Starting a contemporary songline

A number of readers of The Memory Code have asked for the specifics of how to start a contemporary songline to memorise a particular set of information.

songline

Walking my songline with Epsi

For example Naomi wrote:

So Lynne – ‪#‎songlines‬ – time to get down to nuts and bolts. I have just read your chapter walking us through your memory line walking Epsi. How did you do it? Given that you are experimenting with oral memory did you carry a list that you wanted to memorise? Or gradually add to it like building a wall – one item at a time? Obviously it now resembles something organic, evolving and expanding as necessary – but how did you seed the memory line? Thanks in advance.

Kath wrote in part (the full email is at the end of this post):

I’m really keen to try out one or more of your techniques, but I’m having trouble working out exactly how to start. …  For instance, do I start by re-reading books on the subject, and for each piece of information, I try and remember it as I go by relating it to a physical object? Which of your 25 techniques do you think is easiest for a beginner? Or is it a matter of experimenting with them all to find a way that suits me best? I’m just not sure how to begin and feel very daunted. Any advice would be hugely appreciated.

Of the 25 memory experiments, the best starting point is using the landscape as a set of memory locations – the classical technique known as the method of loci. Walking the path – be it around the house or garden, around the block or through the bush – enables you to fix the locations. The easiest is to start with a room. I put ten locations in each room of the house – five from the door (included) to a window, then five more more back, including the window and out the door.

Ideally to mimic non-literate cultures, I would use no writing. Unfortunately, I have no elders to teach me the songs and stories and the links to the locations, so I must get my information in the way it is handed on in my life – in writing. For countries, that is a list of the countries and independent protectorates in population order. For history, that is the way I want to divide up the walk into dates. For my stone row, that is the author I want to associate with each stone, my set of authors being structured in chronological order.

I then start assigning data to locations. One you have a location – place in a room, a fence post, letter box, tree or gutter, house or shop – then associating the key information to it will initially take a few minutes. You will get quite fast at it, but don’t push too hard at first. Meditate upon the images, have fun, create stories, imagine people out the window, look for shapes in the wood grain or stone, scratches on the letter box, shapes in the branches or on the trunk of a tree …. You will find something which links either to the concept or event you are trying to associate or to a pun on the words.

Attached the item – let’s say Cape Verde to a shop. If, like me, you naturally associate the word ‘verde’ with green, you find something green to focus – in my case a green window ledge. That little ledge will always jump out at me when I look at the shop in question. Everything about Cape Verde is associated with green – such as little green men from the moon wearing capes – the more outrageous the better. You will have no trouble adding layer upon layer of information. The capital of Cape Verde is Praia, pronounced pry-er. So my little green men are prying in the shop window – their leader, the Chief Pryer, is now my main character.

Do I have everything written down? No. I only have the list of countries in descending population order, their capitals and the population. Once I have the concept linked to the location, I add more just from memory. I hear or read that Cape Verde is a group of islands off the west coast of Africa, so I imagine Pryer landed from the moon, trying to get to Africa – he missed. He keeps jumping from island to island, but never getting to the mainland. On the news, it was reported that Cape Verde was a very poor country, but has achieved political and economic stability. That is unusual in Africa, so I add that to the story because Pryer can’t take over through money nor politics.  He tries, though. That leads to some interesting questions about the nature of colonisation, the original Portuguese colonisers and slave trading, and the story gains more depth. And so it goes on.

You don’t need to add the information to the sequence of locations in any particular order, because the sequence is grounded in the landscape. You can never run out of space or story to add an infinite amount of information to every single location.

And everything you ever hear about Cape Verde from now on will make you see little green men from the moon wearing capes. I promise. Sorry about that!

______

Kath’s email in full:
Dear Lynne,

I am partway through your fascinating book, which I borrowed from the new books’ shelf at Yass Library last week. I read Bruce Chatwin’s book ‘The Songlines’ many years ago, and found that very interesting too. Before that, I had never heard of songlines nor learnt much of Aboriginal culture, other than the pathetic smattering we received in primary school in the 1970s and 80s.

However, like most things I have read in my life, I have forgotten most of the book! I therefore found your explanation of your memory experiments both amazing and inspiring.

I’m really keen to try out one or more of your techniques, but I’m having trouble working out exactly how to start. For instance, my main hobby/interest outside of work is tai chi and qigong. (If you are not familiar with the term qigong, pronounced chi-goong, it loosely translates as ‘energy cultivation’ or ‘energy work’. Tai chi is one form of qigong). I have read a lot about the subject, which I practise for about two hours each day, but like everything else, the information goes into my mind and almost straight out again. Each week my teacher, who is a veritable font of information, tells us more, which also goes into my notebook and then straight out of my head.

The knowledge of the art of tai chi, which is rooted in Taoism, is incredibly deep and complex; it’s the kind of thing that once you start learning, you realise there’s no end to it. I was reflecting that it’s a bit like the encyclopedic knowledge of indigenous societies that you write of. Much of the knowledge is stored in the movements themselves and the guiding principles behind the movements. But much is also written down, or presented as symbols or drawings. Like you were saying about the ‘simplified’ versions of Dreamtime stories in books for non-indigenous readers, there are levels upon levels of knowledge. You might hear the teacher say the same thing every year for ten years, and each time you hear it, you understand it in a different way or on a deeper level, depending on your amount of experience and knowledge. Some of the knowledge is also ‘secret’ in that it can only be told orally from teacher to student, and not written down. I never knew why, but from your book I can now guess that it’s to prevent corruption of the knowledge/Chinese whisper effect.

So I guess what I am asking, if you are able and willing, is for a few pointers on how I can begin to memorise and therefore gain a deeper understanding of this complex art.

For instance, do I start by re-reading books on the subject, and for each piece of information, I try and remember it as I go by relating it to a physical object? Which of your 25 techniques do you think is easiest for a beginner? Or is it a matter of experimenting with them all to find a way that suits me best? I’m just not sure how to begin and feel very daunted. Any advice would be hugely appreciated.

All the best, and I am looking forward to continuing your book.
Kath

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Posted in art of memory, history walk, indigenous memory systems, memory, Memory Spaces, method of loci, mnemonics, songlines, The Memory Code | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Castlerigg Stone Circle, Cumbria

I was fascinated by an email I received from Susannah Walker in the UK a few days ago. But first, a little background. For many years, a small photo has sat on my desk. It was taken by my late mother, and has the name of the circle in her handwriting on the back. But I had done no more than acknowledge it as one of the thousand or so stone circles in Britain.

castlerigg-front castlerigg-back

Susannah wrote: I have been fascinated to hear about your book, The Memory Code and am very much looking forward to reading it when I go on holiday in a few weeks time.

Even reading the reviews, however, made me think of Castlerigg Stone Circle in Cumbria. When I visited it last year, I noticed that the shapes of each of the stones mirrored the silhouette of the hills behind it, making the circle a representation of the wider landscape around. It clearly seemed to be deliberate, and your theory seems to be the perfect answer as to why. (As this article shows, I’m not the first person to have spotted this!).

castlerigg-aerial

Castlerigg Stone Circle

Click on the image above or here to go to the Visit Cumbria site on Castlerigg.

Susannah’s observation of the way the stones reflect the surrounding landscape is one of the Ten Indicators I use to assess whether a monument was possibly used primarily as a memory space. The descriptions online also note many of the other Indicators: astronomical alignments, a sequence of memory locations (the stones), and even the public and restricted spaces with the rectangular ‘sanctuary’ within the circle. Being Neolithic, there is no sign of a wealthy elite, and a great deal of effort has been invested for no obvious utilitarian purpose.

I love Castlerigg. Thank you, Susannah for making me take more notice of the precious photograph which has been on the desk all this time.

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Posted in archaeoastronomy, archaeology, British Neolithic, Castlerigg Stone Circle, Memory Spaces, stone circles, The Memory Code | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Singing the land, signing the land

Singing the land, signing the land is written by Helen Watson with The Yolngu community at Yirrkala, and David Wade Chambers. Because the Yolngu community were so heavily involved, the content is an accurate reflection of the way they want their knowledge conveyed to the world.

This work was hugely influential on my thinking right from the start of my research journey. One click on the image and you will be there.
Yolngu knowledge

 

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The Memory Code is published

I have been overwhelmed, delighted and, I must admit, astonished by the reaction to the first few days of The Memory Code being released. Thank you to everyone who has written to me in response to the radio interviews. Here are two ABC interviews available online:

Conversations with Richard Fidler (1 hour)

richard-fidler-me-1000

(c) ABC

Conversations with Richard Fidler is also available on Soundcloud.

Life Matters with Ellen Fanning (20 minutes)

life-matters

IMAGE: AN ANCIENT ABORIGINAL ROCK CARVING ON THE BURRUP PENINSULA IN THE NORTH OF WESTERN AUSTRALIA. PILES OF RED ROCK WHICH TYPIFY THE AREA ARE THE SITE FOR PERHAPS ONE MILLION PIECES OF ABORIGINAL ROCK ENGRAVINGS SEVERAL THOUSANDS OF YEARS OLD AND CONSIDERED BY SOME TO BE THE GREATEST CONCENTRATION OF SUCH ANCIENT ART IN THE WORLD. (GREG WOOD/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

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Posted in Allen & Unwin, archaeology, British Neolithic, indigenous memory systems, memory, memory devices, Memory Spaces, mnemonics, orality, prehistory, primary orality, Richard Fidler, songlines, Stonehenge, The Memory Code | 9 Comments

Guest post: Are we outsourcing the human mind?

In my parent’s schooling they had to memorize poems and other great works. In my schooling it was mostly dates and places. Today memory has been outsourced to Google…

tyler-barrett

Guest blogger: Tyler Barrett

So wrote Tyler Barrett on a friend’s Facebook post about The Memory Code. Tyler is Chief Puzzler at Outside the Box Productions, a teaching organization based in Sedona, Arizona. He is also a psychologist, magician, musician, author and teacher. I asked him to expand on these ideas, and he wrote:

We are slowly but surely “outsourcing the human mind.” It started with the invention of the electronic, hand held calculator. In one fell swoop we really didn’t need to know how to do math in our heads. We no longer needed to memorize times tables or any equations. We had a machine to do it for us. Then came the cash registers that figured out what change the customer should get back when tendering a $20. We now have automobiles that can almost drive themselves. Our smartphones can tie us into Google and the web, and they can be voice controlled. And of course we have hand held translators, so we don’t have memorize/learn any other languages than our own.

The big question is, what’s left in our heads and what do we do with it? Do we become more or less creative? It’s been said that Einstein couldn’t/didn’t remember his phone number, because it cluttered up the pure space in his mind where he was working out his theories. It is some of the higher cognitive functions that are being outsourced. The more ancient parts of our brains are still with us.

So we will still be driven and motivated by our emotions. We haven’t yet figured out how to outsource how we know what is “fair”, “right or wrong” “good or bad”. We also haven’t outsourced religion (based on emotionally held beliefs). So we are verging more and more on a “lower” (more animal, more basic) form of creature more driven by feelings and internet driven biases, more tribal and alas, more confrontational. Many today think (believe) technology is the answer to all of our problems. I fear it isn’t .

Tyler Barrett

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Monuments for memory – the Ten Indicators

Stonehenge

My theory about the purpose of many ancient monuments argues that they were built primarily as memory spaces. Their design was specifically to enable elders to practice their memorisation, to teach it and to perform the knowledge for the community according to the various levels of initiation of the audience. Elders memorised the knowledge on which survival, physically and culturally, depended: entire field guides to all the animals and plants, navigational charts, genealogies, laws, resource rights, trade agreements, land management, astronomy, geology … all in memory.

cover-amazon In Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies, I presented ten indicators that a monument was built as a memory space, it was a mnemonic monument. They are listed in decreasing order of importance.

1. A stratified society with no sign of individual wealth or coercion

In the small scale oral cultures I am talking about, the elders maintained their power through controlling knowledge. In all other ways, the societies appear to be egalitarian. Obviously my starting point was Australian Aboriginal cultures, but Native American, many African and Polynesian cultures also fit the scenario.

2. Public and restricted ceremonial sites

The imperative to perform the knowledge repeatedly should leave an archaeological record of both public and restricted performance spaces. Platforms, mounds, enclosed spaces, plazas and even flat-bottomed ditches, can act as suitable performance spaces. Restricted spaces ensure those initiated higher into the knowledge can repeat it in secrecy which effectively avoids the so-called Chinese whispers effect. When dealing with knowledge from generations ago, such as surviving severe resource stresses, accurate retention is essential.

3. Large investment of labour for no obvious reason

All historical and contemporary oral cultures value education and formally educate the young. They don’t learn everything casually while out on a daily gather and hunt or round the campfire at night. There is no society which works that way and so there is no reason to believe that oral cultures in prehistoric times were any different.

Mobile cultures use significant landscape places in order to keep a record of each aspect of the knowledge. They encode it in the landscape. If a society is to settle they must replicate these set of locations in the local area. That is the very basis of the monuments. But there’s a lot more to it than that!

4. Signs of a prescribed order—the Method of Loci

If a monument is a memory space, then there must be a prescribed order to the memory locations so that information is not lost through lack of reference. The ancient Greeks described their locations from their preliterate times: there should be a defined sequence in a location away from distracting passers-by which is well lit, with loci not too much like one another, of moderate size, with a moderate distance between them. My research shows that all oral cultures did this – and we have ample evidence from Australia of a continuous knowledge culture for tens of thousands of years.

Circles or lines of stones or posts, a sequence in the ditches or mounds enclosing open space, or large, non-domestic ‘buildings’ would serve as memory theatres beautifully.

lukasa

An African memory board of the Luba people, the lukasa. This one is in the Brooklyn Museum.

5. Enigmatic decorated objects

Documented oral cultures use a huge variety of memory aids: inscribed stones, notched or decorated wooden sticks or boards, inscribed bark, decorated hides, dance costumes, masks, props, knotted chords, curated human and animal bones, bundles of non-utilitarian or symbolic objects and representations of mythological ancestors on a wide variety of media.

Enigmatic objects found at ceremonial sites which match these patterns add to the argument that the monument served as a memory space.

6. An imbalance in trade

Knowledge is traded in every society I have examined, literate and non-literate. If resources and labour are coming into the site but nothing being manufactured or grown there, then it is logical to assume that it is a place when knowledge is being traded in the form of songs, dances and mythological stories and encoded using a variety of memory devices.

7. Astronomical observations and calendrical devices

Whoever maintains the calendar holds a very powerful role in oral cultures. Detailed astronomical observances were common among complex hunter-gatherers, primarily to maintain calendars and schedule ceremonies. The heavens were also used as memory aids, with characters and stories attributed to stars and planets as it is the case with every society, literate or non-literate.

Astronomical alignments add to the argument that a monument is a memory space.

8. Monuments that reference the landscape

Landscape references are critical as memory markers in the oral tradition of both mobile and sedentary cultures. Not surprisingly, most of the enigmatic monuments around the world make some reference to the much wider landscape.

9. Acoustic enhancement

Songs are far easier to remember than prose; dramatic performances are more memorable than static recitations. Monuments which are designed to aid memory would have structures which enhance singing, chanting and the music for the dances. And it is those songs which encode all the essential practical information.

10. Rock art as mnemonic

We know from historic oral cultures that rock art is often used to aid memory of the stories, songs, chants and other aspects of the knowledge system. Abstract art is far more useful as multiple layers of information can be encoded and secrecy maintained.

______

If an archaeological site demonstrated most, if not all, of the ten indicators given above, then it is logical to conclude that the control of knowledge was a fundamental aspect of the culture which constructed the monument. The elders constucted themselves a memory space. And the most elite of them may well have been buried there.

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Posted in Cambridge University Press, Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies, lukasa, memory devices, Memory Spaces, method of loci, mnemonics, primary orality, stone circles, Stonehenge, Ten Indicators, The Memory Code, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

The launch is happening – June 30

The launch is now available for booking. The end of the long haul is really happening.

I will be giving a talk first on the memory methods and how to apply them in your own life.

launch-ad

So excited!

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Posted in archaeology, art of memory, Chaco Canyon, Easter Island, Memory Spaces, orality, primary orality, Stonehenge, The Memory Code | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

The Memory Code – Table of Contents

cover-The-Memory-Code-400

The Memory Code is often referred to, by those asking me about it, as ‘your Stonehenge book’. I have no doubt that the ideas about the purpose for Stonehenge will attract much of the attention, but it is only one chapter in 12. So I have put the Table of Contents below so you can see the extent of the book. It covers more ground than Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies, but without all the academic justification.

I have had a great deal of contact in recent weeks from the memory community, including memory champions on three continents! I have also been asked to write an academic essay for Rounded Globe on indigenous memory methods and implications for contemporary thinking. It will be titled Grounded: indigenous knowing in a concrete reality and free for all. This is part of the move for academics to communicate beyond the expensive academic journals and paywalls. Taxpayers pay for the research – taxpayers should have access to it.

The Memory Code will be published in Australia by Allen & Unwin in July, and by Atlantic Books in the UK and Pegasus Books in the US early next year. The audio rights have also just been sold, so I’ll update here when all the paper work has been done. Allen & Unwin are working extremely hard on my book, and I am delighted by everything they have done.

THE MEMORY CODE – TABLE OF CONTENTS

Preface

Chapter 1  –  Encyclopaedic memories of the elders

Chapter 2  –  Memory spaces, large and small

Chapter 3  –  Memory spaces in a modern world

Chapter 4  –  A journey through time

Chapter 5  –  The ever-changing memory spaces at Stonehenge

Chapter 6  –  The megalithic complexes of Avebury and Orkney

Chapter  7  –  Newgrange and the passage cairns of Ireland    

Chapter  8  –  The tall stones and endless rows of Carnac

Chapter 9  –  The unparalleled architecture of Chaco Canyon

Chapter  10  Giant drawings on the desert floor at Nasca

Chapter  11  Memory spaces across the Americas

Chapter  12  Polynesian navigators create a unique world on Easter Island

Epilogue

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Posted in Allen & Unwin, archaeology, carved stone balls, Chaco Canyon, Easter Island, indigenous memory systems, Memory Spaces, Nasca lines, primary orality, songlines, Stonehenge, The Memory Code | Tagged , , , , , | 12 Comments

Starting to book talks for 2016

I am just starting to book talks for this year – most will be after The Memory Code is launched on June 30. A talk in the Phee Broadway Theatre (the same location) will precede the launch by Mayor, Councillor Christine Henderson. Books will be available from Stonemans Bookroom who will be present in the Library foyer – near the nibbles and drinks! My last talk booked out. It is free, but bookings will be essential. I’ll update here when booking is available.

Tuesday 26 April, Castlemaine Garden Club: Spiders: learning to love them, Wesley Hill Market Hall, 7.30 pm. All welcome.

Wednesday 25 May, Castlemaine Rotary ClubMemory, Knowledge and Stonehenge, Cumberland Hotel, Castlemaine, 6.30 pm.

cover-The-Memory-Code-400LAUNCH of The Memory Code: Thursday 30 June, Castlemaine LibraryThe Memory Code, a talk followed by the launch. More details to follow.  6.00 pm.

Wednesday 31 August, Monash Indigenous Centre: The transmission of scientific and technical knowledge among small-scale cultures. Monash University. More details to follow.

Saturday 24 September, Sydney Skeptics DinnerThe Memory Code. More details to follow.

Saturday 26 November, Australian Skeptics Convention: The Memory Code, Melbourne University. More details to follow.

________________________

2015 Talks

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