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.)

DW-phase1-3_02
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?

trust-african-rock-art-600
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.

pp-post-circle-web
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.

Post and stone circles – everywhere

These barrels mark the places where a massive timber circle once stood. Just like timber and stone circles all over the UK, Ireland and Western Europe. But where is it?

pp-post-circle-web

So where is the plaza with this familiar form of monument? Louisiana. USA. Constructed by hunter gatherer fishers amid their mounds and massive earth works (note the scale on the plan below!), the Poverty Point culture never farmed.

10-1-Poverty_Point_graphic-web

Plan of the earthworks, mounds and post circles at the World Heritage Site of Poverty Point, Louisiana. Image (c) Lynne Kelly.

The Poverty Point Site consists of massive earthworks built  3,400 years ago: five mounds shown around six C-shaped ridges enclosing a huge plaza. Within the plaza, 25 – 30 timber circles were built, but were not all standing at the same time. Like all knowledge sites, it was constantly changed.

The geometric design of Poverty Point is unique – there is nothing like it anywhere else. It is a masterpiece. When constructed, the Poverty Point earthworks were the largest in North America, the major political, trading and ceremonial centre of its day.

Why did people in America’s southeast build monuments so reminiscent of those built by Neolithic cultures in the UK, Ireland and Western Europe?

Because this is the best way to create the necessary memory spaces if an oral culture is to settle and replicate a knowledge system once based in the broad landscape.

The image of the barrels marking the post circle from Jenny Ellerbe can be found on the Poverty Point World Heritage Initiative document which can be downloaded from the site – just click on the image below. The plan of the site has been adapted from that document as well.

poverty-point-websiteIt wasn’t only in Louisiana that post circles were built by Native Americans. One circle which has been reconstructed is in Illinois, at the mound building site of Cahokia. The ancient Native American city was active long after Poverty Point, from about 600 to 1400 AD. Archaeologists even name the timber circle Woodhenge after a wooden post circle in Wiltshire, England.

cahokia_woodhenge2
Woodhenge: The reconstructed post circle at Cahokia, southern Illinois.

The oral cultures in North America and the European Neolithic were so far apart in both space and time that they almost certainly had no contact with each other. It is no coincidence that they used very similar structures at the ceremonial sites. These are practical monuments which served a very practical purpose. They are memory spaces used to aid memory of all the practical, scientific, historic and spiritual knowledge of the culture.

SaveSave