Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Ancient monuments and the conservation of memory

Jan. 30, 2018 at 12:35 a.m.

From time to time, a book comes out that makes you think differently about something. Its central idea puts together many observations and concepts that previously seemed vaguely connected, but that now had an explanation.

Lynne Kelly's book "The Memory Code: The Secrets of Stonehenge, Easter Island and Other Ancient Monuments" is one of those audacious undertakings. She also discusses other ancient monumental structures as Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, the mounds at Poverty Point, Louisiana, and the Nazca Lines in South America.

Her conclusion is that what these mysterious sites have in common is that they were places for the public display of the memorized knowledge of cultures that did not have writing, as well as places containing private locations where this knowledge was passed on to new generations of elites who transmitted it.

One important method for memorizing huge amounts of data involves associating ideas with mental images and placing those images in sequential order in a place, real or imagined, where a person will encounter them in a set sequence.

This memory method was taught before the Renaissance in Western cultures, when books still were rare, and when oratory, including mastery of details, was valued. In the early 17th century, Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit priest, taught about "memory palaces" to the Chinese Emperor's court, and they were mightily impressed.

Kelly's book would be valuable just for its first chapters. They explain how oral cultures require the encoding and recall of vast amounts of information on the natural world, its resources, plants and animals, medicine, customs, laws, genealogy and history.

What appeared to early Western observers as superstitious "hunting magic" turns out to be songs recounting the behavior of animals when hunted. They provide a briefing to hunters that, indeed, make their excursions more successful.

Kelly was fortunate to encounter some Australian aboriginal people who explained aspects of their oral traditions. The native Australian peoples might have had a relatively poor material culture, but they knew enormous amounts about their environment.

They sang the "songlines" that enabled them to navigate over an arid and unforgiving continent. Songs are ubiquitous in nonliterate societies.

Information usually comes in the form of stories telling the exploits of mythical beings. When these narratives are told to outsiders, they seem childish. The reason for that, Kelly says, is that outsiders are told the first level of the story that would be told to children.

Based on her insights with Australian oral culture, Kelly tries to explain puzzling features of monumental structures around the world in terms of their use as centers for the maintenance and transmission of memorized cultural knowledge.

Most of the cultures who produced these monuments are in a transition from nomadic hunter-gatherers to a more sedentary Neolithic lifestyle. Their burials and lives are egalitarian, with no great displays of wealth. (That comes later, with grave goods and evidence of coercion and riches.)

The book has detailed descriptions of Stonehenge and other Neolithic sites in England, Ireland, Brittany and the Orkney Islands. Simply reading the descriptions of what people made 5,000 years ago takes the mind away in amazement.

If Kelly is right, many of the most puzzling features of these sites become more comprehensible. We will never be able to reconstruct the content of the ancient gatherings in these places, because the oral tradition, once broken, is lost forever.

Sometimes she seems a bit speculative; nevertheless, this is a remarkable book. It reminds us that our ancestors were intelligent people who relied on memory in ways we can scarcely imagine today. It opens our eyes to our preliterate past.

— Frank Thomas Pool is a writer and a retired English teacher in Austin. He grew up on Maple Street in Longview and graduated from Longview High School.



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