Spanish “Stonehenge”

There are so many sites nicknamed with the tag “Stonehenge” that I have not had time to explore them all. When the “Spanish Stonehenge” hit the news in recent weeks, I was pointed to the reports by many readers of The Memory Code. They could all see so many of the signs that this site was used as a memory palace, a restricted knowledge site.

Many pointed me to the article linked to the image above, 5,000-Year-Old Temple Emerges from Underwater in Spain by Ashley Cowie in Ancient Origins.

People see the same properties as Stonehenge in monuments well separated in space and time because there is one single common factor and that is the way the human brain memorizes information.

The Spanish Stonehenge is more likely a dolmen than an open circle – that is a covered, restricted space. I explain in The Memory Code why restricted spaces are essential for elders to retain accurate information over long time spans. That is why all non-literate cultures have them. Labelling a site as a “temple” leads to assumptions that the space had a single religious purpose, and often that its primary purpose was for burial. Indigenous cultures do not separate the spiritual from the mundane. It is Eurocentric thinking which limits interpreting the purpose of monuments to religious and the ubiquitous ‘ritual’ purposes.

Cultures without writing are dependent on memory to store all their knowledge. Without exception, every indigenous culture I studied right around the world used a similar range of memory techniques. These have evolved everywhere because they match the way the human brain stores information, as described in Memory Craft. We are all working with the same brain structure.

Memory palaces are the most effective mnemonic technology known and used in some form by non-literate cultures across the world. In a memory palace, information is associated with each location in sequence. The engravings within the dolmen, on each of the megaliths, would create a perfect memory palace.

Dolmens are assumed to be burial places. Although burial may be one purpose, all non-literate cultures use restricted performance spaces for initiated elders to ensure knowledge is preserved accurately, especially pan-generational knowledge of survival strategies in time of severe resource stress. The few remains, if any, found in most dolmens, would indicate a location for an elite, such as the knowledge elders. Knowledge and power correlated in oral cultures.

Restricting the songs and stories which encode information avoids corruption of data caused by the so-called Chinese whispers effect. A combination of public and restricted performance spaces is implied here by the open and restricted spaces. This combination is found in oral cultures around the world.

Placement of ceremonial structures near rivers is also a constant all over the world. Large gatherings need water and food, trade routes, while rivers are critical landscape features. Vivid stories, as represented in mythology, are a fundamental method for making abstract and mundane information memorable. Without a continuous culture linked to the monument, there is no justification for interpreting the engraving as a serpent, as a protector.

The idea that such monuments are “thought to have been temples of sun worship” because of astronomical alignments is also demeaning to indigenous cultures. The term ‘worship’ implies that non-literate cultures live in a fog of superstition. They simply would not have survived if that was the case. All the cultures I researched, and talked with, were hugely pragmatic and used the movement of the sun to create a calendar to ensure optimum use of resources and maintain their ceremonial cycle. That is not to deny a spiritual aspect, but to deny an exclusively sacred purpose. Ceremonies are an imperative to ensure practical and cultural information is performed regularly so that it is retained and conveyed.

The idea reported that the elongated wavy engraving on the megalith at the entrance corresponds to the passage of the Tagus River is a very exciting development. A map of the river is exactly what would be expected. We have ample evidence from Australia, where we have a continuous oral culture dating back about 60 000 years, that art was often used as a memory aid to maps. The same can be found in cultures from Africa, the Americas and the Pacific.

One of those who wrote to me was Alyssa McMurtry, who also wrote Drought Has Revealed Spain’s Long-Submerged ‘Stonehenge’: Up close with the 7,000-year-old Dolmen of Guadalperal for Atlas Obscura.

Alyssa interviewed Angel Castano, the local historian. She told me:

From what he had previously learned about the menhir at the entrance, there was a snake carved into it that was assumed to be a serpent guarding treasures. Since that was a dominant theory, that’s what he was telling the media when the dolmen first emerged from the water. But after seeing the actual stone and consulting with the original drawings made by German archeologists who discovered it in the 20s, he figured he’d have to close an eye, spin around and use a whole lot of imagination to see a snake in the carving. However, in looking at what was supposed to be the snake, his intuition told him that it may be the Tajo River. He rushed to find an old map of the area before the river had been flooded, and just last night he realized that the squiggly line, once considered a snake, corresponds virtually “100%” with the course of the river. Below is an image he sent me using an old map and the original archeologists drawing of the menhir! I told him your theory and he liked it a lot. Although still unproven, I think his idea of it being a map, not an unjustified protector as you say, goes to show that when approaching indigenous artifacts from the lense of “how was this actually practical, how did it help them survive?” you can come up with a lot more compelling (and interesting) answers than assuming it’s all kooky religious nonsense!

Love it, Alyssa!

The Memory Code – In Chinese

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.

It is available from (among others):



Fascinating wooden charts of the Tunumiit

So much of my work is about the incredible potential of hand held memory devices. These carved maps of the Tunumiit culture of Greenland combine the two methods I use most: the landscape and handheld devices. How logical is it to make a portable pattern for the sung landscape to use as a memory device for vast amounts of practical knowledge?

Why didn’t I think of that? I am now going to carve a piece of wood to match one of my landscape walks. Click on the images to get the whole story.

Holm wrote: “A native from Sermelik, called Angmagainak, who had never had a pencil in his hand and had only once visited the East coast, drew a fine chart for me covering the whole distance from Tingmiarniut to Sermiligak, about 280 miles.” They also provided him with incredibly detailed descriptions of terrain, flora and fauna, and, in some cases, local weather patterns and lunar and solar cycles.

There are examples from all over the world of the ignorance of the Eurocentricity doubting the intellect of indigenous cultures – of anything different from their way of doing things:

Some contemporaries of Holm doubted that Inuit people were capable of producing these types of maps, and that they were just the result of mimicry—classic Eurocentrism. In 1886, one Mr. Hansen-Blangsted argued in the French Minutes of the Meetings of the Geographical Society and the Central Commission that it was highly improbable that an “Eskimo” could possess the mental faculties to “invent” a three-dimensional wooden map. It was much more logical, he posited, that some shipwrecked European sailor taught the practice to the Tunumiit hunter—conveniently ignoring, of course, that no Western seafaring tradition had ever produced maps like this. Holm disputed Hansen-Blangsted’s racist claims and jumped in to defend the skill, memory, and intellectual capacity of the East Greenlanders he had gotten to know.

Thank you, Sue McLeod, for pointing me to this article.





Jim Rountree really understands my ideas

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.The Memory Code

“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.

The basic idea is simple.” And the rest is on the Cosmos Website.

Thank you Jim Rountree for taking the time to really understand what I am on about. And thank you Cosmos for being the great magazine that you are.

Memory workshops and Mnemonic Arts classes

There is a one day workshop on Saturday April 7th. There are also mnemonic arts classes for school students. All takes places at the new Orality Centre offices. For more information, click on the images and you will head off to The Orality Centre website. Director Paul Allen and fellow staff member Alice Steel will be the tutors.










Chaco Canyon gets even more intriguing

Doors in the lowest level of Pueblo Bonito. Image: L.Kelly

Nowhere I visited during the research for my PhD and two subsequent books had an impact on me as profound as Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, USA. Standing inside the largest of the Great Houses, Pueblo Bonito, was awe-inspiring. Great Houses were massive buildings many storeys high and of the most astounding stonework. But they weren’t primarily ‘houses’ or residences. Chaco was a ceremonial centre – a place where knowledge was imparted and maintained for the extraordinary Ancestral Pueblo culture. I didn’t see nearly enough of the Canyon in my much-too-brief visit.

I didn’t visit the Great House of Penasco Blanco which was constructed in stages from around 900 to 1125 AD. Dates are pretty accurate in the Canyon due to the atmospheric dryness which preserves the wood thus providing excellent chronology from it, known as dendrochronology.

Retired US educator, Dr Sarah (Sally) Wither, wrote an intriguing email.

“I read Memory Code last spring, but I had forgotten that you mentioned Chaco Canyon. We visited there last week and when I saw unique stones sticking out of a wall in a way that may have led to a kiva. I immediately wondered if they might be memory stones. They were quite different from the stones used to build the walls and they were different from each other. This was at Penasco Blanco an unexcavated remain.”

Below are Sally’s photos. She sent higher resolution, so more detail is available. I cannot make any judgement on the idea, but it certainly makes sense. I’d love to go back there and talk Sally’s question over with the South-West Pueblo people and archaeologists.

Images of Penasco Blanco. (c) Sarah Wither.

Wonderful memory workshops

The first Memory Workshops run by The Orality Centre were a huge success. I want to thank all those who came – especially the enthusiastic participants who travelled all the way from Queensland and New South Wales to our location in rural Victoria.

The Orality Centre staff

The staff (L to R): Paul Allen, Lynne Kelly, Alice Steel, Damian Kelly

Lynne Kelly gives the opening address.

Paul’s two Memory Palace workshops ran morning and afternoon. Participants were guided through the crucial skill of how to link seemingly unconnected concepts to places. Initially, they linked the 20 largest countries in the world to different abstract art works.

They managed to link the creation at left to Thailand.

The Memory Palace workshop then went outside to use a memory trail in the landscape to encode information of their choice.

At the end of the workshop they could still name the first 20 countries despite not having thought about them for a few hours.

Alice ran workshops on Winter Counts and Memory boards.

The memory boards are based on the mnemonic device of the African Luba people known as a lukasa.

Lisa Minchin (below right) encoded the local wattle species to her memory board.

Rumour has it that her very patient partner has since been treated to numerous enthusiastic demonstrations of her knowledge of the first 20 countries and the local wattles.








Memory Workshops – The Orality Centre

The Orality Centre will run the first workshops using indigenous memory methods on Saturday 17 June 2017.  All details are on The Orality Centre site including the link for bookings. For further information contact Click HERE or on the image to go to The Orality Centre.

Reader Response: memorising birds and then more …

Peregrine falcon (c) Damian Kelly

Reader Jonno Roche wrote such interesting emails that I asked permission to quote our conversation here. This is an edited version of the conversation, but left long because I found what Jonno had to say absolutely fascinating:

“I found the idea of the different scales of memory spaces from handheld objects to landscapes just fascinating. …  Anyway, I was inspired. My real question was where to start. I enjoy bird watching in a relaxed kind of way. I find it adds a real sense of depth and vitality to any landscape to notice who lives there, so a list of birds seemed a good place to start.

Great egret (c) Damian Kelly

For a variety of reasons, my best option was a mobile memory tool, and eventually, I decided on a set of tarot cards. Firstly I already own a copy, but more importantly, they give me 78 nicely ordered points broken into convenient sections, they are dense in imagery, highly mobile, and easily replaceable. The only real downside is that I get slightly embarrassed pulling them out in public, because I don’t want anyone thinking I am angsting fruitlessly about my future, when really I am just daydreaming about birds. Still, it’s a small price to pay.”

 I was intrigued to hear how Jonno was using a set of tarot cards for the birds as I use tarot cards for other memory purposes and the African memory board, the lukasa, for the birds as described in the post Memorising Birds.  It is absolutely fascinating to see what other people doing with their memory spaces.

I must admit to having the same issue with using the tarot cards in public. I love Jonno’s expression ‘angsting fruitlessly about my future’. He continued:

“So I made a list birds of Tasmania and Australia’s South East coast. Within a week, I had memorised the order and names of 76 different bird families. I needed an etymological dictionary to help me with the names, because otherwise, they were just so many meaningless noises to me. The translations are often so delightful (Bloody feet, Thick headed, Bald faced pointy beak) that they really add to the imagery. I have one family per card, expect a few very large families which spill over two, just because I ended up with a couple of extra cards. I am now filling out the families with individual species. By the time I am finished, I will have over 300 birds listed.

Superb fairywren (c) Damian Kelly

I am surprised at just how vividly and easily I am able to recall a list which until now seemed impossibly complex.”

I was astounded how fast Jonno had managed to commit the family names to memory using the cards. I took a great deal longer. Jonno also talked about doing little stylised sketches of the cards which is reminiscent of the way indigenous people draw as they tell the story and then either destroy the drawing or just throw it away because it is the process of drawing that fixes things in memory. I find the rhythms of drawing, singing the family names, actions I have for particular families and the characters I have given them all interact to make the information memorable.

Jonno continued to astound me. A fortnight later he wrote:

“I can now recite the complete list of 76 families with 322 individual species. … Although I really appreciated how easy it was to simply add a bird to a family list, some of the cards became a bit overcrowded. There are several cards which have the family and just a single representative, but one has the family name and eighteen birds embedded in it. They fit, but it is not very comfortable. I have found that the ideal size for a block of information is a heading and four to five associated points.”

What fascinated me is that Jonno had come to the same conclusion as I have, that four birds is the most that fit comfortably at a location. For any families of five or more species, I add a little landscape journey for that family putting four birds in every house.

The Ancient Greeks also labeled every fifth location to keep track of things, so maybe that is a natural division for the human brain. Jon continued:

Still, I was really using the birds as a way to explore the process, and I have found it fantastically successful. Because I now have an ordered way of thinking about birds in general, my mind tends to naturally rest on them when there is nothing more pressing to think about.

With it being human nature to see what we think about, I suddenly find I am seeing birds everywhere and in far larger numbers than previously. Also, because I have such a rapid way to categorise them, I can identify them much faster and more confidently than before, even if it is just being able to identify to a potential group of two or three and then use a reference to come to a decision later on.”

I love that Jonno wrote that he can now identify faster. I couldn’t identify before because I didn’t know what was possible. This is part of explaining why these methods are not rote learning, but again it is so hard to explain to someone who has not tried it.

Despite having no information in the list on what the birds look like or what their habits are, I find that just being able to name the bird is usually enough to be able to automatically recall this extra information if I know it. I also have a smallish but slowly growing group of birds which I can identify just by their calls, which adds a whole lot to the experience.

So I am greatly enjoying my bird list.”

But Jonno didn’t stop there!

“While I was about half way through my bird list, I needed to impress some people at work. I decided that since the original intent of these techniques was to recall information which your livelihood depended on, I should probably put some work stuff in there.”

Jon described how he had encoded course summaries for his work in clinical governance to the same set of tarot cards.

Blue faced honeyeater (c) Damian Kelly

“I found I had room for three short courses in the deck. One was on efficiency principles (major arcana), another on implementing organisational change (most of the minor arcana), and a third on basic negotiating techniques (The last 11 cards of the minor arcana). … Memorising the work stuff is much harder than the birds. The ideas are very conceptual – ‘Measure sources of resistance’ for example as opposed to, say, ‘Blue faced honeyeater.’”

Critically he wrote: ““There is such a huge gap between birds and workplace efficiency that they can comfortably occupy the same space without getting mixed up.” 

Jonno has really got hooked on this memorising and has further ambitions which he described at length – this is the gist:

“Once I get all of this information settled in I would like to memorise a book. … I am aiming to memorise Sun Tzu’s ‘The Art of War.’ … I have a few ideas for using a lukasa board type arrangement to map out star patterns and attaching a calendar and practical gardening information to them.”

A fortnight later, Jonno wrote again describing why memorising is not something that requires additional time:

“It is very neat how this information meshes into everyday things. It really does slot into the idle minutes of the day. Outside of little snippets that I use, I run through the deck from start to finish each day for both the birds and the course list, but this tends to happen when I am walking from place to place, or waiting for the kids to go to sleep, or am otherwise not really doing anything. Unless I am actively pressing to learn something in a hurry, it doesn’t displace anything from my day.”

“… The two lists I have on my deck do not interact very much at all. I might be trying to recall cultural alignment in the workplace when a butcherbird leaps to mind, but they don’t really ‘move together.’ I guess this is because the two subjects just have no commonality at all, but I would suspect that as more information goes onto the cards, the stories will start to roll into each other more. I hope so. I think it would have a real ‘adventures of a cultural hero’ feel to it.”

And then a few days later, Jonno wrote again:

“I didn’t mean to write to you again so soon, but I stumbled on to a great success, and you are the logical person to share it with.

I had to do a 20 minute presentation at work to the senior managers justifying what I have spent the last year doing, so that I could then get them to agree to adopt my ideas, extend my project, and give us more funding. It was a very information dense 20 minutes with a lot riding on it. … I really didn’t want to use notes.

I was looking for a method of what I see you have called an ephemeral memory space. I didn’t want to use my tarot deck as I didn’t want short term information confusing it. I found your ideas on palmistry in the 33 experiments section of your blog very intriguing, but wasn’t quite sure where to go with it. Just at the right time, I read a fascinating article you linked to by Tyson Yunkaporta on building characters into the fingers. Based on these two sets of ideas, here is how I laid out a set of characters in my hands.
Little finger – Kinship child
Ring finger – Story mother
Middle finger – Dreaming father
Pointer finger – Ancestor teenager (niece/nephew)
Thumb – Culture hero
Each finger divides into five sections, and these represent different body parts of the character as follows.
Nail – Head
Finger pad – Hands
Middle section – Torso
Bottom section – Legs
Ball of finger – Feet
Although the gender of the mother and father are set, for the other characters, I have males on the right hand, and females on the left. Also to make them more distinctive, I imagine the characters on the right hand to be short and squat, while the characters on the left are tall and thin.
This then gives me ten distinct characters to use as major points, and the sub points are represented by what they are doing with various parts of their bodies.

I spent a lot of time over the three days running over the speech and counting it off on my fingers as I went, while the various characters sprouted trees from their hands, developed talking feet and all the other crazy things that happen with this kind of imagery. In one interesting cross over, the character simply walked on to my imagination stage and held up the appropriate tarot card where I had embedded a bunch of stuff from the workplace efficiency course I mentioned in a previous email. …

I made little sketches to help make them more memorable. I also made a point of practicing under conditions of ‘controlled stress,’ like when I was making dinner while my two kids both held individual conversations with me. 

Needless to say, the presentation was a raging success, and the only sign of me ‘reading from my notes’ was very subtle hand movements where I was counting information on my fingers.

Although I suppose it is technically possible to use this as a long term memory device, I think I will just keep this exclusively for short term situations like what I have just described. I am happy to have a set cast of characters that can have a crazy bunch of adventures for a week or two, and then rest for a while until the next ‘story’ comes along.

Anyway, once again, thanks for your ideas and I hope you liked the story.”

I loved the story. I loved everything about the long emails and our discussion which has been reduced quite a bit for this post. I have found it very exciting to see how someone else has taken the ideas from The Memory Code and implements them differently, yet the underlying principles are so similar.

Rufous fantail (c) Damian Kelly

I thank Jonno for permission to quote his words and look forward immensely to his next update.