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.

Arts Victoria grant for Ancient Memory Spaces

Some days are just so significant they become milestones in your life. I have no doubt last  Wednesday will be one.

An email arrived headed Arts Victoria funding outcome, and I could see the opening words “I am pleased to advise that you have been successful …” Obviously this is a fantastic email to get because of the money awarded. But it is much more than that. It is my first literary grant. It is recognition of my status as a writer. Can you imagine how good that was for my self-esteem?

Ancient Memory Spaces is for the general reader and will focus on the memory methods used by indigenous cultures to memorise vast amounts of rational information. It then shows how a simpler version of these methods were used by the Ancient Greeks and Romans and then slowly became more specialised in the Middle Ages and Renaissance until they disappeared in Western cultures other than for world memory champions showing off in memory competitions. Ancient Memory Spaces then shows how these ideas explain the purpose of ancient monuments around the world, including the great houses of Chaco Canyon, Easter Island, the mound builders along the Mississippi, the Nasca lines in Peru and many more. And of course, Stonehenge and other Neolithic sites including Avebury, the Ness of Brodgar, Newgrange and the amazing 3000 standing stones of Carnac.

So much fun and I am now funded to write it!

Meanwhile, back at the Cambridge book, Knowledge and power in prehistoric societies, we are just up to the production phase. There’s much more on my blog specifically about my research, Memory Spaces The designers have chosen one of my photos for the cover. Not surprisingly, it is of Stonehenge – one of the all important Welsh bluestones overshadowed (both physically and metaphorically) by the huge sarsen trilithon. Here’s the image. I can’t wait to see what they do with it.


Non-fiction – I can’t let go of the spiders

Spiders: learning to love them published by Allen & Unwin

My future books will be all about my research on orality, traditional knowledge systems and archaeology. There is so much to research and write that it will take more lifetimes than I have available.

But that doesn’t mean that past books are forgotten. I am finding myself drawn out each night with a torch and camera to check out the spiders. That is a passion which will never die, although Spiders was published a few years ago now.

I once feared these critters. Now the obsession with them is something I still want to write about.


Eriophora pustulosa

Last night, I knew that the old thrill is still very much alive as I watched a small orb weaver emerge from her hiding place on the birch in the back yard and spin her web. I’ve named her Little Birch. She’s a young knobbed orb weaver, Eriophora pustulosa. She was flighty, rushing back to her resting place on the tree trunk when I tried to photograph. Previous E. pustulosa have been far less concerned by my presence. I have noticed before that individuals of the same species can have very different personalities.

So I didn’t get any good photos. Above is one of last year’s favourites.

I am still intrigued by why people believe things for which there is no evidence. The topics covered, and cut out of The Skeptic’s Guide to the Paranormal have a lot more to offer me as a writer. There’s so much in my books and online units on education to write about. And Crocodile? It is the chapter In Life and Legend which led me to oral tradition and the science encoded there, so it is still very much alive.

Although these topics will probably not form the basis of a book again, I want to look at freelance writing so I can still wax lyrical about the things I find fascinating. I’ll let you know how I go.

Find the spider! This is Little Birch in her resting place. She thinks that she’s hidden.



Why rituals and belief? Why not knowledge?

I guess this is going to be my hobby horse over the next few years: Why are enigmatic objects always associated with ‘beliefs’ and nebulous ‘rituals’? Why not knowledge?

Past Horizons is an archaeological journal often reporting very interesting finds. In a report about various objects from a mesolithic site in Poland, all of which can be interpreted as part of knowledge systems, the site is described as “a rare glimpse into the world of Mesolithic beliefs”.            




[click on image to go to the full article.]

There is ‘magic’ and ‘shamanistic ritual objects’ but no mention of knowledge systems.

There is the implication that prehistoric people lived in a fog of superstition. I don’t deny that contemporary non-literate cultures have spiritual beliefs integrated with the knowledge system. It is the emphasis I object to.  My research in primary orality indicates strongly that a great deal of ritual performance and ceremonial song is linked to repeating pragmatic and rational knowledge. This includes astronomical observations used to  retain a calendar closely related to resource availability – be it from hunting, gathering or farming. Star patterns are often used as representations of mythological characters whose stories also encode rational knowledge.

At the end of the Past Horizons article is reference to another research paper on mesolithic astronomy. I assumed that it also referred to rituals and shamans and magic supporting the tone of the previous part of the article. That surprised, given the list of contributors:


Among other familiar names is that of Clive Ruggles. Always rational and demanding significant evidence for any claim, Ruggles is my major influence in archaeoastronomy. I read the article (linked to the image above) and there is not a mention of superstition. There’s just lots of really interesting reporting and discussion.

Am I getting pedantic? I don’t think so. But it takes a whole book to present my argument fully. Knowledge and power in prehistoric societies comes out with Cambridge University Press in Fall (US) 2015. Until then, I just grumble.