Song as an Indigenous memory aid

Much as I am not impressed by the source – elephant hunters are not my favourite people – this description is well worth reporting. The quote was sent to me by Elizabeth Wayland Barber and Paul T. Barber, authors of the fascinating book, When They Severed Earth from Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes Myth. This book, I highly recommend.

The quote Elizabeth and Paul sent me is from a way less savoury book for my taste, but gives an incredible description of the way in which new knowledge is encoded into song by an Indigenous culture in Africa.

The source is The Wanderings of an Elephant Hunter by Walter Dalrymple Maitland Bell, first published by London, Country Life Ltd. and New York, C. Scribner’s Sons in 1923. The quote is around page 58, depending on the edition and page numbering. The story is of ivory collection – too sad to include that bit here.

It was decided to return to our base through untouched country. The news was received with shouts of joy. It is wonderful how one comes to regard the base camp as home. Whereas, on our way up, the camps had been rather gloomy—disasters having been prophesied for this expedition—now all was joy. The safari chronicler became once more his joyous self and his impromptu verse became longer and longer each night. The chronicler’s job is to render into readily chanted metre all the important doings of the safari and its members. It is a kind of diary and although not written down is almost as permanent, when committed to the tenacious memories of natives. Each night, in the hour between supper and bedtime, the chronicler gets up and blows a vibrating blast on his waterbuck horn.

This is the signal for silence. All is still. Then begins the chant of the safari’s doings, verse by verse, with chorus between. It is extraordinarily interesting but very difficult to understand. The arts of allusion and suggestion are used most cleverly. In fact, the whole thing is wonderful. Verse by verse the history rolls out on the night, no one forgetting a single word. When the well-known part is finished, bringing the narrative complete up to and including yesterday, there is a pause of expectation—the new verse is about to be launched. Out it comes without hesitation or fault, all to-day’s events compressed into four lines of clever metric precis. If humorous its completion is greeted with a terrific outburst of laughter and then it is sung by the whole lot in chorus, followed by a flare-up of indescribable noises ; drums, pipes, horns and human voices.

What a wonderful way to build up knowledge bit by bit. Maybe we should learn history that way – chronologically adding each new event in song. So many possibilities!

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New discoveries about Stonehenge

I have been delighted by the numerous readers who have send emails and messages about the new discoveries about Stonehenge from the excavations in Wales. These wonderful readers have all enthusiastically claimed that the new findings fit beautifully with my theories about the purpose of Stonehenge and other monuments from the Neolithic.

The following is my response to the reports.

Image source and media report: https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/feb/12/dramatic-discovery-links-stonehenge-to-its-original-site-in-wales

People need a vast knowledge system to survive, both physically and culturally. Cultures without writing have an alternative – orality – a complex of memory systems used to store a vast amount of pragmatic information. These mnemonic systems have been the focus of my academic research for well over a decade.

The new discoveries for Stonehenge describe a perfect system for replicating landscape sites when settling in the transition from a predominantly hunter-gatherer lifestyle to one with a base in agriculture. Key to such systems is the essential need for mnemonic structures such as the stone or timber ‘circles’. This is why they are found all over the world in this transition phase.

There are two possibilities which logically led to the transfer of the bluestone circle from the Preseli Hills in Wales to Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire. At this moment, I don’t think the archaeology is sufficient to differentiate between them.

Firstly, an entire tribe moving from Wales to the Salisbury Plain took their encyclopaedia with them. This would require the circle to be erected in the same order as in Wales and oriented in the same direction. In effect, these people were taking their database of knowledge with them, the structure in the stones, and the data in their memories.

Secondly, a different tribe conquering those in Wales might identify just how effective this memory technique is and steal only the technology. Essentially, they stole the database structure and filled it with their own data. The bluestones are particularly suited to a mnemonic purpose due to the blotches and blobs in their material makeup.

For those not familiar with my work, the analysis of indigenous cultures from all over the world showing how they use these mnemonic technologies can be found in my LaTrobe University PhD thesis, published by Cambridge University Press as Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies (2015). An expansion of the archaeological sites for a general audience, but without as much technical detail, can be found in The Memory Code (2016). It is almost impossible to can see just how effective these methods are until you have tried them yourself. I get emails daily from readers astounded by their effectiveness. The techniques are detailed in Memory Craft (2019). In order to understand how the mnemonic technologies work from Indigenous and non-Indigenous perspectives, you are best to read my most recent book, Songlines: the power and promise (2020). It is co-authored by Dr Margo Neale, Head of the Centre for Indigenous Knowledges and Senior Indigenous Curator & Advisor to the Director at the National Museum of Australia.

A full bibliography can be found on my website.

The archaeological team reporting on the new Stonehenge find, led by Professor Mike Parker Pearson, are outstanding archaeologists. I have been following Parker Pearson’s teams thorough archaeological reports for years now. Without their rigorous detail, I could not have developed my ideas. However, I do find the constant emphasis on death to be limiting thinking about the way such a monument would function in an oral culture.

There is no doubt that considerations of death would have been part of the knowledge system, but indigenous cultures tend to utilise integrated knowledge systems in which all facets of knowledge are interwoven in song, dance and narrative – and physical spaces. Physical mnemonic technologies used in every oral culture I have explored include the the entire landscape, localised monuments and portable mnemonic devices. There is good reason to assume that the oral culture at Stonehenge, a mere 5,000 years ago, would have done the same.

In Australia, we are so fortunate to be able to learn from a continuous culture dating back over 60,000 years. We have ample evidence from our Aboriginal cultures of robust knowledge of landscape and skyscape events dating back 17,000 years. (See Patrick Nunn’s amazing book, The Edge of Memory). That is how powerful these methods can be and why they have developed in so many disparate cultures.

There are so many signs that Stonehenge served as a memory palace that is not a simplistic claim. There are ten criteria that I look for before I even suggest that a monument is primarily a knowledge space.

This suite of criteria is replicated at Stonehenge. There is far too much to explain here – that’s why it took a thesis and four books to thoroughly cover the topic!

For example, the essential presence of portable devices is represented at Stonehenge by Grooved ware pottery and the Stonehenge chalk plaques.

Above: A Grooved ware pot I was shown by Dr Ros Cleal at Avebury. (Photo: Damian Kelly). Those familiar with my work will notice the similarity in the pattern to the back of the lukasa of the Luba people which we know was used a mnemonic device because they explained how they use both the back and front of the lukasa. Australian Aboriginal shields also show the same patterning. There can be no link between Neolithic Brits and these contemporary cultures other than they share the same neurological structures used for memory. And that is the key to it all!

The Stonehenge chalk plaques are similar to the one I was shown at Salisbury Museum by Director, Adrian Green. (Photo: copyright Salisbury Museum. Reproduced with permission.) They would have worked a treat as a mnemonic device, recognisable as such by those familiar with mnemonic devices from oral cultures.

Let’s return to the constant reference to death. It is interesting to note that the Guardian report linked above included this statement:

The remains of at least 10 of 25 individuals, whose brittle charred bones were buried at the monument, showed that they did not spend their lives on the Wessex chalk downland, but came from more than 100 miles away.

The first stage of the monument was the bluestone circle talked about in the media reports. There were no big sarsens in the centre. They came 500 years later. Does the evidence of 10 to 25 individuals over 500 years seem enough to suggest that it was primarily a cremation burial site, primarily about death?

Quoting: https://www.walesonline.co.uk/lifestyle/tv/stonehenge-stood-400-years-wales-19822260:

It was known that Stonehenge was used as an early cremation cemetery, but not who was buried there. … It will show how Stonehenge, believed to be a tribute to the dead, is actually a second-hand monument, brought by neolithic people migrating east into England from Wales.

Why is it believed to be a tribute to the dead? Surely, the vast amount of information needed to maintain life would be just as significant, if not a great deal more so. Granted, that knowledge is often integrated in teachings from the ancestors. In all oral cultures, the concept of ‘ancestors’ is far more complex than just relating to a memorial to the dead.

If we are to draw parallels from monuments and memory systems when considering Stonehenge, it is essential that we only consider evidence which dates from times when there has been little or no contact with writing. As soon as a literate culture intervenes, very quickly the power associated with knowledge and memory diminishes and the indicators are lost. We cannot transfer beliefs or customs from one culture to another, but we can transfer generalisations from multiple cultures about how humans maintain critical knowledge when they are dependent on memory.

The time has come to acknowledge that the people who built Stonehenge, and all the other incredible Neolithic monuments around the world, were not ‘primitive’ people on the journey to ‘civilisation’, but complex, intelligent, knowledgeable people with the same intellectual capacity as contemporary humans – embracing science (my focus), philosophy, ethics and so much more. Working with Aboriginal cultures, Australian archaeologists include such understanding in their interpretations every day. The rest of the world needs to follow suit.

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Songlines: the power and the promise – launched

A while has passed since Songlines: the power and promise was launched in November 2020 – but life has been too busy to blog. With a break in the covid border closures, we went to Canberra to the National Museum of Australia for the big party.

My amazing Aboriginal co-author, Margo Neale, is Head of the Centre for Indigenous Knowledges and Senior Indigenous Curator & Advisor to the Director. Margo is responsible for the extraordinarily successful exhibition, Songlines: tracking the seven sisters, which is now in Perth and then to tour the world for years.

Songlines was shortlisted in the non-fiction section of the Victorian Premiers Literary Awards. The reviews have been terrific. Here are some photos from the launch. First – the invite:

Arriving was a wonderful moment – Songlines was launching at last.

We then went on stage, here with chair, Alison Page (Indigenous author and filmmaker), co-author Margo Neale and Bill Gammage (author of The Biggest Estate on Earth). Photo: George Serras, National Museum of Australia:

We really enjoyed the audience participation! Photo:  George Serras, National Museum of Australia.

With Alison Page, Bill Gammage and co-author, Margo Neale. Photo: Damian Kelly:

I love seeing piles of books for sale! I didn’t have to do the selling.] Photo: Damian Kelly.

Nothing is more enjoyable than signing books – lots of books! Photo: Damian Kelly:

Songlines is launched and all feedback is fantastic – from the publisher and, more important, readers.

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Songlines: the power and promise

The last 5 months have been flat-chat working on a new book at the invitation of Margo Neale who is the Head of Centre for Indigenous Knowledges and Senior Indigenous Curator & Advisor to the Director, all at the National Museum of Australia. It is a huge honour to have my work on Indigenous knowledge systems recognised by someone I admire so highly.

Songlines: the power and promise -cover.

Ours is to be the lead book in the First Knowledges series, published by Thames & Hudson, with the National Museum of Australia (NMA). It will be published in October 2020.

Thames & Hudson’s page on it: https://thamesandhudson.com.au/product/songlines-the-power-and-promise/

Margo curated the hugely successful Songline: tracking the Seven Sisters exhibition at the NMA in 2017 / 18. It is now touring, first to Perth and then internationally. There is a stunning catalogue for that exhibition. (click to go to NMA page)

Our book will add a different perspective, explaining the power of songlines for Aboriginal people and the promise for non-indigenous readers – a lot of memory things! The book offers insight into the same topic – songlines – from two very different perspectives that interweave beautifully.

Songlines: the power and promise has a blend of Indigenous and non-Indigenous voices. It offers what Margo calls ‘the third archive’. Aboriginal people use songlines to store their knowledge, while Western cultures use writing and technology. Aboriginal people now use a third archive – a combination of the two, as so beautifully demonstrated at the Seven Sisters exhibition.

Margo and I believe that the third archive offers a promise of a better way for everyone to store, maintain and share knowledge while gaining a much deeper relationship with it.

I shall be writing much more about this book as we approach publication in November. I just couldn’t wait to talk about it now because I am so delighted to have such prestigious validation of all the ideas drawn from indigenous knowledge systems in The Memory Code and Memory Craft and the implications for archaeology in Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies.

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Posted in Australian Aboriginal, indigenous memory systems, Margo Neale, memory, memory devices, memory methods, memory palace, memory places, memory techniques, mnemonic devices, songlines, Songlines: the power and promise | Tagged , | 8 Comments

Aphantasia and Memory

When I close my eyes and think of an apple, all I see is grey mush.

I have added a page to this site on what it is like to have aphantasia (no mind’s eye). It comes a shock to those with visual memory that some of us see nothing when we imagine or remember. It comes as a shock to those of us with aphantasia (about 2% of the population) that others actually see images – they aren’t just talking in metaphor as we have always assumed.

Read more here.

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Visual Alphabets galore

Of all my memory devices, the Visual Alphabet is probably the one I use most after the The Bestiary.

Basically, it is a peg system – information is pegged onto each item in the sequence. The most familiar peg system is 1-sun, 2-shoe, 3-tree and so on. But 7 gives you heaven and so 11 gives you a problem. Nothing else rhymes!

In Medieval times, they also used visual alphabets. These were alphabets created using images of objects to link to ideas. One of the most beautiful is that of Giovannino de Grassi created in 1390.

I combined a number of Medieval techniques to create my Visual Alphabet, in particular making each image link to the next visually so I didn’t need to go back to the letter and alphabet each time. When I was at the Rat I knew that the Skull came next. If I can’t remember what is next, I can always think “R is rat and then comes S which is skull”. But I never have to do that, I know it so well. Here is one page of the six which are in Memory Craft.

I would have much rather have done the 26 characters as a sequence, rather than split them onto six pages, but that wouldn’t work for printing the book. In the above image, Quetzalcoatl is entwined with the teal of the panther for the previous page.

I have had a lot of emails from people who use either my Visual Alphabet or one of their own and find them incredibly effective. I was delighted to receive an email with images from Ann Bidstrup who runs Heart Art in Park Orchards. In last term’s Art for Well Being workshops the women created concertina books for their personal Visual Alphabets , here are twelve of them. They look wonderful.

I love them! I hear that they work really well.

Interestingly, these artists don’t include the letters, just the characters. I am going to try that. I originally designed my Visual Alphabet as a continuous image like these before I had to convert it to suit inclusion in Memory Craft. But I always included the letter. I now think that this may be better. I am going to do mine again as a concertina book like these.

I use my Visual Alphabet for all public speaking, for temporary bird lists when out birding [no need to carry a pen and paper – we record them when we get home]. I use it for to-do lists, shopping lists … anything temporary.

One of the sessions at my full day workshop for Independent Schools Victoria next year will include creating a Visual Alphabet and Bestiary. Along with memory palaces and memory boards and a lot more. Their workshops are open to anyone, not just teachers from independent schools.

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Art as a memory device

I get the most wonderful emails from readers. This one particularly delighted me because of the stunning painting attached.

How good is that?!? There are more of Eric Wert’s paintings on his website.

Eric wrote (quoted with permission):

“I recently heard your interview with Sean Carroll on Mindscape and want to say, as I’m sure many others have, that your discussion of memory and culture was eye-opening. I thought you might be amused by an experience I had with the Mindscape podcast which was unusual in itself, but was then surprisingly punctuated by your (incredible) interview.” [If you haven’t discovered Sean Carroll’s podcast then you are in for a treat!]

“I’m an artist from Portland, Oregon, US and my paintings can take months to make, so I’m always looking for good listening material to keep company in the studio. I found Mindscape while starting my last big painting, and inhaled most of the episodes- listening to one after another. Loved every minute, but hearing so many interviews in a day is not so great for retention. I regretted blowing through them so quickly, and felt that I couldn’t recall them very clearly (having been concentrating hard on my project while listening).

When the painting was done, I put it aside for a week to dry before varnishing. When varnishing, you have to touch every square inch of the painting, and when I did this, parts of the conversations came back with incredible clarity- to the point where I felt I could hear the particular voices of different guests depending on which part of the painting I touched. It was a very strange experience, almost like the voices were locked in the painting! The mnemonic effect doesn’t seem to work if I just look at it… only when I get up close and touch a particular spot. It was actually quite eerie, but I was doubly surprised when I later heard your discussion of memory being so closely linked to objects and locations. My experience seems to confirm this, as my recall was so much more powerful than say, having taken notes during a lecture (admittedly not a strong suit for me). I wonder if this effect will still be there over time, and I wonder what memories are locked in my other paintings in peoples homes around the world.

It’s so interesting to think that there may be methods of storing and accessing memory that are so different from the way it’s commonly taught, or may differ dramatically between people. So, attached below is a small image of the painting that somehow contains all of these podcasts, like some sort of Stonehenge. Thanks again for your inspiring work, I look forward to reading your books!”

I replied about my experiment using Bruegel’s painting, Children’s Games. as a memory palace as I have written about in this post. Eric commented in his reply:

“I love the idea of using an existing painting as a tool for encoding memory, and Bruegel is one of my very favorite artists – if nothing else it must be a treat to have an excuse to study his work.

It was a genuinely striking experience for me to hear your interview discussing cultural artifacts as practical memory tools. I have such powerful memory experiences with paintings, both my own, and those that are owned by others or visit in museums, but have never discussed this with anyone, or heard anyone other than Proust talk about paintings, or other artifacts in this way.”

Now to find out what Proust said. Does anyone know?

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Posted in art, memory, Memory Craft, memory methods, memory palace, mnemonic devices, The Memory Code | Tagged | 6 Comments

Adding layers to a memory palace & The Eastern Curlew

I had a lovely time at the Stories of Influence writers’ festival at Lake Tyers in Gippsland, Victoria. With indigenous and non-indigenous participants, the role of story and art in all sorts of cultures dominated the weekend’s activities.

After delivering a worksop and talk on memory methods, I was part of a panel about writing. One of the highlights of the festival was meeting Harry Saddler, sitting next to me on the panel.

Harry is the author of the fascinating book, The Eastern Curlew. This book and meeting Harry gave me a terrific opportunity to add another layer to my bird field guide, which I have encoded to a lukasa.

The same approach works for layering any new knowledge. You need the memory structure (memory palace, songline, memory board …) in place first. I have described the lukasa before. It is a memory board adapted from those used by the African Luba people. It functions just like a miniature memory palace.

I use this lukasa as a field guide to the birds of Victoria which I use all the time when out birding. I don’t need it with me – it is all in memory. I first encoded all the bird families and species. Now I am adding all sorts of information about each species. Layer upon layer.

The Eastern Curlew is in the Sandpiper family, Scolopacidae. My story for the 25 species is about a band playing at a beach party. The Sand Pipers. I remember the family name by imaging that you have to pass under a pole (the old limbo dance) to get in. The tell you to sco-low-[to]-pass.

The family is associated with the red bead on the bottom, to the right hand end of the lukasa. The Eastern Curlew is the 9th species – all the curlews are curly haired attendees at the party.

I then add details about the Eastern Curlew to the character in the story. The fantasy and the real facts just make it memorable. My brain never confuses the two. It does play with the images, though!

See that Eastern Curlew feather that Harry is holding? He showed me the wear on the edges. That feather flew with the curlew for over 10,000 km. They are the most extraordinary migrators – from here in southern Australia to Russia and suchlike. Incredible.

The migration behaviour has just fleshed out my Eastern Curlew character at the beach party. He now flies in from a great distance to get to the party – as do many of the other species. I am slowly adding details of the migrations to the family members – those who stay here to breed (some wild things go on at this beach party) and those who travel great distances to do the same thing.

The more that you play with the knowledge in your memory palaces, the more beautiful, imaginative, fun and informative they become.

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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!

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Posted in archaeology, Dolmen de Guadalperal, indigenous memory systems, memory, Memory Craft, memory methods, memory palace, Memory Spaces, method of loci, mythology, Neolithic, Spanish Stonehenge, stone circles, The Memory Code, The Memory Whisperer | 2 Comments