Chaco Canyon gets even more intriguing

Doors in the lowest level of Pueblo Bonito. Image: L.Kelly

Nowhere I visited during the research for my PhD and two subsequent books had an impact on me as profound as Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, USA. Standing inside the largest of the Great Houses, Pueblo Bonito, was awe-inspiring. Great Houses were massive buildings many storeys high and of the most astounding stonework. But they weren’t primarily ‘houses’ or residences. Chaco was a ceremonial centre – a place where knowledge was imparted and maintained for the extraordinary Ancestral Pueblo culture. I didn’t see nearly enough of the Canyon in my much-too-brief visit.

I didn’t visit the Great House of Penasco Blanco which was constructed in stages from around 900 to 1125 AD. Dates are pretty accurate in the Canyon due to the atmospheric dryness which preserves the wood thus providing excellent chronology from it, known as dendrochronology.

Retired US educator, Dr Sarah (Sally) Wither, wrote an intriguing email.

“I read Memory Code last spring, but I had forgotten that you mentioned Chaco Canyon. We visited there last week and when I saw unique stones sticking out of a wall in a way that may have led to a kiva. I immediately wondered if they might be memory stones. They were quite different from the stones used to build the walls and they were different from each other. This was at Penasco Blanco an unexcavated remain.”

Below are Sally’s photos. She sent higher resolution, so more detail is available. I cannot make any judgement on the idea, but it certainly makes sense. I’d love to go back there and talk Sally’s question over with the South-West Pueblo people and archaeologists.

Images of Penasco Blanco. (c) Sarah Wither.

Dorset Culture and polar bears

I receive fascinating emails every day from readers of The Memory Code. Every now and then someone goes a lot further. Rob Smith was one of those people. He carved an absolutely delightful polar bear in the manner of the Dorset  of Igloolik in Canada, who lived between 700 and 2,500 years ago. And then he sent it to me as a present. How lucky am I?

This story highlights the way indigenous art forms are so often assumed to be fantastical rather than critical objects of importance to rational knowledge. My bias is showing in this post!

Rob’s exquisitely carved bear is an exact replica of the objects found in one of the few Dorset graves, as reported in the article Human Dorset Remains from Igloolik, Canada referenced at the end of this blog.*

The tiny ivory plug holds the ochre in place which is stored in the small cavity in the bear’s neck under the wooden plug. Rob did an ivory plug as well, as some bears had ivory plugs. They would not have both at the same time. My little bear is 12 centimetres long.

Writer and archaeology enthusiast from Toronto, Ontario, Eve Richardson, pointed me to the following report from the Canadian Museum of History about the Dorset Culture and their many representations of polar bears.

Clicking on the image will take you to the full article

Fascinated by the Dorset bears, Matthew Betts, contacted Ian Stirling, a Scientist Emeritus with the Canadian Wildlife Service and expert on polar bears. Betts wrote:

I sent him multiple photographs of the carvings, and he quickly determined that the Dorset were depicting polar bears in natural poses — and, moreover, that almost all of the art showed polar bears in hunting stances related to stalking and hunting their preferred prey, seals.

Betts continued with a new question:

These insights were novel because previously the polar bear carvings had been interpreted as portraying bears in fantastical poses, representing “spirit” bears moving between spiritual realms. Some had even been interpreted as “flying bears.” What did this new information mean for the interpretation of Dorset spirituality?

By always focussing on the spirituality – which is the area which differentiates us most – we cloud our respect for the intellectual achievements we respect so highly such as that of scientists like Ian Stirling. Betts concludes:

I believe the polar bear effigies may have been used to remind and teach the Dorset the proper methods of hunting seals — using stillness, stealth and cunning. The carvings may also have been used in a ceremony to draw hunting prowess from the effigies and the polar bears they represented, to increase the hunter’s chance of success.

Given my personal bias, I want much more acknowledgement of the likely depth of knowledge of the bears and the environment encoded with the oral tradition of the Dorset Culture. I want the hunters’ likely increase in success to be linked to their ceremonies in which their rational knowledge and well-honed hunting strategies were conveyed.

Meanwhile, my little Dorset bear sits on my desk to remind me not only of the intellect of indigenous cultures but also what wonderful readers I have!

* The article which Rob Smith used to aid the carving of my precious little bear:

Human Dorset Remains from Igloolik, Canada
Niels Lynnerup, Jørgen Meldgaard, Jan Jakobsen, Martin Appelt, Anders Koch and Bruno Frøhlich, Arctic, Vol. 56, No. 4 (Dec., 2003), pp. 349-358.

The Dwarfie Stane / Stone

Reader Jimmy Dalek wrote to me about one of my favourite places on the planet – the Dwarfie Stane on wonderful Orkney. The stane or stone (both spellings are widely used) is a huge block of red sandstone about 8.5 metres long. It was hollowed out using the only tools available to Neolithic people: stone tools, deer antler picks, and a great deal of human effort over a long time.

Situated on Hoy, one of the Orkney Islands north of Scotland, this remnant of the British Neolithic is usually referred to as a ‘tomb’ – but the evidence is minimal. I have linked to the Wiki article about it below so you can see the accepted wisdom.

I think the Dwarfie Stane had a totally different purpose – that of a restricted meeting place – a critical component of all oral cultures.

One of the most astounding aspects of the Dwarfie Stane is the acoustics. I sat cross-legged and chanted in it and was blown away by the effects. Stunning acoustics might be a coincidence, but it certainly doesn’t offer much to dead bodies in a tomb. I believe that it was deliberate. Acoustic enhancement is one of my Ten Indicators of a Mnemonic Monument.

Jimmy sent the following message and photos:

I have just returned from a week in Orkney. I wanted to visit the Ness of Brodgar dig and see the stones, henges and cairns etc. So I did, with my beautiful friend. Last wednesday we got the ferry from Stromness to Hoy and we cycled to the Dwarfie Stone. I knew about it from Julian Cope’s book. The left hand chamber is bare with a slight lip on the floor the right hand chamber has a beautifully carved lip all round the front. I sat in this “main” chamber and hummed and sang some notes. When I got to just before the lowest I can go (I’m a baritone-ish) the whole slab hummed. Then stopped until I hummed it, then stopped. Then sang, it hummed etc.

In the space of a few minutes I had started to get the hang of it so in the hands of a master this would be an astonishing instrument. I came out after a while, grateful and knowing that this was where many students learned the song from the master. I say master because of the lowness of the notes required to make the stone hum. I tried higher notes but may not be as good with these as others. …

I realised that the difficulty in maintaining the vibration within the stone was probably caused by the damage to the roof and its consequent concrete repair compromising the sonic integrity of the stone.

p.s. It was barely audible outside the stone and thats without the large stone plug in position.

British Neolithic archaeology never ceases to astound me. I adore Orkney and its incredible Ness of Brodgar and many other Neolithic sites. Most of all, I adore the Dwarfie Stane.

Click here to go to the Wikipedia article.


















Monuments for memory – the Ten Indicators


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.

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.


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.

The Memory Code

2016 is to be a big year. My next book, The Memory Code, is the culmination of eight years of intense work. To feel that I had the authority to make the claim that I have a new theory for the purpose of enigmatic prehistoric monuments around the world, I needed the peer review of a PhD and then the Cambridge University book, Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies. That is all done.

The Memory Code will be published by Allen & Unwin in  July 2016 and later by Atlantic Books in the UK. The book is very different from the academic version. There is obviously less academic referencing. Stonehenge and Chaco Canyon are still prominent, but I have added more about Avebury and Orkney and a whole new chapter on the amazing stone rows and other structures at Carnac in Brittany.

An Inca khipu, a knotted cord memory device

Interestingly, the questions after talks and in emails have often been about the actual memory methods used by indigenous cultures and how to implement them in modern life. Hence Chapter 3, Memory spaces in a modern world, came into being, explaining exactly what it is like to use these methods. I am working on My 25 Memory Experiments constantly and loving it.

The adaptability of the Inca khipu / quipu in my own experiments astounded me. That experience enabled me to better understand how the non-literate Inca managed a vast empire without writing, every bit as powerful as the contemporary cultures in the Americas, the literate Aztec and Maya. So there is now an entire chapter on the Americas, which took a lot more research. The incredible glyphs known as the Nasca Lines deserved a chapter of their own.

Easter Island moai on the side of the mountain. (c) Ian Rowland.

Similarly, it was through further research on the Pacific cultures, that of the Pacific Navigators, the New Zealand Maori and the Rarotongans that I came to understand the critical nature of using genealogies in organising Pacific knowledge systems. That unlocked the purpose of Easter Island’s statues.

These are the chapter headings for The Memory Code:

Chapter 1 – Encyclopedic memories of the elders
Chapter 2 – Knowledge encoded in spaces large and small
Chapter 3 – Memory spaces in a modern world
Chapter 4 – A journey through time
Chapter 5 – The ever-changing memory spaces at Stonehenge
Chapter 6 – The megalithic complexes of Avebury and Orkney
Chapter 7 – Newgrange and the passage cairns of Ireland
Chapter 8 – The tall stones and endless rows of Carnac
Chapter 9 – The unparalleled architecture of Chaco Canyon
Chapter 10 – Giant drawings on the desert floor at Nasca
Chapter 11 – Memory spaces across the Americas
Chapter 12 – Polynesian navigators create a unique world on Easter Island

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.

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 about orality – it’s all about memory


I have now finished all the speaking engagements for the year. I am delighted with all the new friends and the wonderful feedback. The video of my talk in Brisbane last weekend should be on YouTube soon.

Although people were really interested in the new ideas about Stonehenge and other archaeological sites, I was surprised that the topic which seemed to dominate many of the question sessions – memory and the incredible memory systems used by indigenous people.

Lots and lots of people wanted to know how best they could use the memory systems themselves in everyday life. They didn’t want to memorise shuffled decks of cards like modern memory champions. Nor did they care about memorising Pi to thousands of decimal places. They want to memorise practical information as I do – the countries of the world, prehistory, history, birds …. all in my 25 memory experiments.

I know that I have so much more to explore on this topic, far more than I can accomplish in what’s left of my life. I love the idea that others are asking questions which I have never before considered. I must admit that I was really chuffed by this response from a 14 year old who had also heard Noble Prize winner (and a hero of mine) Brian Schmidt. Kristopher wrote on Facebook:

So I’m back from the Brisbane Skeptics Society convention and I am absolutely amazed at the speakers and their topics. I especially like Brian Schmidt who’s a professional astronomer and wine maker. But who amazed me the most was Dr. Lynne Kelly who is currently researching Stonehenge and the other henges around it such as wood henge. Now she only explained briefly her theory because she only had a 30 minute talk but within that half hour she completely blew my mind. But what really amazed me was that she came up to me and asked for my help in finding flaws in or adding stuff to her theory. And when I asked her if she knew if the portable tablets were just directions to the sacred sights (her theory being that Stonehenge was built to help store memory like the indigenous did in Australia) and she apparently had not and asked me to keep in contact and now I am sitting here still amazed.

I shall answer lots of the questions that I noted down after the talks here over the next few weeks. Thank you to all the audiences – every single one was great!

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.)

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?

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.

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.

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.