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Is Stonehenge just geoglyph graffiti?
April 14, 2010 - By: - In: Language - 14 comments

So when are they going to clean up that mess, anyway? Every time I drive down A344, there it is: a jumble of rubble sticking up out of the turf. They’ve been chipping away at it for centuries, vandals carting it off piece by piece since even before the real Vandals were partying across Europe in the 5th century.

There’s archeological evidence that the place got its start over 10,000 years ago, but it wasn’t until around 2500 BC that the sarsen stones we see today were erected. I did actually visit Stonehenge once, on a cold December day. The fence was down, so I got to walk among the stones themselves.

Stonehenge is impressive in photos, but the photos don’t do it justice. It is a powerful, mysterious place, and I couldn’t help but ask myself, “What was it for?” Sure, calendars and agricultural cycles and all that, just the kind of concerns that would get some Neolithic farmer off his straw bed in the morning to go out and haul gigantic stone pillars across miles of rolling countryside. But its use remains a mystery since it was built over the centuries by cultures that left no written records…or did they?

Lynne Kelly, a researcher at La Trobe University (that’s Australia, mate, not the home of Rolling Rock), theorizes that the purpose of Stonehenge was to communicate knowledge through the rituals that were held there.

“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.”

So, for Kelly, the writing isn’t on the wall. The writing is the wall. In a way, the characters I type on the page are the little sisters of the mighty megaliths, little pokes of my digging stick on fallow fields of knowledge, laying out mysterious ravings in obsessively careless rows.

Similar in purpose as the written word, geoglyphs like Stonehenge and other monuments left by preliterate societies are “methods of loci,” the memory palaces that both illiterates and literates have used as an aid to memorization. In this technique, the memorizer imagines the layout of a building or room which has discrete places to place particular factoids. When ready to recall, the student of this technique can take an imaginary stroll through the room and recall each bit of information left in its proper place.

I use the same technique in my daily life whenever I can remember to do so. But in the morning of my memory palace, it always seems as if someone has moved the keys from where I thought I put them. So, without the benefit of a Neolithic monument, I must rely on my wife’s photographic grasp of my forgetfulness as a gentler and more portable substitute.

Meanwhile, back at Stonehenge, the geoglyph remains mute, the ritual that defined its meaning lost to memory. So now a mute ruin, fenced against further ruin.  That must explain its curb appeal.

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