredibly clever memory aids - I am trying my own versions of them, and finding my poor memory is vastly enhanced.

This all takes a great deal to explain! Guess what my next book is about?


The thesis has now been passed by eminent archaeologists here and in the US. I have had really supportive feedback from archaeologists in Australia, America and the UK. There is interest in books for the academic and trade market, so I am working on those, taking advantage of the wonderfully detialed comments from the examiners. I am now a Visiting Research Fellow at LaTrobe which gives me the time and affiliation to take this research much further.


Then there’s a lifetime of work to follow up all the oral mnemonic technologies, and Neolithic / Archaic archaeological sites. Each one is its own case study. Although I am able to draw cross-cultural generalisations, each culture - contemporary or ancient - has its own unique way of implementing their knowledge system. And every single one is fascinating!