Book Review: The Memory Code by Lynne Kelly

Book Review: The Memory Code by Lynne Kelly

Genre: Non-fiction, archaeology, history.

Rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Publisher: Pegasus Books

Historian and writer Lynne Kelly has created a fascinating book with a realistic theory its heart – that ancient monuments – Stonehenge, the Ring of Brodgar and also smaller hand-held objects (Lukasa, Coolamon) are actually memory aids. She believes that these objects large and small were used by ancient peoples throughout the world to encode vast amounts of ancient knowledge, in the time before written communication.

The Condor - Nazca Lines in Peru
The Condor – Nazca Lines in Peru

Thousands of years ago, in pre-literate civilisations throughout the world, human beings had brains that were the same size as what they are today. Yet they had no way of writing things down. In The Memory Code, Lynne Kelly postulates that people used waypoints, markers in their environment, standing stones and other sacred objects to encode vast amounts of detailed information, some of it completely secret and only able to be deciphered and passed on by an elite caste of shamans and knowledge-bearers. She uses the Indigenous Australian and Torres Strait Islander Songlines as a jumping-off point for exploring how song, chanting, movement and cues in the landscape all combined to form ancient ways of encoding and remembering knowledge.

A Coolamon, an Indigenous Australian vessel and memory aid
A Coolamon, an Indigenous Australian vessel and memory aid

Kelly conducts experiments with this form of knowledge encoding on herself. She memorises a complex procession of historical events, dates and details while she walks her dog around her neighbourhood. Each letterbox, fence post and tree becomes a waypoint and a memory cue for her. She reports that this technique works well and she is able to encode a phenomenal amount of information this way. She believes it wasn’t just esoteric information, but also important practical information: hunting techniques, growing techniques, where, how and when to settle in places, environmental cues from animals, how to cure various ailments, how to settle disputes between people, etc.

A Lukasa from the ancient Luba people of the Democratic Republic of Congo
A Lukasa memory aid from the ancient Luba people of the Democratic Republic of Congo

Nobody really can say for sure what ceremonial objects in different eons and in different civilisations actually mean, but this theory that Kelly presents seems very plausible and very likely. This is a really exciting and interesting book and I really enjoyed the exploration of mysterious monuments on the landscape such as the Nazca Lines in Peru, Stonehenge in England, the Ring of Brodgar in Scotland. Along with Coolamon memory board used by Indigenous Australians and a Lukasa memory board used by the ancient Luba civilisation, who once lived in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Although we can’t know the ancient knowledge hidden in these ancient objects, they are lost to the wind – according to Lynne Kelly we can now know why they were created – which is also very fascinating! I heartily recommend this book!

More Information

Songlines: The art of navigating the Indigenous world

Lukasa: Memory Board

Published by Content Catnip

Content Catnip is a quirky internet wunderkammer written by an Intergalactic Space Māori named Content Catnip. Join me as I meander through the quirky and curious aspects of history, indigenous spirituality, the natural world, animals, art, storytelling, books, philosophy, travel, Māori culture and loads more.

5 thoughts on “Book Review: The Memory Code by Lynne Kelly

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