What I thought of ‘The Memory Code’ by Lynne Kelly

Honestly, this was a book I’ve been looking forward to reading for about a year and it did not disappoint me.

It presents a basic argument that the odd structuring of various ancient monuments and artwork is actually attributable to the fact that these once operated as technologies to encode cultural memories.

Kelly’s book speaks about quite a few of my longheld interests in history, oral cultures and indigenous cultures. It also discusses a number of places I’ve visited, such as Stonehenge, Maeshowe, Skara Brae, The Ring of Brogar and Machu Pichu. So possibly I loved it because it related specifically to my interests… but I think it also makes a profound contribution to thinking through how communications technologies shape our humanity.

Let’s get into it.

Kelly starts with an engagement with indigenous Australian memory practices and identifies how in these cultures, the movement within certain spaces was fundamental to inscribing cultural memory (through songlines). She refers to a rhetorical practice of loci used by the ancient greeks to aid memory retention. I had never come across the term ‘loci’ but I do remember this memory practice from Silva Rhetoricae

Orators were encouraged to envision where they would be speaking as a preparation for memorizing their speech. Then, having completed the speech’s composition, they were to divide it into manageable portions, each of which they would assign, in turn, to a different part of the room where the speech was to occur. Thus, by casting their eyes about during their speech, they would be reminded of the next part of their speech to give.

And she also refers to the ‘memory palaces’ that contemporary memory champions and card sharks use to, well, remember things. In each one of these scenarios being in a particular place (or imagining a particular place) is the first step to being able to recall the information.

Kelly was fascinated by the notion that oral cultures used these practices to encode cultural information before writing – and the sheer volume of information is staggering. She points to the Matses people of the Amazon as having recently created a 500 page encylcopedia of medicine based upon cultural memory that was previously passed down through oral traditions. Indigenous cultures need to remember the location of food and water, which plants you can eat when and the various geneologies of everyone in the culture to ensure that inbreeding does not occur. This is far more than most of us could remember in contemporary society but of course, for people without writing, remembering this stuff was integral to survival.

So, in the first few chapters of the book she recounts how she  tested the ‘loci’ system by developing her own memory spaces in her house, on her dog-walking route around her neighbourhood and then using abstract pieces of art, an object or a deck of cards as a further memory aid.

I have divided each room and every garden segment into ten locations as is suggested in the anonymous ancient Greek textbook on the topic, the Rhetorica ad Herennium… every fifth location is marked in some way… that ensures that nothing is missed as there must always be four locations between a marked spot. p.66

By doing this she has been able to memorise the events of world history, the different species of birds in Australia, details about the world’s states and capitals and so on. One location can be used to inscribe any number of types of information

Information may be in either of the songlines. It doesn’t matter. The links started happening from my first ventures into creating the songlines. The term I had used so often when talking about indigenous cultures was emerging. I was creating an ‘integrated knowledge system’. p.67

So she found that these pieces of information would start to relate to each other and take on their own inherent meaning.

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 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. (p.xvii)

I don’t understand why I am never confused by drawing information from a whole range of memory spaces, but I am not. After a few years of adding data and commentary, stories and mythological characters, I cannot explain it to friends when they ask. It is too like hypertext and too little like the linear flow of a book. p.69

for these reasons:

Trying to separate indigenous practical knowledge from mythology is a process doomed from the start. The two are intricately interwoven. Rituals in non-literate cultures need to be considered on their own terms without trying to find an equivalent in literate cultures. Such an equivalent does not exist. p.6

So after she establishes how important place is to memory, and how places must have been important for storing cultural memory in pre-writing cultures, Kelly then has a revelation while at Stonehenge with her partner. She realises that a possible explanation for the arrangement of the oldest henge – as a huge circle of distinctly different stones – was probably an attempt to recreate songlines once communities had started to settle in one place. Because cultures were no longer nomadic, she argues, they needed to come up with a way to represent the memory spaces they had once used. Monuments such as the oldest henge at stonehenge would have provided the spaces necessary to recreate the traditional performances of songlines, without having to return to the scattered locations throughout the countryside.

Related image

(this is actually an image of nearby woodhenge – but you get the idea) – the outer ring of stones are uniquely different and everyone of them would have served as a ‘memory space’ to recall particular pieces of cultural information. The ditches around the henge, Kelly Argues, are for performances of the information. The ditch serves the twin purposes of amplifying the sounds and effect of the performance, and obscuring the view of anyone who is not permitted to share the knowledge.

Restricting knowledge affords power to those who have been taught and deemed competent by the elders who control that information. But there is another critical purpose. It is all to do with what is inappropriately referred to as ‘the Chinese-whispers effect’. Lots of people repeating the informaton in an uncontrolled way will inevitably lead to corruption of the facts stored within the songs. Distortion cannot be tolerated in information [vital to collective survival]…. the knowledge is not varied, it is sacred. p.9

Having already White and Ong and a few others on orality I had previously held a view that one of the great virtues of oral cultures was their flexibility – that they had the capacity to alter their knowledges as needs and perspectives evolved. Kelly does restate this advantage, but she also made it more clear that storytelling and knowledge itself was the locus of cultural power.

Kelly goes through a number of archeological marvels such as Chaco Canyon, the Ring of Brogar, Newgrange, Maeshowe and even the lines of Nazca and explains how they operated as memory spaces. It made me think of our guide at Machu Pichu, who explained that the purpose of certain rocks and cavities around the city had never been truly understood. Well Kelly came up with a pretty compelling explanation for these things as memory spaces, used to store the cultural memories ofa people who had settled and no longer visited the natural spaces they once did, but still needed to remember the knowledge associated with those spaces. Hence the reason why each of these cultures invested millions of hours of work into building monuments and structures with no discernable productive purpose.

However, her argument is that these stand-in monuments only operated as such during a particular ‘transitory’ phase between nomadism and civilisation.

It was only as societies settled and population centres grew large that heirarchies became established, with those at the top becoming wealthy and their world protected using guards, soldiers and warriors. It is from this time that individual burials with grave goods appear in the archaeological record. The knowedge specialists became the servants of the chiefs. From then until today, the power of knowledge was subjegated by the power of wealth and violence. p.33


As specialists emerged in the increasingly large and complex communities, no single group could control the knowledge system. Powerful individuals gained wealth. Egalitarianism was a thing of the past as a high staus warrior class emerged. When knowledge had been the prevailing source of power, the memory spaces were the predominant sign of the culture. Once wealth and violence replaced knowledge as the determining factor for control, the massive labour required to build megalithic monuments could no longer be justified by the community… [136] Knowledge specialists were still needed, and probably still powerful, just no longer at the top of the heirarchy… When knowledge was power, the Neolithic peoples built a memory space still unparalleled today. When wealth and violence became power, Stonehenge was abandoned. It had simply lost its purpose. pp.135-136

Increasing city populations, the emergence of specialist experts and the introduction of writing would have eroded the ability of the elders to control information. The elder who could memorise a thousand songs and all the knowledge of the culture was now long gone. p.251

Following the growth and specialisation of knowledge, keeps and fortifications became the dominant public architecture, which I find simply fascinating.

I guess I find it all so fascinating because Kelly is presenting a vivid picture of how practices of encountering and storing cultural knowlege have a direct and profound effect on the culture. My current research is looking at the effect of smart phones and big data upon culture and it isn’t hard to have your mind blown by thinking through the differences between the sort of cultural knowledge of nomadic people, compared to the cultural knowledge and practices imbued by smart phones and Google.

Consider her description of the connection the indigenous cultures have to country and place, (which helps me reflect on our contemporary lack of connection).

Nungarrayi, to use her Warlpiri title, described the catalogue of sounds which are ecoded as far more extensive than just the calls of the birds and other animals. For example, she described the way her people were able to identify trees and bushes and grasses by the sound in a breeze. I found this hard to believe but was assured that if I gave it a try I would discover that it is possible. That afternoon I sat in the bush and listened. What I would have described as silence, on a day which had very little wind, was anything but. I became aware of the bird sounds fairly quickly, but before long I became aware of the sounds of the plants. The eucalypt to my left, the acacias at the fron, and the grasses to the right all made distinctly different sounds.  I could not accurately convey these sounds in writing. In subsequent sessions, I’ve been able to distinguish between different species of eucalypt… p.6

Non-Indigenous observers have mentioned their surprise at the depth of the emotional response in a singer when chanting a set of place names, a seemingly unemotional task…. When I list the locations, my head is full of all these associations, vivid images, funny stories and a precious store of knowledge. But even more than that, my songlines are now so familiar and so much a part of everyday life, I am extrordinarily fond of them. I have an emotional response as well as an intellectual one when I think of my songlines. I could not have understood this had I not done it myself. For the elders with their entire culture tied to the knowledge embeded in the landscape, the effect must be extraordinarily intense. p.15

One element of the change is the lack of connection with the natural, or even the viscerally real in contemporary culture; another is the lack of appreciation of wisdom (or knowledge that crosses disciplines) as opposed to knowledge within a specific discipline:

We store our books in neat categories: science on one side of the library, ethics on the other and mythology somewhere else. These silos of generic information are an artefact of literacy, where so much is written and research is so focused that much of the interconnectedness of the human experience is lost. The extraordinary depth within each genre has come at the cost of the intergrated format of oral tradition. p.29

And of course, there is also the issue of pleasure. It seems to me that gaining knowledge used to be intimately tied to experiencing pleasure (forgive the play on words).

…gatherings serve the need for tade and to find marriage partners, as well as being for pure pleasure. Gatherings are also the forums to teach and trade knowledge through ceremony. p.12

While movies about US universities make me think this link between learning and pleasure hasn’t been completely forgotten about, the trend toward digital delivery and ‘blended learning’ in my own university suggests that efficient information transmission is now seen as the sole purpose of communication. But what is the price of the cultural, natural and ritual knowledge we lose as a result of always being online? Kelly doesn’t enter into any of this but that’s just as well, it is my interest, not necessarily hers – but I intend to ask her what she thinks of how digital technology is reconfiguring these memory practices.

And throughout all of this, Kelly has made an indelible contribution to my thinking through communication as ritual, not just information transmission. The songlines and structures she describes are not just about the information but also about the process of coming together to make meaning. The relationality experienced by building these monuments, and then using them to store cultural memories must have made this aspect of people’s communicative existence incredibly meaningful, not to mention the performative and aesthetic aspects of singing, performing and displaying ones knowledge and relationships.

On the use of abstract motifs on art as memory aids:

It was the process that mattered, not the product. I gradually understood why so many indigenous ‘art’ words were simply erased or left to rot after ceremonies and rituals. They had already served their purpose by the very fact that they were made. p.47

So finally, and I know this has been a long one, but I feel that this really has been an important book (and is well worth the read), I’ll finish on Kelly’s reflection on her own experience with training with memory places, which reflects my engagement with her work.

It has been a revelation to learn to think differently. It has also been the most wonderful fun. p.63

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.