I HAD no idea that indigenous animal stories from around the world would lead me to a new theory for Stonehenge.
I had a PhD scholarship as a science writer and was looking forward to three years of gentle research leading to a natural history book about animal behaviour and indigenous stories. Eight tumultuous years later and that book now bears only scant resemblance to the confident outline that started my journey.
It was only weeks into the PhD in the English program at La Trobe University that I glimpsed the complexity of Australian Aboriginal elders’ knowledge, the first group of cultures I explored in depth.
They memorised a vast amount of information about animals, their identification and behaviour, habitats and uses. A huge number of species of birds, mammals, reptiles and invertebrates were accurately described in stories, even when they had no apparent practical use.
I realised that the elders could identify all the animals across a wide landscape, when I was struggling with just the birds in my local area. I had a field guide; they had only memory.
I started asking the question which soon became an obsession: how could they remember so much stuff?
I soon discovered that elders use song, story, dance and mythology to help retain vast stores of factual information when the culture had no recourse to writing. It was the first step to understanding how they could remember so much stuff.
The definition of ‘stuff’ was growing rapidly to include not only the animal knowledge I was researching, but also the names and uses of plants; resource access and land management; laws and ethics; geology and astronomy; genealogies, to ensure they knew their rights and relatives; navigation, to ensure they could travel long distances when there were no roads or maps; ideas about where they had come from; and, of course, what they believed.
Indigenous cultures memorised everything on which their survival — physically and culturally — depended.
I wasn’t far into my research when I began to understand that songlines were key to the way Indigenous Australians organised this vast store of information so that it would not be forgotten.
Songlines are sung narratives of the landscape, singing tracks that weave across the country and enable every significant place to be known. At each location, rituals are performed that enact the knowledge associated with that specific place.
Uluru, in Central Australia, from the air. Every notch and crevice around the perimeter of the rock is used as a location by Indigenous Australians to memorise information. Picture: Ian RowlandSource:Supplied
In this context, rituals are repeated acts and no more should be implied by that word. The degree to which they are religious ceremonies depends entirely on the specific ritual. One elder explained to me how singing the names of the sacred sites along the songlines created a set of subheadings to the entire knowledge base, a place for knowing about every animal, plant and person.
The songlines could be sung when moving through the space in reality or in imagination.
By repeating the stories of the mythological beings through songs and dances at sacred landscape sites, information could be memorised, even if it was not used for tens, hundreds or thousands of years.
Songs are far more memorable than prose. Dances can depict animal behaviour and tactics for the hunt in a way no words can do. Mythological characters can act out a vivid set of stories that are unforgettable.
I recognised that Aboriginal elders were using their songlines in a similar way to the Ancient Greek orators who mentally walked through their buildings and streetscapes from location to location to help them memorise their speeches.
They called it ‘the method of loci’. Modern memory champions memorise shuffled decks of cards using the same method, walking through their homes or churches, grand buildings or public spaces in their imaginations as they recall each card. They call them memory palaces.
An aerial view of Stonehenge.Source:Supplied
A few months later, I was walking around Stonehenge, tourist earphones providing commentary. The disembodied voice with the perfect English accent told me about the various theories but didn’t mention memory or anything about the builders’ system of knowledge. There was a great deal of very important information, but I was immune to it, listening only for my pet topic.
Stonehenge was initially a simple stone circle built at the very start of the transition from a mobile hunting and gathering lifestyle to settling and farming.
What would happen, I asked myself on Salisbury Plain that day, to the knowledge that these people had acquired over thousands of years and embedded in the landscape?
Farming doesn’t happen rapidly. The transition takes time. How would the settlers avoid forgetting all their songs and stories and knowledge of the animals and plants if they were no longer visiting the memory locations their ancestors had spread across the broad countryside?
How clever of them, I decided. They’ve replicated a series of landscape sacred places in their local environment. What could be more perfect than a circle of stones, each stone representing a former sacred location, each stone acting as a memory aid?
I didn’t realise that this had never been suggested before.
I was soon back at university, half-jokingly telling my supervisor that I thought I had solved the mystery of Stonehenge. Any normal supervisor would have pointed out that I had a PhD scholarship for my original topic and a publisher interested in publishing it. To abandon all that to chase some wild idea when I didn’t even have a background in archeology was clearly foolhardy.
Sue Martin, however, was not a normal supervisor. She wanted the idea evaluated so I would not be constantly distracted by my latest enthusiasm. We decided it required external checking by somebody quite dispassionate about my research. Being so early in the PhD process, she suggested that I run my two themes parallel — keep reading on animals in indigenous stories and take six months to see whether there was any validity to my claims about Stonehenge.
Australian researcher and author Lynne Kelly.Source:Supplied
The librarian attached to our faculty, Lisa Donnelly, did numerous convoluted searches, the sort that only academic librarians know how to do. She constantly checked my sources and searched for anything which could indicate that the theory had been proposed before and been rejected for fairly obvious archaeological reasons.
At the end of six months she reported that the theory appeared to be totally original and all my sources sound.
I approached three archaeologists at the university, only to be dismissed by each of them. I could understand. For an archaeologist, someone from the English program with a new theory for Stonehenge must represent a stereotypical nightmare.
Sue asked me to outline the theory in writing. She sent the dozen or so pages to the archeology department explaining that we were perfectly happy for this to be dismissed, but could we please have the reasons why. It was only then that I would be able to get back on track with my gentle PhD topic.
The response was rapid. In essence it said the archeology appeared sound, the theory appeared original, and the anonymous archaeologist wanted nothing to do with me.
I was devastated. I needed help. I needed to sit down and talk about my ideas with somebody who would be able to guide me in the archeology. Over the next few months, we approached two other members of the faculty, to no avail.
Logic told me that if these ideas explained Stonehenge and all the stone circles of the British Neolithic, then I should be able to see similar patterns in any archaeological site in the world that represented the early stages of settlement.
The list of archaeological sites matching the pattern was growing daily. Two in particular had attracted my attention: Chaco Canyon in New Mexico and Poverty Point in Louisiana.
The great Kiva at Chetro Ketl, in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, showing central hearth, post holes for roof supports, and what are thought to have been storage vats for foot drums. The regular niches around the walls are found in all great kivas.Source:Supplied
I gained a university travel grant to visit these sites, which included funding for two days to hire American archaeologist Larry Baker to take me to Chaco Canyon and the surrounding Ancestral Puebloan sites. I had a captive archaeologist at last; he was stuck in a car with me for two whole days. He loved the theory.
I submitted articles to journals. An archeology journal said it was too much anthropology for them. An anthropological journal said it was much more about archeology. An interdisciplinary journal rejected it within twelve hours.
The niggling voice in my head started to yell that there was no way someone as ordinary as me should be trying to solve one of the world’s great mysteries.
By 2010, I was becoming more and more stressed keeping two PhD topics running. I just needed to pinpoint exactly what was wrong with the Stonehenge theory so I could return to my straightforward thesis about animal behaviour and indigenous stories. I was struggling to sleep and my health was deteriorating.
My husband Damian announced that psychiatric bills would be far more expensive than a trip to England and he was booking flights. I was to make contact with a British Neolithic archaeologist, gain time for an interview, and then we would fly there and settle the matter.
Dr Rosamond Cleal is lead editor and contributing author of English Heritage’s seminal book Stonehenge in its Landscape. I imagined that she would do all she could to avoid yet another Stonehenge theory.
She offered an hour. It stretched to four, followed by an invitation to return the next day. A few more hours’ discussion finished with Dr Cleal stating that I could quote her publicly saying “This theory is well worth pursuing”. After that encouragement, nothing was going to stop me.
Stonehenge at sunset.Source:Supplied
It was to be another three years before the thesis was formally assessed by archaeologists and passed. After further review, it was published as a book for Cambridge University Press.
During those years I started implementing in my everyday life the memory methods that I had learnt from indigenous cultures. I was creating songlines in my own neighbourhood and linking to them vast amounts of information about every country in the world, about all of prehistory and history.
At the same time, I was copying an African memory board to encode the more than four hundred birds found in my state and assigning the hundred native mammals to a wooden post.
As somebody who struggled to remember what others would consider general knowledge, I was rapidly gaining an encyclopaedic knowledge base beyond anything I could have imagined possible.
Lynne Kelly’s memory board in the style of the Luba lukasa, made from wood, beads and shells.Source:Supplied
With the doctorate finished, I invested more and more time into these memory experiments, adding knowledge daily as I walked the dog. It was fun, and nothing like the stressful memory work required for exams in the past.
Why hadn’t I been taught these methods at school? After a year or so, I was starting to see patterns in the information even though I was not actively searching for them.
I found my stories starting to take on the form of the indigenous stories I’d read from all over the world. I was seeing familiar knowledge in a different way — vivid, visual and emotional. I gained insight and pleasure from the process.
This book is about indigenous memory, about Stonehenge and archaeological sites all over the world, and about a journey I took from the moment I stumbled across a simple idea standing on Salisbury Plain.
Stonehenge was a memory space. The world is full of ancient memory spaces. My world is now full of contemporary memory spaces and so much the richer for it.
The Memory Code, by Lynne Kelly.Source:Supplied
This is an extract from THE MEMORY CODE by Lynne Kelly, published by Allen & Unwin, RRP $32.99, available now.