Lynne Kelly 2003. The Memory Code. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 318 pp.

Lynne Kelly’s thesis is that memory - of environment, landscape, history, dates, astronomy, food and so on - was crucial to all successful societies in prehistory. Therefore, says Lynne Kelly, those societies would have used the most effective method available, the ‘memory cathedral’ technique: linking knowledge to landscapes (songlines of Aboriginal Australian cultures), megaliths (Neolithic Europe), glyphs in the desert (Nasca), sculptures (the moai of Rapanui), and many kinds of hand-held mnemonic devices in many cultures. Among others.

In an early chapter, Lynne Kelly explains how this technique works for her in a modern context. I’m encouraged enough to find a relevant framework and give it a try.

The argument is plausible, even compelling in parts, but is weakened by the impression rapidly gained by the reader that every prehistoric landscape, monument and artefact encountered by the author had the primary purpose of being a mnemonic aid. This cannot possibly be so. There is also too much of the first person-journey of discovery type of narrative.

On the positive side, the author certainly seems to be onto something that prehistorians have largely overlooked. This is yet another example of the advances that can be made when someone outside a field brings something new from a different domain. And, even if the overlay of mnemomic interpretation is removed, the book still functions well as a very readable and current summary of archaeological knowledge of the many prehistoric societies that she surveys.

The major failing of the author’s argument is that she inadequately addresses the issue of when in prehistory these techniques fell into disuse, and why. The obvious explanation, that writing made prehistoric memory techniques redundant, is barely touched on, and only in a very incomplete and very short comparative discussion of the literate Maya and Aztecs with the illiterate Inca in the south. In the context of Neolithic Europe, the author instead advances the argument that accumulation of wealth began to grant power to elite rulers and that the power and influence of knowledgeable elders was permanently replaced. Even though many modern scientists and other academics would relate personally to this argument, Lynne Kelly didn’t advance any evidence that I found convincing. Maybe she did that in her academic volume on the same subject, her PhD thesis, published as Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies (2015, Cambridge University Press). This popular version has plenty of useful further reading in the form of endnotes.