You might have seen an episode of Sherlock where Benedict Cumberbatch enters his ‘memory palace’ and somehow recalls an obscure fact to solve a case.
Despite the fancy graphics and over-acting, the theory behind the palace is actually a factual experience.
Former Ballarat teacher Lynne Kelly has made a study of ancient oral traditions and the ‘method of loci’ used by civilisations in the past – and present – to retain and pass on knowledge.
Her most recent book, The Memory Code, places the famous collection of monoliths known as Stonehenge squarely in the centre of the ancient technique.
“I came to oral traditions as a science teacher and a science writer,” says Ms Kelly.
“My books are science-based, but then I started looking at indigenous knowledge of science. I realised they could remember vast amounts, entire field guides to every plant and animal, navigation charts, theologies, genealogies.
“I couldn’t work out how they could remember all this when I struggled to remember a small amount.”
The process is deceptively simple. Without writing, cultures would assign significance to their surroundings. A rock may represent an ancestor, and a story to go with it. A tree may represent a battle. The stars may contain stories of genealogy and navigation.
Over time a fabric of meaning is built up and passed on by word of mouth.
On a trip to England Ms Kelly accompanied her husband, who was studying archaeology, to Stonehenge.
“I wasn’t even particularly interested in going there. Because I had in my mind this way that indigenous cultures, not just Aboriginal, embed information in locations in the landscape, I thought what would happen when they settled and weren’t moving over songlines over distance?
“I thought ‘they’ve localised the annual cycle representing the locations, and the knowledge encoded, by a series of stones.’”
Ms Kelly says her theory of Stonehenge has excited and intrigued British archaeological experts.
The Memory Code is available through Allen & Unwin.