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.

Avebury Henge, looking more gorgeous than ever

I get wonderful emails from readers of The Memory Code. One of them not only talked about one of my favourite places in the world – Avebury Henge in Wiltshire – but included the best photos I have ever seen of these stunning stones. What I love is the way David Baldwin’s photographs show how different each stone is from the next and how perfect they would be to provide a set of distinct locations to encode information.

David talks about ideas that the Neolithic builders of Avebury may have altered the stones, which would be totally logical if you accept my ideas that the stones act as memory locations encoded with pragmatic  information. That doesn’t mean that I agree that such alterations have been made. I don’t have the skills to judge and will leave the debate to the experts. But it is interesting to consider this possibility while you look at stunning photographs of the magnificent stones.

The set of beautifully high resolution photos can be found at http://www.nightfolio.co.uk/avebury_sacred_landscape.html

David Baldwin wrote:

I live in the UK near Avebury, and I am about a third of the way through a personal photographic exploration of the site at night.

To help me with this I have read as many books as possible about Avebury, and I often think of yours, The Memory Code, as I examine the megaliths. As I am sure you know, there is a good deal of controversy as to whether the Avebury stones have been edited by our ancestors, in particularly whether there are faces in the stones. My own position is that there are clearly lots of natural shapes that resemble faces, but that there are also clearly artificially shaped stones. I am not an archaeologist, but I feel that I do have skills in recognizing patterns, so that a good deal of my photographs have the faces as subject matter.

As a lay person it seems to me that the idea that the stones have been subtly carved to record various mythological figures fits in really well with your ideas that the ceremonial landscape was encoded with tribal knowledge. Not only where there ceremonial areas with exclusive access, but as Professor Terence Meaden has pointed out many of the stone faces themselves may only have been known to initiates, another form of exclusivity.

The idea that the stones have been altered isn’t academic orthodoxy (in fact it is a little toxic I think, for example, archaeologist Aubrey Burl in his Yale book suggests that you need to be drunk to see them.

David has commented on this topic on his website towards the bottom of the page here: http://www.nightfolio.co.uk/night_photography_avebury/Avebury%20Quotations.htm

He considers Professor Meaden the authority, in particular in Meaden’s book, The Secrets of the Avebury Stones.

David continued:

Meaden has been reviewing the stones for around 30 years I believe, and I see my photographs as following in his footsteps, although unlike him my motivation is mainly artistic!  

Anyway, thank you for your book and may I please invite you to visit my Avebury gallery, which is a work in progress:

Night Photography At Avebury by David Baldwin

 

And a photo of the West Kennet Avenue, the avenue leading to the henge:


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The Memory Code – Pegasus Books

cover-tmcI am delighted that the Pegasus Books edition of The Memory Code is now available for pre-order from Amazon.com. Pegasus is publishing for North America (US and Canada) while Atlantic Books are publishing for the UK and Europe. Both are using the same cover and publishing initially in hardback. This is so exciting!

These editions follow the Australian edition from Allen & Unwin.

The blurb from the book says:

The discovery of a powerful memory technique used by our Neolithic ancestors in their monumental memory places―and how we can use their secrets to train our own minds

In ancient, pre-literate cultures across the globe, tribal elders had encyclopedic memories. They could name all the animals and plants across a landscape, identify the stars in the sky, and recite the history of their people. Yet today, most of us struggle to memorize more than a short poem.

Using traditional Aboriginal Australian songlines as a starting point, Dr. Lynne Kelly has since identified the powerful memory technique used by our ancestors and indigenous people around the world. In turn, she has then discovered that this ancient memory technique is the secret purpose behind the great prehistoric monuments like Stonehenge, which have puzzled archaeologists for so long.

The henges across northern Europe, the elaborate stone houses of New Mexico, huge animal shapes in Peru, the statues of Easter Island―these all serve as the most effective memory system ever invented by humans. They allowed people in non-literate cultures to memorize the vast amounts of information they needed to survive. But how?

For the first time, Dr. Kelly unlocks the secret of these monuments and their uses as “memory places” in her fascinating book. Additionally, The Memory Code also explains how we can use this ancient mnemonic technique to train our minds in the tradition of our forbearers.

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.