Primary orality and portable objects


I am presenting a paper, Primary orality and portable objects, at the Archaeology of Portable Art conference at the Australian National University in Canberra, 23rd – 24th May 2015. The program looks fantastic – Click on the above image or here.

I’ll be talking about Australian and Pacific indigenous portable art which is known to act as memory aids. I’ll then be showing that the same topologies can be found in the British Neolithic. In particular, I’ll be comparing the form and contexts of Scottish carved stone balls and the Stonehenge chalk plaques and arguing that they, too, were mnemonic devices.


Scottish carved stone balls: six knobbed, many knobbed and the famous Towie ball

From my book Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies: (c) Damian Kelly

The abstract of my paper:

The body of research on primary orality describes the way non-literate cultures manage to memorise vast stores of information when they have no recourse to writing. This research has rarely been applied in archaeological interpretation of ceremonial sites created by non-literate cultures. My research has expanded the field of primary orality to include material artefacts including decorated portable objects.

This paper will generalise the way portable objects from Australian and Pacific contexts have been used as mnemonic devices to encode pragmatic information including animal classifications and behaviour, plant properties, navigation, genealogies and astronomy along with resource rights and management. It will then address the way in which this understanding can be applied in the archaeological interpretation of prehistoric sites.

Recognition of the importance of indigenous art in oral knowledge systems is well known within archaeologies that are informed by indigenous input. However, the invaluable ethnographic analogies on offer have not been exploited in archaeological interpretation of British and Irish Neolithic sites.

In particular, this paper will take the generalisations from an ethnographic analysis of portable art to offer new insights into portable objects such as the enigmatic Stonehenge chalk plaques and Scottish carved stone balls.

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Author: lynne

I am an Honorary Researcher at LaTrobe University. I am the author of 19 books, the most recent being 'Spiders: learning to love them' (Allen & Unwin), 'Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies' (Cambridge University Press, 'The Memory Code' (Allen & Unwin, AUS; Pegasus Books, US and Atlantic Books, UK), 'Memory Craft' (Allen & Unwin, AUS; Pegasus Books, US) [and foreign translations, audio versions and so on]. My latest book is co-authored by Margo Neale. 'Songlines: the power and promise' and published by Thames & Hudson with the National Museum of Australia.

2 thoughts on “Primary orality and portable objects”

    1. Hi Julie,

      There was no paper from this conference. I am sorry. The material is published in my academic book, “Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies” (Cambridge University Press, 2015) and my book for a mainstream audience, “The Memory Code”, (Allen & Unwin, Aus, 2016; Pegasus Books, US, 2017 and Atlantic Books, UK, 2017). I know there are copies of these books in many libraries.

      Oh, I did have a short piece published on this topic by Cambridge University Press:

      I hope that helps.

      Thank you for your interest,


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