I am delighted to announce that The Memory Code is now available in Chinese. I have only started learning the language, so I can’t read what this says, but I am really chuffed to see this Good Publishing Co edition.
There have been lots of articles about The Memory Code. Lots of interviews and lots of talks. I was reflecting back on the past eighteen months as I head into the final stages of preparing the manuscript for the next book. There is one article which I keep returning to because it is from a magazine I hugely respect and a writer who got it so right, and wrote about it so well. Jim Rountree writes for Australia’s leading science magazine, Cosmos. Click on the images and you will get the full article. I have copied the start of the article below. It was originally published just over a year ago.
It is a real buzz as an author to have someone understand your ideas so well.
“Most of us know a place where sculpted rocks, majestic trees or perhaps the light give us a feeling the place is special. We sense something mysterious and wonderful – beyond the normality of everyday life.
Now, imagine you are young and visiting such a place. It is in the land of your people, a clan of hunter-gatherers. Your parents tell you the story of the place. You can see the marks left as mythical ancestors fought and played, acting out momentous, tragic events.
You will never forget this story, and you will never forget the place. They are locked together in your mind.
But the story doesn’t stop there. The ancestors roamed clan territory, leaving traces at every point. It’s easy to remember their bizarre, dramatic acts, which become inseparable from the marks they left behind on the landscape. Story and land merge in a mental map that means you always know where you are and what lies in every direction.
Now you are older and ready to be initiated. Back at the special place you learn there is more to the story. The ancestor turned into a millipede leaving those marks – one for each verse of a song you must now learn; many generations old, it holds vital information you can’t afford to get wrong.
Time passes – you are an elder. You know a thousand songs, chants, stories and dances. They tell about the animals – their life cycles, how they feed and breed, how to hunt them and the rules for dividing the kill. You know which plants you can eat and how to prepare them. The songs tell you the clues, on land and in the night sky, of the passing seasons, so you know when to move as game becomes abundant or plants fruit. The songs tell you the laws of your people and the gods and spirits you must appease. They contain your people’s history and relations with neighbouring groups.
As an elder you have authority, with others, to create new stories for events worthy of memory.
With so much to remember you have songs to list and a ceremonial cycle mapped to each of the locations you visit, so you can be certain that every story is regularly rehearsed.
Spread through your mind and the minds of others in your group is the total knowledge of your people. It is a repository of incredible detail, containing information of practical importance as well as the beliefs that define your understanding of the universe and your place within it. Without a written language, you must keep it ever alive and pass it on completely and accurately. So of course, you use the method by which it came to you, in interwoven branches of story and song that emanate from the landscape myths you learnt as a child. The whole of your country serves as a gigantic mnemonic device for this knowledge.
The trick of using stories tied to features in a location as a memory aid is no secret. Modern speed-memory competitors use the technique, linking each card in a deck to locations within a familiar place pictured in the mind’s eye – a so-called memory palace, a mnemonic device first used in ancient Greece and Rome.
Ethnologists have known for some time how preliterate societies told stories linked to their environments. We can see the method in oral cultures of Native Americans, Africans, Polynesians and Australian Aborigines.
Once all peoples must have used systems of this kind. In the Western tradition, for example, the Iliad was recited from memory.
In her latest book, The Memory Code, Australian science writer and La Trobe University oral history researcher Lynne Kelly stresses the effectiveness of the method to accurately remember and transmit vast amounts of knowledge. This sets the ground for her main thesis: that numerous prehistoric sites around the world had a primary function as memory aids, serving as knowledge centres for peoples transitioning from hunter-gatherer to settled agricultural lifestyles. Her list includes henges, cairns and standing stones in Western Europe, Göbekli Tepe in Turkey, Neolithic temple complexes in Malta, Pueblo “great houses” in the southwestern United States and the giant, geometric animals cut into the Nazca Plain in Peru.
I am finally home from the US and UK after travelling there for the publication of the Pegasus Books and Atlantic Books editions of The Memory Code respectively. I have a great deal to write as a result of the trip. All in good time!
It is always intriguing to read the way other writers interpret my work. Two of the longer media articles are worth referring to here.
Jim Rountree‘s article More Than Memory appeared in Australia’s most respected science magazine, Cosmos, in February. It is now available online. Not only does Rountree encapsulate my ideas in a more succinct way than I have ever managed to do, he also writes it beautifully as well. I am very flattered to have such a quality article about my ideas in such a quality magazine. (Click here or on image to go to the article).
The second was a long interview with Memory Athelete, Daniel Kilov. It appeared in the January / February edition of Australian Mensa magazine, TableAus and is now online at Daniel’s blog, Mental Athlete. (Click here or on image to go to the article).
Thank you to those who have been asking about public lectures on my book tour for the publication of the North American edition of The Memory Code by Pegasus Books and the UK / Europe edition from Atlantic Books. There are lots of meetings and other exciting things happening, but below are the public events booked so far.
New York: Note that two events were advertised at the same location, different titles, an hour apart. I am not sure if it is two lectures or one! I’ll fix it here when confirmed. IT IS ONE LECTURE AT 3 PM.
Thursday 23 February, Cardiff University: The Memory Code, Archaeology seminar. This is an in-house seminar for the archaeology department, but there may be an opportunity for other archaeologists to attend. Please contact me for more information.
I am delighted that the Pegasus Books edition of The Memory Code is now available for pre-order from Amazon.com. Pegasus is publishing for North America (US and Canada) while Atlantic Books are publishing for the UK and Europe. Both are using the same cover and publishing initially in hardback. This is so exciting!
The discovery of a powerful memory technique used by our Neolithic ancestors in their monumental memory places―and how we can use their secrets to train our own minds
In ancient, pre-literate cultures across the globe, tribal elders had encyclopedic memories. They could name all the animals and plants across a landscape, identify the stars in the sky, and recite the history of their people. Yet today, most of us struggle to memorize more than a short poem.
Using traditional Aboriginal Australian songlines as a starting point, Dr. Lynne Kelly has since identified the powerful memory technique used by our ancestors and indigenous people around the world. In turn, she has then discovered that this ancient memory technique is the secret purpose behind the great prehistoric monuments like Stonehenge, which have puzzled archaeologists for so long.
The henges across northern Europe, the elaborate stone houses of New Mexico, huge animal shapes in Peru, the statues of Easter Island―these all serve as the most effective memory system ever invented by humans. They allowed people in non-literate cultures to memorize the vast amounts of information they needed to survive. But how?
For the first time, Dr. Kelly unlocks the secret of these monuments and their uses as “memory places” in her fascinating book. Additionally, The Memory Code also explains how we can use this ancient mnemonic technique to train our minds in the tradition of our forbearers.
I have been overwhelmed, delighted and, I must admit, astonished by the reaction to the first few days of The Memory Code being released. Thank you to everyone who has written to me in response to the radio interviews. Here are two ABC interviews available online:
My theory about the purpose of many ancient monuments argues that they were built primarily as memory spaces. Their design was specifically to enable elders to practice their memorisation, to teach it and to perform the knowledge for the community according to the various levels of initiation of the audience. Elders memorised the knowledge on which survival, physically and culturally, depended: entire field guides to all the animals and plants, navigational charts, genealogies, laws, resource rights, trade agreements, land management, astronomy, geology … all in memory.
In Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies, I presented ten indicators that a monument was built as a memory space, it was a mnemonic monument. They are listed in decreasing order of importance.
1. A stratified society with no sign of individual wealth or coercion
In the small scale oral cultures I am talking about, the elders maintained their power through controlling knowledge. In all other ways, the societies appear to be egalitarian. Obviously my starting point was Australian Aboriginal cultures, but Native American, many African and Polynesian cultures also fit the scenario.
2. Public and restricted ceremonial sites
The imperative to perform the knowledge repeatedly should leave an archaeological record of both public and restricted performance spaces. Platforms, mounds, enclosed spaces, plazas and even flat-bottomed ditches, can act as suitable performance spaces. Restricted spaces ensure those initiated higher into the knowledge can repeat it in secrecy which effectively avoids the so-called Chinese whispers effect. When dealing with knowledge from generations ago, such as surviving severe resource stresses, accurate retention is essential.
3. Large investment of labour for no obvious reason
All historical and contemporary oral cultures value education and formally educate the young. They don’t learn everything casually while out on a daily gather and hunt or round the campfire at night. There is no society which works that way and so there is no reason to believe that oral cultures in prehistoric times were any different.
Mobile cultures use significant landscape places in order to keep a record of each aspect of the knowledge. They encode it in the landscape. If a society is to settle they must replicate these set of locations in the local area. That is the very basis of the monuments. But there’s a lot more to it than that!
4. Signs of a prescribed order—the Method of Loci
If a monument is a memory space, then there must be a prescribed order to the memory locations so that information is not lost through lack of reference. The ancient Greeks described their locations from their preliterate times: there should be a defined sequence in a location away from distracting passers-by which is well lit, with loci not too much like one another, of moderate size, with a moderate distance between them. My research shows that all oral cultures did this – and we have ample evidence from Australia of a continuous knowledge culture for tens of thousands of years.
Circles or lines of stones or posts, a sequence in the ditches or mounds enclosing open space, or large, non-domestic ‘buildings’ would serve as memory theatres beautifully.
5. Enigmatic decorated objects
Documented oral cultures use a huge variety of memory aids: inscribed stones, notched or decorated wooden sticks or boards, inscribed bark, decorated hides, dance costumes, masks, props, knotted chords, curated human and animal bones, bundles of non-utilitarian or symbolic objects and representations of mythological ancestors on a wide variety of media.
Enigmatic objects found at ceremonial sites which match these patterns add to the argument that the monument served as a memory space.
6. An imbalance in trade
Knowledge is traded in every society I have examined, literate and non-literate. If resources and labour are coming into the site but nothing being manufactured or grown there, then it is logical to assume that it is a place when knowledge is being traded in the form of songs, dances and mythological stories and encoded using a variety of memory devices.
7. Astronomical observations and calendrical devices
Whoever maintains the calendar holds a very powerful role in oral cultures. Detailed astronomical observances were common among complex hunter-gatherers, primarily to maintain calendars and schedule ceremonies. The heavens were also used as memory aids, with characters and stories attributed to stars and planets as it is the case with every society, literate or non-literate.
Astronomical alignments add to the argument that a monument is a memory space.
8. Monuments that reference the landscape
Landscape references are critical as memory markers in the oral tradition of both mobile and sedentary cultures. Not surprisingly, most of the enigmatic monuments around the world make some reference to the much wider landscape.
9. Acoustic enhancement
Songs are far easier to remember than prose; dramatic performances are more memorable than static recitations. Monuments which are designed to aid memory would have structures which enhance singing, chanting and the music for the dances. And it is those songs which encode all the essential practical information.
10. Rock art as mnemonic
We know from historic oral cultures that rock art is often used to aid memory of the stories, songs, chants and other aspects of the knowledge system. Abstract art is far more useful as multiple layers of information can be encoded and secrecy maintained.
If an archaeological site demonstrated most, if not all, of the ten indicators given above, then it is logical to conclude that the control of knowledge was a fundamental aspect of the culture which constructed the monument. The elders constucted themselves a memory space. And the most elite of them may well have been buried there.
The Memory Code is often referred to, by those asking me about it, as ‘your Stonehenge book’. I have no doubt that the ideas about the purpose for Stonehenge will attract much of the attention, but it is only one chapter in 12. So I have put the Table of Contents below so you can see the extent of the book. It covers more ground than Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies, but without all the academic justification.
I have had a great deal of contact in recent weeks from the memory community, including memory champions on three continents! I have also been asked to write an academic essay for Rounded Globe on indigenous memory methods and implications for contemporary thinking. It will be titled Grounded: indigenous knowing in a concrete realityand free for all. This is part of the move for academics to communicate beyond the expensive academic journals and paywalls. Taxpayers pay for the research – taxpayers should have access to it.
The Memory Code will be published in Australia by Allen & Unwin in July, and by Atlantic Books in the UK and Pegasus Books in the US early next year. The audio rights have also just been sold, so I’ll update here when all the paper work has been done. Allen & Unwin are working extremely hard on my book, and I am delighted by everything they have done.
THE MEMORY CODE – TABLE OF CONTENTS
Chapter 1 – Encyclopaedic memories of the elders
Chapter 2 – Memory spaces, large and small
Chapter 3 – Memory spaces in a modern world
Chapter 4 – A journey through time
Chapter 5 – The ever-changing memory spaces at Stonehenge
Chapter 6 – The megalithic complexes of Avebury and Orkney
Chapter 7 – Newgrange and the passage cairns of Ireland
Chapter 8 – The tall stones and endless rows of Carnac
Chapter 9 – The unparalleled architecture of Chaco Canyon
Chapter 10 Giant drawings on the desert floor at Nasca
Chapter 11 Memory spaces across the Americas
Chapter 12 Polynesian navigators create a unique world on Easter Island