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.

 

English Heritage interactive map of Stonehenge

Stonehenge absolutely fascinates me. Why did they build it?

Stonehenge changed over time and included a lot more than just the familiar sarsen ring and trilithons. English Heritage have an interactive map which allows you to look around the site from before Stonehenge was built to the present. It shows the linked monuments, especially Durrington Walls and Woodhenge. There’s a lot more on the site, especially for those who need an introduction to the archaeology.

Just click on the image and you’ll be there!

english-her-map-sh

 

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]

jordan-circles

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:

middle-east-nasca-wheels

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.