Stonehenge - prehistory's Wikipedia?

Stonehenge - prehistory's Wikipedia?

Was Stonehenge the Internet of another era – a site for storage and transmission of information?

Doctoral researcher Lynne Kelly thinks so. Her theory is that its purpose – and that of many other ceremonial structures in pre-literate societies around the world – was to communicate knowledge through the rituals that were held there.

Ms Kelly is a successful science writer. Her work ranges from a sceptic's guide to the paranormal to books about spiders and crocodiles. For her thesis at La Trobe she is studying technologies used by oral cultures to preserve and pass on scientific knowledge.

Late last year she was invited to give the inaugural Marshall ('the medium is the message') McLuhan Lecture at the National Communications Association convention in Chicago. She argued that constant changes in the archaeology at Stonehenge are consistent with the mnemonic needs of the knowledge elite as people began to settle.

'No longer moving between sacred places to perform the cycle of ceremonies which encode all the formal knowledge of their culture, Neolithic Britons replicated that landscape in monuments built over 1,500 years during their transition from mobile hunter-gathering to settled agriculture,' says Ms Kelly.

The people who built Stonehenge, like other cultures starting to settle, lacked a written language with which to preserve their knowledge. So the most reliable recording system they had were mnemonic methods, whereby knowledge – from animal behaviour, useful for hunting, to astronomy, to help with navigation and crop planting cycles – could be communicated through chants and rituals.

Ms Kelly describes this as 'information technology'. Societies that develop effective information technologies have a better chance of survival than those that do not.

The use of mnemonics as an aid for memory is widespread. Ancient Greeks had many gods, rituals, myths and temples. They knew that vibrant characters and highly emotional events performed in splendid settings made information easier to remember. Greeks called this the 'Loci' method. It is still widely used today, for example by world memory champions.

'If a method is so successful and has arisen in so many different contexts, it is not unreasonable to consider that ancient oral cultures – totally dependent on memory for vast amounts of information – would do the same. Circles or lines of stones or posts, ditches or mounds spread over open space, or large, non-domestic 'buildings' serve this purpose well,' says Ms Kelly. 'In Britain and Ireland more than 1,000 stone circles have been found – and Stonehenge fits with this tradition.'

Why would Neolithic people put so much energy into building these monuments? 'The entire community,' she says, 'depended on the knowledge and participated in ceremonies, justifying the extraordinary amount of work required to create them.'

Parallels with Aboriginal culture

She sees parallels with other oral cultures such as Aboriginal Australians, Native American, and Africans.

'It doesn't take long listening to our Aboriginal cultures to learn that they have a very complex formal knowledge system within their oral tradition. Their chants, songs, dances and mythology encode all the formal knowledge of a culture. The vast array of physical mnemonic devices which are used to help remember the ceremonies is simply astounding.

'Yet we still see oral cultures represented on screen, and in much academic writing, as quaint primitive creatures who lived in a permanent fog of superstition. We always talk about their history and religion. Almost nothing is ever said about their science.

'When I read about the songs at corroborees, it seems that seventy per cent are about animal behaviour, plant properties and other natural phenomena. The Navajo had a knowledge to three levels of classification for more than 700 insects – all kept in memory.'

Australian Aboriginal 'Dreaming Tracks', says Ms Kelly, map the landscape, record ownership and link sacred places visited. 'They're a table of contents to a huge indigenous knowledge base. Each place becomes a subheading for the songs, story or ceremony performed there.

'In Central Australia, for example, songlines commemorate the location of every waterhole. Almost every feature on Ayers Rock is named, acting as a mnemonic for mythological stories.' Ms Kelly says her research indicates the sequence of structures at Stonehenge is consistent with the changing role of knowledge, from the elders of egalitarian hunter-gatherer cultures, to a restrictive knowledge elite of a more settled society.

When she went to England, she realised Stonehenge was perfectly set up with mnemonics for the annual cycle of ceremonies to ensure the knowledge of the culture was retained. 'Similar to a representation of the Aboriginal Songpaths, but reduced as the mobile hunter-gatherer culture started to settle,' she says.

Her theory, she says, also explains other things that have not been explained before. For example, why are the ditches so deep and flat-bottomed in 'superhenges' such as Durrington Walls and Avebury?

Informative and entertaining

'Oral performance must be both informative and entertaining to increase the chance of the content being remembered. The ditches and banks would enhance the sound eff ects of the chants, and provide cover in bad weather. The solid walls would cause resonance and echoes.'

Eventually, as we move into the Metal Ages, Stonehenge fell into disuse. 'Both metallurgy and agricultural skills are specialist skills, best taught by apprenticeship. With individual wealth and a warrior class, the control associated with traditional knowledge elites would have been lost as the community was no longer dependent on their knowledge system enshrined in places like Stonehenge,' Ms Kelly concludes.

'By the end of the second millennium BC, virtually nothing seems to have remained of a tradition of communal monument construction that had existed for some 3,000 years. In the end, the monuments simply lost their meaning.' A meaning she is now trying to verify to help solve the long-standing mystery of Stonehenge.