Fascinating wooden charts of the Tunumiit

So much of my work is about the incredible potential of hand held memory devices. These carved maps of the Tunumiit culture of Greenland combine the two methods I use most: the landscape and handheld devices. How logical is it to make a portable pattern for the sung landscape to use as a memory device for vast amounts of practical knowledge?

Why didn’t I think of that? I am now going to carve a piece of wood to match one of my landscape walks. Click on the images to get the whole story.

Holm wrote: “A native from Sermelik, called Angmagainak, who had never had a pencil in his hand and had only once visited the East coast, drew a fine chart for me covering the whole distance from Tingmiarniut to Sermiligak, about 280 miles.” They also provided him with incredibly detailed descriptions of terrain, flora and fauna, and, in some cases, local weather patterns and lunar and solar cycles.

There are examples from all over the world of the ignorance of the Eurocentricity doubting the intellect of indigenous cultures – of anything different from their way of doing things:

Some contemporaries of Holm doubted that Inuit people were capable of producing these types of maps, and that they were just the result of mimicry—classic Eurocentrism. In 1886, one Mr. Hansen-Blangsted argued in the French Minutes of the Meetings of the Geographical Society and the Central Commission that it was highly improbable that an “Eskimo” could possess the mental faculties to “invent” a three-dimensional wooden map. It was much more logical, he posited, that some shipwrecked European sailor taught the practice to the Tunumiit hunter—conveniently ignoring, of course, that no Western seafaring tradition had ever produced maps like this. Holm disputed Hansen-Blangsted’s racist claims and jumped in to defend the skill, memory, and intellectual capacity of the East Greenlanders he had gotten to know.

Thank you, Sue McLeod, for pointing me to this article.

 

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Posted in Inuit, memory, memory devices, Memory Spaces, method of loci, mnemonic devices, The Memory Code | 6 Comments

Jim Rountree really understands my ideas

There have been lots of articles about The Memory Code. Lots of interviews and lots of talks. I was reflecting back on the past eighteen months as I head into the final stages of preparing the manuscript for the next book. There is one article which I keep returning to because it is from a magazine I hugely respect and a writer who got it so right, and wrote about it so well. Jim Rountree writes for Australia’s leading science magazine, Cosmos. Click on the images and you will get the full article. I have copied the start of the article below. It was originally published just over a year ago.

It is a real buzz as an author to have someone understand your ideas so well.The Memory Code

“Most of us know a place where sculpted rocks, majestic trees or perhaps the light give us a feeling the place is special. We sense something mysterious and wonderful – beyond the normality of everyday life.

Now, imagine you are young and visiting such a place. It is in the land of your people, a clan of hunter-gatherers. Your parents tell you the story of the place. You can see the marks left as mythical ancestors fought and played, acting out momentous, tragic events.

You will never forget this story, and you will never forget the place. They are locked together in your mind.

But the story doesn’t stop there. The ancestors roamed clan territory, leaving traces at every point. It’s easy to remember their bizarre, dramatic acts, which become inseparable from the marks they left behind on the landscape. Story and land merge in a mental map that means you always know where you are and what lies in every direction.

Now you are older and ready to be initiated. Back at the special place you learn there is more to the story. The ancestor turned into a millipede leaving those marks – one for each verse of a song you must now learn; many generations old, it holds vital information you can’t afford to get wrong.

Time passes – you are an elder. You know a thousand songs, chants, stories and dances. They tell about the animals – their life cycles, how they feed and breed, how to hunt them and the rules for dividing the kill. You know which plants you can eat and how to prepare them. The songs tell you the clues, on land and in the night sky, of the passing seasons, so you know when to move as game becomes abundant or plants fruit. The songs tell you the laws of your people and the gods and spirits you must appease. They contain your people’s history and relations with neighbouring groups.

As an elder you have authority, with others, to create new stories for events worthy of memory.

With so much to remember you have songs to list and a ceremonial cycle mapped to each of the locations you visit, so you can be certain that every story is regularly rehearsed.

Spread through your mind and the minds of others in your group is the total knowledge of your people. It is a repository of incredible detail, containing information of practical importance as well as the beliefs that define your understanding of the universe and your place within it. Without a written language, you must keep it ever alive and pass it on completely and accurately. So of course, you use the method by which it came to you, in interwoven branches of story and song that emanate from the landscape myths you learnt as a child. The whole of your country serves as a gigantic mnemonic device for this knowledge.

The trick of using stories tied to features in a location as a memory aid is no secret. Modern speed-memory competitors use the technique, linking each card in a deck to locations within a familiar place pictured in the mind’s eye – a so-called memory palace, a mnemonic device first used in ancient Greece and Rome.

Ethnologists have known for some time how preliterate societies told stories linked to their environments. We can see the method in oral cultures of Native Americans, Africans, Polynesians and Australian Aborigines.

Once all peoples must have used systems of this kind. In the Western tradition, for example, the Iliad was recited from memory.

In her latest book, The Memory Code, Australian science writer and La Trobe University oral history researcher Lynne Kelly stresses the effectiveness of the method to accurately remember and transmit vast amounts of knowledge. This sets the ground for her main thesis: that numerous prehistoric sites around the world had a primary function as memory aids, serving as knowledge centres for peoples transitioning from hunter-gatherer to settled agricultural lifestyles. Her list includes henges, cairns and standing stones in Western Europe, Göbekli Tepe in Turkey, Neolithic temple complexes in Malta, Pueblo “great houses” in the southwestern United States and the giant, geometric animals cut into the Nazca Plain in Peru.

The basic idea is simple.” And the rest is on the Cosmos Website.

Thank you Jim Rountree for taking the time to really understand what I am on about. And thank you Cosmos for being the great magazine that you are.

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Posted in archaeology, art of memory, memory, memory devices, memory palace, memory places, method of loci, mnemonic devices, songlines, Stonehenge, The Memory Code | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Memory workshops and Mnemonic Arts classes

There is a one day workshop on Saturday April 7th. There are also mnemonic arts classes for school students. All takes places at the new Orality Centre offices. For more information, click on the images and you will head off to The Orality Centre website. Director Paul Allen and fellow staff member Alice Steel will be the tutors.

 

 

 

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Posted in Alice Steel, art of memory, indigenous memory systems, lukasa, memory, memory board, memory devices, memory palace, method of loci, mnemonic devices, mnemonics, Orality Centre, Paul Allen, primary orality, The Memory Code | Leave a comment

Memory methods of the Inuit and Yao

I get the most amazing emails from readers of The Memory Code. I wish I was more diligent in sharing them here. This week brought in a fascinating reference to the wooden carved maps which were used by various Inuit cultures in Greenland.

He’s Got the Whole Coast In His Hand by Raina Delisle

The article includes:

As he visualized paddling along the east coast of Greenland in an umiak, Danish explorer Gustav Holm held in his hand generations of navigational know-how. It was the 1880s—long before Siri and satellites were around to lead the way—and Holm was palming a chunk of wood about as long as an iPhone 7. Carved by a Greenlandic Inuit man, this precious piece served as a tactile map, its toothy edges representative of the fjords, headlands, and obstacles of the unforgiving coastline. As Holm ran a finger along the map, he felt a semicircular groove—a sign that he and his party would have to go overland with their boats if they made it that far north. This was just one of several subtle cues he could glean from the map that would help make an exploration safe and successful.

As Holm observed, the Tunumiit people of eastern Greenland had a sharp eye for nature and could accurately describe a place they had visited once, even 20 years earlier. The man who produced the carving was especially skilled, and created two others that accompanied it. A knobby stick about as long as a Super Big Gulp straw represents the islands off the coast, and a thicker, wand-like carving corresponds to a peninsula, with ridges and mounds that mirror the relief of the mountains.

(For the rest of the article, click on the image or here.)

Unfortunately, I have no idea how long a ‘Super Big Gulp straw’ is. I remember reading about these devices when I was doing my PhD research and marking them as one of the hundreds of must-get-back-t0 topics. I have the references still, so I will get back to them thanks to this reminder.

I am also certain that the Inuit associate songs and further knowledge with their wooden maps. If anyone knows more, please let me know!

A World of Sound by Kyle Holton

Kyle has been writing to me about his own experiments with the memory devices described in The Memory Code. I was intrigued to read his interpretation of the influence of colonisation on oral tradition from his first-hand experience of the Yao in Mozambique.

The article starts:

For eight years, I lived in a village called Nomba among the Yao people in northern Mozambique. They were a semi-oral culture that used language like a tailor uses needle and thread. Conversations were stitched together with mythic allusions, parables, and aphorisms. Banter was an art form. Libraries of knowledge existed in the heads of the elders. Ancestral lines, wisdom, and folk stories were sung. The memory and knowledge of their culture was passed along through song recited during religious festivals and rites of passage. Specialized knowledge about farming, foraging, and medicinal and cooking recipes was archived through oral traditions.

To read the whole article click on the image or here.


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Why absolutely everywhere needs a name

And I mean everywhere. And I mean a memorable, useful name. When setting up a memory palace, name every location carefully and it will serve you well. That is a lesson from indigenous cultures that I had not learned well enough.

It was five years ago that I set up my first three big memory palaces for the Countries of the world (including independent protectorates), Pre-history and History. I have done many since. I learnt a major lesson this week when I returned to those first three palaces to write about them in my new book. They are constantly in use because my brain jumps to any location on them when I need the information, but I had not travelled them and checked all the locations for well over a year.

Granddaughter Abigail and Poppy walking past Curaçao (the Netherlands), aka the fruit shop.

Countries walk was still easy. In the Countries memory journey, every location had a name by default. It just took the name of the country. When I announced to my husband that ‘Kirsten had bought Tokelau’, he knew that she was just moving in round the corner and had not, with the income of a school teacher, suddenly bought an entire island.

The actual locations of particular events along the Pre-history and History walks were still in my memory despite the lack of revision. These are continuous journeys, not a set of separate locations, as is usual for memory palaces. Time doesn’t work in neat moments – so I need to walk through time. I can also put any new event in place because there will always be something (a tree, rock, fence) at the point where I want to add the new item.

But the dates were not there in my memory as I walked these familiar trails. I needed to work out the dates of most of the locations that I had chosen to divide up time and ground the walk in the landscape. Only a few highly memorable dates were firmly in place. I had divided up the two historic journeys in a varying scale because they started at 4,600 million years ago and go to the present.

Once I get to 1900 I continue the location for every year in what I call my 20th Century journey. The last one was fine – the numbers in the memory palace ‘name’ the dates. The scales on the three history palaces vary greatly. If I included every year from the beginning, I would circumnavigate the world well over 2,000 times. As it happens I walk about 2 km.

The problem with the Pre-history and History walks dawned on me and was very easily solved. The locations for each of the significant dates dividing up the journey should be named. How blatantly obvious! Why had it taken me years to realise it?

Hadean’s Wall

My first location in Pre-history is the stone wall in front of our house, which I referred to as ‘Front stone wall’. Good, isn’t it? I had then linked the wall to the Hadean geologic eon. The Hadean? A wall? And it hadn’t occurred to me for five years to call it Hadean’s Wall? I hang my head in shame.

The driveway at 65.5 million years ago, when the dinosaurs were wiped out, is no longer referred to as ‘the long driveway’ but is now ‘Dead-Dino-Drive’.

I named lots of them in French. It made my memory palace sound so much more sophisticated.

At 100,000 years ago, I listed the house by the name on the gate which is rather useless for my purpose – and I kept forgetting it anyway. It is now ‘Cent Maison’ and the power pole which I referred to as ‘Power pole’ is now ‘Trente Chauvet Poteau’ which rolls off the tongue rather nicely, don’t you think? It also tells me that I’m at 30,000 years ago and that this is the date for the wonderfully painted Chauvet Cave. The little gap at the bottom of the pole (a cave, if you have a vivid enough imagination) confirms that I am at the right power pole.

Two walks around Pre-history and History later, saying the names aloud (once I checked that there was no one within hearing) and the names were all in place.

Why has it taken me so long to realise the problem? It’s not as if I didn’t have plenty of indigenous advice about the importance of naming locations. I also had experience. When I set up a version of an Australian Aboriginal songline through the nearby bush, I named each location, every ten metres or so along the track, as I had been told to do. It was astoundingly easy to sing those names and visualise every single metre of that bush track. By naming I noticed a whole lot of details which I simply wouldn’t have noticed otherwise. So why didn’t I realise the importance of naming locations for my history walks?

I just didn’t.

Alongside Aboriginal  songlines, one of the most influential writers on my thinking was Keith Basso. He described similar phenomena for Native American cultures. In particular, he wrote about the importance Apaches put on place names in his fantastic book, Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache (1996).

This is just a small portion of what Basso wrote:

As conceived by Apaches from Cibecue, the past is a well-worn ‘path’ or ‘trail’ (‘intin) which was traveled first by the people’s founding ancestors and which subsequent generations of Apaches have traveled ever since. Beyond the memories of living persons, this path is no longer visible the past has disappeared and thus it is unavailable for direct consultation and study. For this reason, the past must be constructed which is to say, imagined with the aid of historical materials, sometimes called ‘footprints’ or ‘tracks’ (biké’ goz’áá *), that have survived into the present.

These materials come in various forms, including Apache place-names, Apache stories and songs, and different kinds of relics found at locations throughout Apache country (the hand-cut stones surrounding the spring at Snakes’ Water provide a good example). Because no one knows when these phenomena came into being, locating past events in time can be accomplished only in a vague and general way. This is of little consequence, however, for what matters most to Apaches is where events occurred, not when, and what they serve to reveal about the development and character of Apache social life. In light of these priorities, temporal considerations, though certainly not irrelevant, are accorded secondary importance. (pp 31-2).

I have learned my lesson now.

See also:

Starting a contemporary Songline – Countries of the world
Memorising and understanding History

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Avebury Henge, looking more gorgeous than ever

I get wonderful emails from readers of The Memory Code. One of them not only talked about one of my favourite places in the world – Avebury Henge in Wiltshire – but included the best photos I have ever seen of these stunning stones. What I love is the way David Baldwin’s photographs show how different each stone is from the next and how perfect they would be to provide a set of distinct locations to encode information.

David talks about ideas that the Neolithic builders of Avebury may have altered the stones, which would be totally logical if you accept my ideas that the stones act as memory locations encoded with pragmatic  information. That doesn’t mean that I agree that such alterations have been made. I don’t have the skills to judge and will leave the debate to the experts. But it is interesting to consider this possibility while you look at stunning photographs of the magnificent stones.

The set of beautifully high resolution photos can be found at http://www.nightfolio.co.uk/avebury_sacred_landscape.html

David Baldwin wrote:

I live in the UK near Avebury, and I am about a third of the way through a personal photographic exploration of the site at night.

To help me with this I have read as many books as possible about Avebury, and I often think of yours, The Memory Code, as I examine the megaliths. As I am sure you know, there is a good deal of controversy as to whether the Avebury stones have been edited by our ancestors, in particularly whether there are faces in the stones. My own position is that there are clearly lots of natural shapes that resemble faces, but that there are also clearly artificially shaped stones. I am not an archaeologist, but I feel that I do have skills in recognizing patterns, so that a good deal of my photographs have the faces as subject matter.

As a lay person it seems to me that the idea that the stones have been subtly carved to record various mythological figures fits in really well with your ideas that the ceremonial landscape was encoded with tribal knowledge. Not only where there ceremonial areas with exclusive access, but as Professor Terence Meaden has pointed out many of the stone faces themselves may only have been known to initiates, another form of exclusivity.

The idea that the stones have been altered isn’t academic orthodoxy (in fact it is a little toxic I think, for example, archaeologist Aubrey Burl in his Yale book suggests that you need to be drunk to see them.

David has commented on this topic on his website towards the bottom of the page here: http://www.nightfolio.co.uk/night_photography_avebury/Avebury%20Quotations.htm

He considers Professor Meaden the authority, in particular in Meaden’s book, The Secrets of the Avebury Stones.

David continued:

Meaden has been reviewing the stones for around 30 years I believe, and I see my photographs as following in his footsteps, although unlike him my motivation is mainly artistic!  

Anyway, thank you for your book and may I please invite you to visit my Avebury gallery, which is a work in progress:

Night Photography At Avebury by David Baldwin

 

And a photo of the West Kennet Avenue, the avenue leading to the henge:


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Posted in archaeology, Avebury, British Neolithic, Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies, stone circles, The Memory Code | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Australian Memory Championships

I was delighted to win the Senior division (over 60) of the Australian Memory Championships as run by the IAM (International Association of Memory).

This is what we do for 10 events in a total of 12 trials. In this event, we are memorising the order of a shuffled deck of cards. From left in this row of competitors, or memory athletes, as we are known:

Anastasia Woolmer (AUS), Chris Griffin (New Zealand), me (AUS) and Takeru Aoki from Japan. The International event was won by Liu Renjie of China closely followed by Kwon Soon-Moon Orissam of South Korea.

The Australian National title was won by Anastasia Woolmer for the second year in a row.

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Chaco Canyon gets even more intriguing

Doors in the lowest level of Pueblo Bonito. Image: L.Kelly

Nowhere I visited during the research for my PhD and two subsequent books had an impact on me as profound as Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, USA. Standing inside the largest of the Great Houses, Pueblo Bonito, was awe-inspiring. Great Houses were massive buildings many storeys high and of the most astounding stonework. But they weren’t primarily ‘houses’ or residences. Chaco was a ceremonial centre – a place where knowledge was imparted and maintained for the extraordinary Ancestral Pueblo culture. I didn’t see nearly enough of the Canyon in my much-too-brief visit.

I didn’t visit the Great House of Penasco Blanco which was constructed in stages from around 900 to 1125 AD. Dates are pretty accurate in the Canyon due to the atmospheric dryness which preserves the wood thus providing excellent chronology from it, known as dendrochronology.

Retired US educator, Dr Sarah (Sally) Wither, wrote an intriguing email.

“I read Memory Code last spring, but I had forgotten that you mentioned Chaco Canyon. We visited there last week and when I saw unique stones sticking out of a wall in a way that may have led to a kiva. I immediately wondered if they might be memory stones. They were quite different from the stones used to build the walls and they were different from each other. This was at Penasco Blanco an unexcavated remain.”

Below are Sally’s photos. She sent higher resolution, so more detail is available. I cannot make any judgement on the idea, but it certainly makes sense. I’d love to go back there and talk Sally’s question over with the South-West Pueblo people and archaeologists.

Images of Penasco Blanco. (c) Sarah Wither.

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Posted in archaeology, Chaco Canyon, Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies, memory, memory places, Memory Spaces, method of loci, Penasco Blanco, The Memory Code | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

An incredible set of memory boards

It was one of those ‘why didn’t I think of that?’ moments. Julia Adzuki had taken the concept of lukasa and danced her own direction.

It was a very excited few hours over lunch when Julia, visiting from Sweden, demonstrated her unique take on the memory boards of the West African Luba people. Known as lukasa (plural nkasa), these boards had delighted me for their beauty and astounded me for their efficacy ever since I first heard of them a decade ago. I use my Victorian Birds lukasa all the time, but know it so well that I don’t need it physically with me.

Above: Julia Aduki (centre), Alice Steele (right) and me at lunch with our versions of traditional West African nkasa and other memory devices.

Alice has been making nkasa in various forms for well over a year now. She even has her three year-old son learning his acacia species with them. It is so cute when he says the scientific names for the plants, pointing to the bead on a little board.

Having learned of lukasa from The Memory Code, Julia has developed a set of 15 boards which fitted magically inside a wooden box. She designed these nkasa to help her when she was training as a teacher of the 15 introductory classes of the Skinner Releasing Technique. [link to http://www.skinnerreleasing.com] This dance pedagogy uses guided imagery as an impulse for movement, particularly for dancers. Each class follows a script which types up to over 10 pages.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photos: Julia with her 15 nkasa and their box (click on images to see details).

Julia first encoded the 15 classes in a landscape memory palace.

She had trained in the technique in Turkey together with her friend, Deniz Soyarslan. As many of the images which are used within the dance classes make a reference to the landscape, the friends decided to practice the actual technique in the landscape near Tekirova. She and Deniz made cards of notes for all the aspects of each class they needed to remember in sequence.

When Julia and Deniz started the landscape journey, they knew the content of the 15 classes, but could not recall what happened where or the sequence within each of the classes. Julia described what happened when they created a memory palace with a location for each of the classes in the Turkish landscape:

‘When we planted the memory trail, we couldn’t remember the sequence or the correlations between different parts of the pedagogy. We couldn’t place the images. But as soon as we had planted the sequence, it was like a 3D embodied mapping process. The progressions and correlations kind of popped out of the landscape. That was the moment I said to myself: this works.”

“What really excites me about this memory method is the possibility of repair, of embodied relational connection. Making memory trails offers the possibility of deepening human relationships within the environment.”

For Julia, the movements will always have a home in that precious Turkish landscape.

‘I made nkasa back in Sweden because I couldn’t take the landscape with me. I made them in the memory of the landscape, imagining the landscape. The strongest memory of all is still those places on the memory trail.’

‘I had shells and other bits and pieces collected in Turkey which I could use to make them. The nkasa enable me to add detail to each landscape location.’

Above:  Julia describes seventh lukasa in the sequence. ‘In this class, there is a movement study about the whole body curling and uncurling. At this location in landscape there were poppies. Their movement as the stems uncurl was so appropriate. I added the curl to the board which reminds me directly of the landscape. I chose the red bead because it reminded me of the poppies.’

Above: Nkasa 4 and 14.  These two boards both have shells from the Turkish beach with the centre exposed. Julia chose these as they create an image of the spine for two movements which relate directly to the skeleton.

Born in Australia, but having lived in a range of countries overseas, Julia described how her understanding of Aboriginal relationships to the landscape has changed since using the landscape is a memory palace.

“I love that landscape in Turkey. I loved it before but it is a part of me now. Planting memory in the landscape is also a process of the landscape taking root in oneself. That was a real eye-opener. I have a tiny little inkling now of indigenous connection to Country. It’s just a sprouting seed of understanding, not an ancient forest.”

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Posted in indigenous memory systems, lukasa, memory, memory board, memory devices, mnemonic devices, The Memory Code | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments