Knowledge, Power and Stonehenge

This blog is a response to questions from archaeologists from a talk I gave on Thursday. I addressed a crowd of over 200 at the Castlemaine Library on the topic of “Knowledge, Power and Stonehenge” based on my book. There were a number of archaeologists in the audience who were very positive in their response and have contacted me with questions that they didn’t get a chance to ask. Here are two of the questions:

Q: Last night you only briefly referred to the new stone arrangement reported from Durrington Walls. Can you expand on the way you see this setting fitting with the dichotomy you argued is seen in mnemonic monuments all over the world? (See the post below this one for more details of the new findings.)

Part of the stone row at Durrington Walls, Ludwig Boltzmann Institute.

In monuments used primarily for memory purposes, I am always looking for ordered sequences of stones, posts or mounds to replicate the sequence of landscape sites used by mobile cultures. When they get to city size and clear hierarchies, my theory no longer holds.

The ethnographic record from small-scale oral cultures all over the world is unequivocal. There are always both public and restricted performance sites in which knowledge is taught and exchanged. The restricted sites are essential for two reasons (among others): to retain power for those initiated into the higher levels of the knowledge system and to avoid the so-called ‘Chinese whispers’ effect. Knowledge is corrupted if it is shared willy-nilly. Knowledge needed to survive severe resource stress, for example, is always held at the highest restricted levels. In the Australian mobile hunter-gatherer case, the public / restricted performance site dichotomy can be seen with the public corroboree grounds and highly restricted bora grounds. In Pueblo cultures, between plazas and kivas. And so on.

In terms of the Stonehenge / Durrington Walls complex of monuments:  Stonehenge became a highly restricted site when the huge sarsens arrived about 500 years into its use and everything was enclosed in the centre. At the same time, the superhenge Durrington Walls was built, giving a new public performance space. There was also a fairly restricted set of posts near Durrington Walls, known as Woodhenge.

The news a few days ago reported that at Durrington Walls a sequence of up to 90 standing stones had been found around the edge of the henge. This is exactly the sort of sequence of memory locations I am finding all over the world. The Durrington stones appear, from the reports available, to be separated so that each is encountered singly, as required for memory locations. This gives a much more defined public memory site at Durrington Walls than it was before, with restricted sites at Woodhenge, and even more restricted at Stonehenge. This complex works as a single site. Stonehenge alone won’t fit the theory I outlined at the talk and in the book.

Q: I understood from your talk that you believed that the memory techniques used were a product of evolutionary convergence and different societies developed these methods separately, not that they are 60,000 odd years old and left Africa at the same time as humans; what is your basis for that position?

The image links to the Trust for African Rock Art.

I confused you! Sorry! I believe that the human ability to memorise in this way probably dates to at least 60,000 years ago and is a critical part of human evolution – but I haven’t done that research thoroughly enough to claim that yet. There were evolutionary biologists in the audience who are very excited about this aspect and love what I am saying.

It is the implementation using sequences of posts, stones or mounds for sets of sequenced memory locations which I believe was developed independently. These monument types don’t appear in the archaeological record until the last 10,000 years or so. I think the evidence is there for the landscape being used as a sequenced set of memory locations for much longer than 10,000 years, but it is the specific implementation of the method locally on settlement which I believe has been developed by different societies independently.

The image of the barrels marking one of the 27 post circles at Poverty Point, Louisiana, by Jenny Ellerbe. Used with permission.

The posts circles in the plaza at the mound site of Poverty Point in Louisiana, for example, weren’t copied from the British Neolithic despite their similarity in dimensions and the separation of the posts to stone and post circles in the British Neolithic. They developed this implementation because it is an incredibly effective method (the method of loci) that has never been bettered, and we all share the same brain structures.

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.

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.


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.