Books

Book Review: The Memory Code: The Secrets of Stonehenge, Easter Island and Other Ancient Monuments by Lynne Kelly

After reading this book, I wonder if we nowadays take for granted fast access to knowledge? It is always there to be grasped, and there is no need to memorize and internalize it. It feels so. But as Lynne Kelly points out in the book, keeping the shared knowledge alive about the environment and the history of the people has not always been so straightforward. There had to be memory techniques and devices to store the vital information to be passed on to the next generations. Such techniques had highly specialized people who devoted their lives to be the keepers of the oral knowledge of the tribes. But it wasn’t only simple tricks that the pre-literate cultures used. They shaped their landscapes with massive constructions, especially after they stopped being nomadic. Or so Lynne Kelly proposes. This book is composed of her Ph.D. thesis made more reader-friendly. I think I’m convinced when she suggests that Stonehenge or other such sites might have been used in memory rituals. It just clicks how she lays down her argumentation of places and acts previously dismissed as having an astronomical or religious purpose. 

I have a master’s in Comparative Religion, having studied the world and pre-literate culture religions; hand waving and simply stating something to be a religious ritual has always bothered me. It really doesn’t explain a lot. It just puts some act into a neat little box, so it doesn’t have to be understood. There is always a need and meaning behind such complex behavior because rituals usually aren’t free. They take time and resources to perform. Keeping the memories alive or preparing the group to hunt the great beast by ritualistically mimicking the behavior of the prey and passing on information makes more sense. Yet, that said, I would still propose we could see them as religious rituals, as a line between religion and knowledge isn’t as strict as it might be considered now. The gods and spirits were real, and their behavior and acts were part of everyday life. Important information about the cosmos, creation, and cultural norms were passed on through such stories. Still, the functionality of memory keeping stays. There is no need for an either-or situation. Regarding the sites discussed in the book being part of monitoring the solar or lunar cycles, I leave you to read Lynne Kelly’s argumentation on that.

As you may have picked up, I found the book highly engaging. Lynne Kelly offers us a new way of seeing our past and the monuments and artifacts left behind. She backs up her claims by taking us on a journey around the world, arguing through academic studies and archeology, and by her personal experience using the memory spaces and Khipus. Her personal stories made the book enjoyable and more relatable. I read in awe how she fitted the world and its history to her neighborhood and kept it alive while walking her dog, or how she memorized influential figures and other details through ancient techniques. She wrote how memorizing shaped her understanding of the world and made everything she stored more personal. Sharing her experience made the read more personal and meaningful for me. It helped me see the world from a new perspective and understand how and why pre-literate cultures used such memory devices. Lynne Kelly is a superb writer. I had a similar awe experience when I read Spiders: Learning to Love Them.

Books like this are why I love reading non-fiction. They make me fall in love with our world and see how wonderful and bizarre we humans can be. Not only that, the book made me question not to take for granted the explanations we give to our past. We really cannot know. We can speculate. And often enough, experimental archeology has shown that we get things wrong. 

Thank you for reading and have a wonderful day ❤

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