Monuments for memory – the Ten Indicators

Stonehenge

My theory about the purpose of many ancient monuments argues that they were built primarily as memory spaces. Their design was specifically to enable elders to practice their memorisation, to teach it and to perform the knowledge for the community according to the various levels of initiation of the audience. Elders memorised the knowledge on which survival, physically and culturally, depended: entire field guides to all the animals and plants, navigational charts, genealogies, laws, resource rights, trade agreements, land management, astronomy, geology … all in memory.

cover-amazon In Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies, I presented ten indicators that a monument was built as a memory space, it was a mnemonic monument. They are listed in decreasing order of importance.

1. A stratified society with no sign of individual wealth or coercion

In the small scale oral cultures I am talking about, the elders maintained their power through controlling knowledge. In all other ways, the societies appear to be egalitarian. Obviously my starting point was Australian Aboriginal cultures, but Native American, many African and Polynesian cultures also fit the scenario.

2. Public and restricted ceremonial sites

The imperative to perform the knowledge repeatedly should leave an archaeological record of both public and restricted performance spaces. Platforms, mounds, enclosed spaces, plazas and even flat-bottomed ditches, can act as suitable performance spaces. Restricted spaces ensure those initiated higher into the knowledge can repeat it in secrecy which effectively avoids the so-called Chinese whispers effect. When dealing with knowledge from generations ago, such as surviving severe resource stresses, accurate retention is essential.

3. Large investment of labour for no obvious reason

All historical and contemporary oral cultures value education and formally educate the young. They don’t learn everything casually while out on a daily gather and hunt or round the campfire at night. There is no society which works that way and so there is no reason to believe that oral cultures in prehistoric times were any different.

Mobile cultures use significant landscape places in order to keep a record of each aspect of the knowledge. They encode it in the landscape. If a society is to settle they must replicate these set of locations in the local area. That is the very basis of the monuments. But there’s a lot more to it than that!

4. Signs of a prescribed order—the Method of Loci

If a monument is a memory space, then there must be a prescribed order to the memory locations so that information is not lost through lack of reference. The ancient Greeks described their locations from their preliterate times: there should be a defined sequence in a location away from distracting passers-by which is well lit, with loci not too much like one another, of moderate size, with a moderate distance between them. My research shows that all oral cultures did this – and we have ample evidence from Australia of a continuous knowledge culture for tens of thousands of years.

Circles or lines of stones or posts, a sequence in the ditches or mounds enclosing open space, or large, non-domestic ‘buildings’ would serve as memory theatres beautifully.

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An African memory board of the Luba people, the lukasa. This one is in the Brooklyn Museum.

5. Enigmatic decorated objects

Documented oral cultures use a huge variety of memory aids: inscribed stones, notched or decorated wooden sticks or boards, inscribed bark, decorated hides, dance costumes, masks, props, knotted chords, curated human and animal bones, bundles of non-utilitarian or symbolic objects and representations of mythological ancestors on a wide variety of media.

Enigmatic objects found at ceremonial sites which match these patterns add to the argument that the monument served as a memory space.

6. An imbalance in trade

Knowledge is traded in every society I have examined, literate and non-literate. If resources and labour are coming into the site but nothing being manufactured or grown there, then it is logical to assume that it is a place when knowledge is being traded in the form of songs, dances and mythological stories and encoded using a variety of memory devices.

7. Astronomical observations and calendrical devices

Whoever maintains the calendar holds a very powerful role in oral cultures. Detailed astronomical observances were common among complex hunter-gatherers, primarily to maintain calendars and schedule ceremonies. The heavens were also used as memory aids, with characters and stories attributed to stars and planets as it is the case with every society, literate or non-literate.

Astronomical alignments add to the argument that a monument is a memory space.

8. Monuments that reference the landscape

Landscape references are critical as memory markers in the oral tradition of both mobile and sedentary cultures. Not surprisingly, most of the enigmatic monuments around the world make some reference to the much wider landscape.

9. Acoustic enhancement

Songs are far easier to remember than prose; dramatic performances are more memorable than static recitations. Monuments which are designed to aid memory would have structures which enhance singing, chanting and the music for the dances. And it is those songs which encode all the essential practical information.

10. Rock art as mnemonic

We know from historic oral cultures that rock art is often used to aid memory of the stories, songs, chants and other aspects of the knowledge system. Abstract art is far more useful as multiple layers of information can be encoded and secrecy maintained.

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If an archaeological site demonstrated most, if not all, of the ten indicators given above, then it is logical to conclude that the control of knowledge was a fundamental aspect of the culture which constructed the monument. The elders constucted themselves a memory space. And the most elite of them may well have been buried there.

Stonehenge – they moved their memory palace from Wales!

Thank you to the many people who sent me links to the various reports of this discovery and commented on how wonderfully it suited my theory on the purpose of Stonehenge.

“Stonehenge was a Welsh monument from its very beginning. If we can find the original monument in Wales from which it was built, we will finally be able to solve the mystery of why Stonehenge was built and why some of its stones were brought so far.” Mike Parker Pearson, archaeologist who led the study.

sh-bluestones
Click on image to go to University College London website and the full story.

I could not be more delighted by this discovery. In my recent Cambridge University Press book, Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies, and in my forthcoming book, The Memory Code, I offer a new theory for the purpose of Stonehenge and monuments around the world. The new findings in Wales fit the theory a treat.

My research is on the way non-literate cultures memorized vast amounts of practical information when they had no way of writing it down. All oral cultures used a combination of memory techniques and physical devices – their survival depended on accurate retention of practical information on plants, animals, navigation, genealogies, astronomy and timekeeping, seasonality, resource management, intertribal agreements and so on. The memory technology employed universally is the ‘method of loci’ or the ‘art of memory’, the use a sequence of physical locations to act as a set of mnemonic subheadings to the knowledge system. The information for each location is then stored in song and mythology, stories and dance – all kept in memory.

Stonehenge was built in the transition from a mobile hunter gatherer society to a settled farming community. Mobile cultures used a range of landscape locations to store information, such as the Australian Aboriginal songlines. The ancient Greeks and Romans used their buildings and streetscapes in the same way, attaching information to each location and then recalling it by walking, or imagining themselves walking through their memory sites. Modern memory champions refer to their sequence of locations as memory palaces.

What happened when hunter gatherer cultures started to stay in one place, an essential development if they are ever to farm? They were no longer moving between their landscape locations over the annual cycle but didn’t yet have a built environment. The simplest thing to do was to replicate their landscape sequence locally, such as with a circle of stones or posts.

The original monument at Stonehenge is now considered to have been a circle of stones or posts, possibly the Welsh bluestones. The huge stones in the centre, the familiar sarsens, didn’t come to the monument for 500 years after the first circles.

I have argued in my PhD thesis and both books, that the bluestones were particularly suitable as memory locations because of the variety of textures and colours in their material made them visually so variable which is great for encoding information. I thought that the builders brought the stones and knowledge of the method of loci from Wales.

If Parker Pearson and his team are right, then they brought their entire memory palace!

I could not have hoped for a better development.

 

The Memory Code will be published by Allen & Unwin in July 2016 in Australia and later in the UK by Atlantic Books.

 

Speaking engagements – Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies

I have been asked where people can hear me talk about indigenous memory systems and my theories about prehistoric monuments including Stonehenge. Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies has only just been published by Cambridge University Press in the US and UK and is still a month or so away from being published here in Australia.

Saturday / Sunday 22-24 May 2015: Archaeology of Portable Objects SymposiumPrimary Orality and Portable Objects. Australian National University, Canberra.  An academic conference – already been and enjoyed immensely.

Friday 12 June 2015: Castlemaine Fields NaturalistsIndigenous knowledge of plants and animals: how do they remember so much stuff without a field guide?  Castlemaine Fields Nats. Write up on the presentation on the Connecting Country website. 7.30 pm.

Friday 3 July 2015: Launch, Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies, LaTrobe University Bookroom, Bundoora. 12 midday.

Saturday 8 August  2015: Bendigo Writers Festival, Author, Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies. Bendigo. Website: Bendigo Writers Festival.

Saturday, 15 August, Riddells Creek Landcare AGMHow did Aboriginal Australians manage their knowledge of plants and animals critical to their survival? What does this tell us about ancient monuments like Stonehenge?, Dromkeen, 1012 Gisborne-Kilmore Rd, Riddells Creek Vic, 3 pm.

Thursday, 10 September 2015: Castlemaine LibraryKnowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies, 6 pm.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015: Kyneton FreethinkersKnowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies, Albion Hotel meeting room, Kyneton.  7.30 pm.

Sunday, 20 September 2015: Newstead Science MattersWhy did the Neolithic Brits build Stonehenge? Newstead Community Centre. Details to follow.

Thursday, 8 October 2015: Kororoit Institute/Melbourne Emergence Special Public Meetup, University of Melbourne, The emergence of formal knowledge management systems in prehistory, more details to follow.

Friday – Sunday, 16-18 October 2015: Australian Skeptics National Convention, Memory spaces: adding rational intellect to Stonehenge, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane. Convention website and program is here.

Launch – Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies

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The launch date of my book has been set. Exciting times ahead. Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies: orality, memory and the transmission of culture will be launched:

On: Friday 3 July, 2015, 12 midday.

At: LaTrobe University Co-op Bookshop

By: Professor Susan K Martin, Associate Pro Vice-Chancellor (Research), College of Arts, Social Sciences and Commerce (who was also my supervisor)

Published by: Cambridge University Press. More details on their site: here.

I would love to see family, friends and colleagues there.

 

It’s finished – a strange feeling of loss

I have sent back the page proofs. I have done the last correction. After seven years of nurturing my baby every day, there is nothing more I can do. The book is now completely under the control of Cambridge University Press and I have no more say in it.

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I have checked it and checked it, yet I know I will have missed something. There are just too many words and ideas and I am so prone to mistakes. I read what I meant to write and not what is actually on the page.

Confession time: I had an indigenous ceremony in Australia being traded across 16,000 km, when that far would get it to England. I had Julius Caesar arriving in England in the first Century AD instead of BC. How can it have gone through so many checks and I not have noticed those serious mistakes? Those sentences were in the thesis and every version of the manuscript. What else have I missed?

The next time I shall see those words is when I have the book in front of me, sometime before the publication date of 30 June 2015. Then it will go out into the world. People may love it. But they also may hate it and critics may attack it mercilessly and there is nothing I can do. Archaeologists may argue with my ideas, but that is fine. It means it has been read and that it is contributing to the debate. All ideas are refined by others over time.

Now I just wait.

(Oh, and work on Ancient Memory Spaces for the mainstream market!)

That wonderful moment when the book is real

It is the moment that I see a book’s cover that I know it is real and all the work has been worth it. I don’t have an advance copy yet, but Cambridge University Press have put it on Amazon and a host of other sites for pre-order.

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The full title is Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies: orality, memory and the transmission of culture. I am really proud to have my book come out with Cambridge University Press. They have been wonderful to work with in every aspect.