Castlerigg Stone Circle, Cumbria

I was fascinated by an email I received from Susannah Walker in the UK a few days ago. But first, a little background. For many years, a small photo has sat on my desk. It was taken by my late mother, and has the name of the circle in her handwriting on the back. But I had done no more than acknowledge it as one of the thousand or so stone circles in Britain.

castlerigg-front castlerigg-back

Susannah wrote: I have been fascinated to hear about your book, The Memory Code and am very much looking forward to reading it when I go on holiday in a few weeks time.

Even reading the reviews, however, made me think of Castlerigg Stone Circle in Cumbria. When I visited it last year, I noticed that the shapes of each of the stones mirrored the silhouette of the hills behind it, making the circle a representation of the wider landscape around. It clearly seemed to be deliberate, and your theory seems to be the perfect answer as to why. (As this article shows, I’m not the first person to have spotted this!).

castlerigg-aerial
Castlerigg Stone Circle

Click on the image above or here to go to the Visit Cumbria site on Castlerigg.

Susannah’s observation of the way the stones reflect the surrounding landscape is one of the Ten Indicators I use to assess whether a monument was possibly used primarily as a memory space. The descriptions online also note many of the other Indicators: astronomical alignments, a sequence of memory locations (the stones), and even the public and restricted spaces with the rectangular ‘sanctuary’ within the circle. Being Neolithic, there is no sign of a wealthy elite, and a great deal of effort has been invested for no obvious utilitarian purpose.

I love Castlerigg. Thank you, Susannah for making me take more notice of the precious photograph which has been on the desk all this time.

Speaking about orality – it’s all about memory

launch-talking

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!

Launch – Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies

cover-amazon

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.

cover-amazon

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!)

Orality – why it is so important for prehistoric archaeologists

Primary orality is what you have when you don’t have literacy.

It is often commented that prehistoric cultures didn’t leave a written record. What is almost never mentioned is that cultures which had no contact with writing did have an alternative. They had orality. Most aspects of orality have been literally overwritten by writing, but they do leave a trace in the archaeological record.

Oral cultures employ a wide range of techniques to retain a vast amount of information in memory because they don’t write it down. The research on primary orality talks about the way song, stories, dance and mythology encode vast stores of information in memorable forms.

What is important for archaeologists is that primary oral cultures also used material devices to aid memory: from the landscape and art through an incredible range of enigmatic portable objects. It is these material signs which can be detected in the archaeological record.

lukasa-Brooklyn_Museum
Lukasa from the Brooklyn Museum

For example, the African Luba use a memory board known as a lukasa, among many mnemonic devices. It is used in a very similar way to the Australian churinga/tjuringa. These devices are restricted to knowledgeable elders. Their prehistoric equivalent should be found in ceremonial sites, but almost never in domestic settings.

Songs, dances, stories and mythological representations are not simply for entertainment nor are they purely superstitious. They are an essential way of recording masses of pragmatic information. Performance spaces should exhibit a public/restricted dichotomy as is found in all indigenous cultures.

It is too often assumed that knowledge is simply handed on through stories told around the campfire or casually taught, parent to child, out on the daily gather and hunt. In years of research, I have never found a single culture which operated that way. All cultures teach in formal settings – oral and literate.

2015_Garma_Poster_Yolngu_V2

To understand the nature of orality, I started with some of the oldest continuous cultures on the planet, the 300 or so Australian Aboriginal language groups.

The Yolngu of Arnhem Land share their knowledge at the annual Garma Festival. They offer some of the best understanding of orality because they have explained it on their terms.

Indigenous survival depends on masses of practical knowledge. There are many commonalities about the memory methods used by oral cultures from the mobile Australian to the more sedentary Native American, African and Pacific cultures.

It is those commonalities which can offer another tool for archaeologists interpreting ancient ceremonial sites: orality.