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!).

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.

Stonehenge – they moved their memory palace from Wales!

Thank you to the many people who sent me links to the various reports of this discovery and commented on how wonderfully it suited my theory on the purpose of Stonehenge.

“Stonehenge was a Welsh monument from its very beginning. If we can find the original monument in Wales from which it was built, we will finally be able to solve the mystery of why Stonehenge was built and why some of its stones were brought so far.” Mike Parker Pearson, archaeologist who led the study.

Click on image to go to University College London website and the full story.

I could not be more delighted by this discovery. In my recent Cambridge University Press book, Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies, and in my forthcoming book, The Memory Code, I offer a new theory for the purpose of Stonehenge and monuments around the world. The new findings in Wales fit the theory a treat.

My research is on the way non-literate cultures memorized vast amounts of practical information when they had no way of writing it down. All oral cultures used a combination of memory techniques and physical devices – their survival depended on accurate retention of practical information on plants, animals, navigation, genealogies, astronomy and timekeeping, seasonality, resource management, intertribal agreements and so on. The memory technology employed universally is the ‘method of loci’ or the ‘art of memory’, the use a sequence of physical locations to act as a set of mnemonic subheadings to the knowledge system. The information for each location is then stored in song and mythology, stories and dance – all kept in memory.

Stonehenge was built in the transition from a mobile hunter gatherer society to a settled farming community. Mobile cultures used a range of landscape locations to store information, such as the Australian Aboriginal songlines. The ancient Greeks and Romans used their buildings and streetscapes in the same way, attaching information to each location and then recalling it by walking, or imagining themselves walking through their memory sites. Modern memory champions refer to their sequence of locations as memory palaces.

What happened when hunter gatherer cultures started to stay in one place, an essential development if they are ever to farm? They were no longer moving between their landscape locations over the annual cycle but didn’t yet have a built environment. The simplest thing to do was to replicate their landscape sequence locally, such as with a circle of stones or posts.

The original monument at Stonehenge is now considered to have been a circle of stones or posts, possibly the Welsh bluestones. The huge stones in the centre, the familiar sarsens, didn’t come to the monument for 500 years after the first circles.

I have argued in my PhD thesis and both books, that the bluestones were particularly suitable as memory locations because of the variety of textures and colours in their material made them visually so variable which is great for encoding information. I thought that the builders brought the stones and knowledge of the method of loci from Wales.

If Parker Pearson and his team are right, then they brought their entire memory palace!

I could not have hoped for a better development.


The Memory Code will be published by Allen & Unwin in July 2016 in Australia and later in the UK by Atlantic Books.


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.

Mike Pitts – Digging Deeper blog on Durrington Walls standing stones

[This was supposed to be reblogged from Mike Pitts’s site, but my reblog has gone to my old site. I hope that a copy and paste is legal. The original site:]

This discovery is a fantastic fit for my theory on the purpose of the Stonehenge / Durrington Walls complex of monuments as just published in the Cambridge University Press book, Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies. I shall cover this addition in the new book to be published next year. Over to Mike Pitts:

Are we rewriting the history of Stonehenge – again?

Durrington Walls 2015 (1)Let’s see what we’ve got. I can’t claim to know much more about the newest Stonehenge story than any other journalist. The discovery of a stone row at Durrington Walls was first announced a year ago, almost to the day. We were given little data then, however, and I seemed to be the only one who noticed! So what do we know now?

  1. What do they say they have found?

Durrington Walls 2015 (2)Evidence that there was once a row of up to 90 standing stones about 3km north-east of Stonehenge, west of the road between Amesbury and Durrington,. The stones, probably local sarsens, ran for at least 330m. At the east end the row stops short of the line of a modern road, and apparently does not continue beyond; at the west end it continues to the edge of the survey area, so may extend further there.

At the eastern end up to 30 of these stones (the largest of which is 4.5m x 1.5m x 1m) are still there, having been pushed over and buried beneath the bank of the Durrington Walls henge. Elsewhere “the stones are fragmentary or represented by massive foundation pits”.

The row could be contemporary with the sarsens at Stonehenge, or be earlier in date.

Electromagnetic induction data showing central dry valley through the henge

This row followed a curving natural depression to the north, apparently artificially accentuated by a chalk-cut scarp. The scarp and stones delineated “a C-shaped ‘arena’ … [which] may have surrounded traces of springs and a dry valley leading from there into the Avon”, close by to the east.

  1. What is their evidence?

DuringtonGPR2The key evidence for this comes from “a cutting-edge geophysical and remote sensing survey at an unprecedented scale and resolution”. The survey began in July 2010, and (I gather from Nick Snashall, National Trust archaeologist) was concluded two weeks ago at Durrington Walls, after spending a total of about 120 days in the field. Techniques employed include magnetometry, ground-penetrating radar, electromagnetic induction, earth resistance survey and terrestrial 3D laser scanning.

This is the survey that caused much interest on TV last year, and earlier in the press in 2011: the Stonehenge Hidden Landscape Project, conducted by the Universities of Birmingham and Bradford, and the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Archaeological Prospection. The listed technologies refer to the entire survey. Images specially for Durrington Walls are attributed to ground penetrating radar (showing the whole stone row), electrical resistivity tomography (showing a buried stone) and electro-magnetic induction (showing landscape topography). The images are impressive, but not much detail has been released.

  1. How do they know the features are stones?

Durrington Walls 2015 (4)ed

On the evidence we have been given, the geophysical evidence for a row of large features is compelling. Less certain is what those features are, though again they seem to have evidence that suggests something solid is underground, and stone would be an obvious candidate.

They say the stones are probably sarsen for two reasons. First, there is a lone sarsen stone still on the surface in a field across the road, known as the Cuckoo Stone. Secondly, anything up to 4.5m long is just too big to be the other type of Stonehenge megalith, bluestone. They are joining up dots that are quite a long way apart, so really this is an open question.

  1. How do they know how old the row of stones is?

DuringtonGPR22The argument for the age of the row depends on evidence that the stones are buried beneath the henge bank. The digging of the ditch that threw up the original bank is quite loosely dated to around 2500BC. So if the stones were buried when the bank was first thrown up, they must have been lowered around or before 2500BC. The sarsen circle at Stonehenge is dated to about the same time.

We have not been shown evidence for why they think the stones are buried beneath the bank (rather than, for example, buried down through the bank), though we might expect that to show in GPR plots.

  1. What else might they be?

Durrington Walls 2015 (9)

Rows of large pits – often referred to as pit alignments, of unknown purpose – are not uncommon in prehistoric Britain, dating mostly between the early bronze age and iron age; so not as old as Stonehenge or Durrington Walls.

The area has been close to active military works since before the first world war, so an unknown military structure is not impossible. There seems to be no evidence for that, however, and old maps show nothing anywhere near the alignment.

  1. Will the history of Stonehenge have to be rewritten?

Durrington Walls 2015 (11)

Not yet.

There’s no denying they’ve found something, and any explanation that does not involve the long history of Stonehenge looks like special pleading. This is a genuine challenge to how we think about these sites, and potentially a major discovery and a stunning achievement for the research team.

Without excavation, however, we will never get to the bottom of what it is they have found – what the pits are, what the solid things are, and how old they are.

But for now, this is how they think it looked:

Phase 1 from above

Phase 1 oblique

Phase 1 on the ground

Phase 4

All illustrations in this post are from the Stonehenge Hidden Landscape Project

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.

English Heritage interactive map of Stonehenge

Stonehenge absolutely fascinates me. Why did they build it?

Stonehenge changed over time and included a lot more than just the familiar sarsen ring and trilithons. English Heritage have an interactive map which allows you to look around the site from before Stonehenge was built to the present. It shows the linked monuments, especially Durrington Walls and Woodhenge. There’s a lot more on the site, especially for those who need an introduction to the archaeology.

Just click on the image and you’ll be there!



Archaeological interpretation needs to include knowledge systems

ancient-cult-sitesI am not denying that ancient people, like many modern people, believed in lots of superstitions. What I am arguing as loudly as I can is that they wouldn’t have survived without a massive store of practical information. All my ethnographic research points to the memorising of pragmatic knowledge was, and in some cases still is, a critical practice of non-literate cultures at their ‘ritual sites’.

The report is about really interesting sites in Israel and the quality of the archaeology is obviously superb. I just have one small niggle.

Reports, such as the one linked above, invariably talk about cults and fertility rites and death rituals but never about knowledge systems. My research shows clearly that a large proportion of esoteric rituals serve to repeat the knowledge on which survival depends – vast stores of animal and plant information, navigational knowledge, geology, water sources, laws, weather and seasonal indicators and so on. People aren’t only interested in sex and dying.

The descriptions given in this article fit all that I would expect from a knowledge sites, they describe restricted spaces, reference to the landscape, a great deal of effort without obvious reason, decorated objects, evidence of sequence and space for performances. Each small group would require these knowledge spaces, with clusters representing those used for larger gatherings.

In Australian Aboriginal terms, these are referred to as bora grounds and corroboree sites. Evidence from all of the 300 or so language groups in Australia is that the transfer of practical knowledge was key to the purpose of these sites.


Primary orality – what is it?

‘Primary orality’ is all about the way societies communicate and store information when they have no contact whatsoever with writing. If they don’t have literacy, they do have orality.

Orality is an information technology, a tool which increases the ability of humans to store and process information. It is simply extraordinary how much can be memorised using orality.

Indigenous cultures stored vast amounts of knowledge about the thousand or so animals and just as many plants in the various habitats they knew intimately. The Navajo, for example, stored a classification of over 700 insects along with habitats, behaviour, identification and metaphor for human behaviour. And that’s just insects. Then there’s navigation, geology, genealogies …  the list goes on and on.

How on earth did they memorise so much stuff? That’s what primary orality is all about.

The oral encyclopaedia was (and in some cases, still is) woven into stories, vivid imaginative sung narratives, with the specific information often associated with characters within the story. Thousands of stories integrated with spiritual beliefs were kept in mythological form, constantly repeated to ensure they were not forgotten. 


The Bear Dance, painted by George Caitlin, 1844

Most significantly, knowledge is performed; songs, dances and mythological reenactments being far more memorable than facts stored in prose. Hence the research on primary orality always includes mythology as a mnemonic form, while acknowledging the substantial spiritual role.

My research adds material memory aids – mnemonic devices – to the topic of primary orality. It is through these physical devices, along with public and restricted performance spaces, that we can link primary orality to the archaeological record.

Stone circles in Jordan – are they memory spaces?

Thank you to all the people who have pointed me to this news story on LiveScience and asked my opinion about whether they are memory spaces in the way I believe the British circles to be. [click on the image for the full story]


Assessing stone circles and other ancient monuments as memory spaces must be made with care. It would be easy to jump to the conclusion that all ancient structures which aren’t clearly domestic or defensive served the needs of a knowledge elite. But the Jordanian circles are not like those built in the British Neolithic which I have analysed so thoroughly and am writing about in my books. The Jordanian circles are continuous walls, a few feet high, not a series discrete stones. They had no openings, but people could have just stepped over the wall.

There are eleven ancient “Big Circles” around 400 meters in diameter and many smaller ones across the Middle East.  Analysis suggests the circles date to over 2,000 years ago, possibly much longer. Without any reasonably accurate dating, the link to other aspects of the archaeology is speculative, so analysis becomes difficult.

Professor David Kennedy, from the University of Western Australia, is quoted as saying that the ‘purpose of the Big Circles is a mystery. It seems unlikely that they were originally used as corrals, as the walls were no more than a few feet high, the circles contain no structures that would have helped maintain an animal herd and there’s no need for animal corrals to have such a precise shape.’

However, the Big Circle pictured ‘was positioned in such a way that it could give someone standing inside it a “panoramic” view of a basin that would have held crops and settlements’ which ‘may have played an important part in the location of the enclosure’. This degree of reference to the landscape is a useful indicator that it may be a knowledge site.

Another valuable piece of information is that ‘the creations were part of a landscape rich in stone structures’ [which] … ‘come in a variety of shapes, including “Wheels” (circular structures with spokes radiating out); Kites (stone structures that forced animals to run into a kill zone); Pendants (lines of stone cairns that run from burials); and walls (mysterious structures that meander across the landscape for more than a mile — or up to several thousand meters — and have no apparent practical use)’.

I will ignore the Kites, because they have an apparent utilitarian purpose. Without dating showing the Pendants are contemporary with the circles, nor the nature of the burials, I can’t use them at this stage. The walls, being labour intensive structures with ‘no apparent practical use’ are right up the alley my theory likes to trot.

The article also links to other fascinating articles. It refers to the Nasca lines, which will be covered in my next book, Ancient Memory Spaces. These I already know have the whole suite of features I look for in a memory site. The Jordanian stone circles article above also links to another LiveScience article on ‘medicine wheels’ in Jordan:


Tantalising? Oh yes!

So to those wonderful folk who are so interested in my ideas – I only wish I could answer your questions about whether the Jordanian stone circles might fit the pattern for knowledge centres. After a quick check, I fear there is far too little for me available in the literature on these sites to assess. I need to know whether there are signs of public and restricted sites, whether there were individual burials dating from the time the circles were built, what the artefacts found were and whether any match the criteria for portable memory devices. And quote a bit more. But they are certainly on my list to follow up in much more detail!

Thank you for the pointer.