A thought-provoking theory on “memory palaces” and their significance to ancient ancestral civilizations.
Science writer Kelly’s (Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies, 2015) thorough, fascinating examination of indigenous cultures of Australia and New Zealand led her to a new anthropological philosophy on how Stonehenge and other prehistoric monuments were built and their shared purpose. Throughout her doctorate studies, the author invested increasing amounts of time studying the knowledge patterns of primitive, nonliterate societies and the ways in which orality made shared knowledge memorable and applicable. Though widely considered to be intellectually inferior, indigenous cultures like the aborigines of Australia, among many others, developed complex exchanges of encyclopedic knowledge through methods of memory and repetition, perfected over centuries of practice and adaptation. Kelly believes these place-associative memorization systems, whether patterned through songs, dance, mythological stories, stars, landscape, or handheld totems, were instrumental in generating the knowledge necessary to construct what have become some of the world’s most mystifying architectural wonders. Deepening her research, the author applied these mnemonic techniques to her own life, experimenting with local landscapes and honing personal memory skills with representational imagery; she used activities as simple as a walk with her dog to illustrate and apply this ancient technique. Most interestingly, Kelly then applies this theory to the ancient monuments that have confounded and fascinated mankind for centuries. These include Stonehenge, which the author brilliantly and painstakingly analyzes in time period stages, the extraordinary monolithic moai of Easter Island, the expansive geoglyphs in the southern Peruvian desert, and the stone rows and circles of Neolithic France and Britain. Kelly believes all of these were constructed as memory aids to ancient elders, and she generously addresses each location with cleareyed, occasionally dense, yet absorbing prose while drawing important attention to a radical new idea about the real purpose of these historic marvels.
A plausible and provocative hypothesis on how methods of memorization may have laid the groundwork for many mysterious extant monuments.