Reader question: moving away from a memory space

[Click on all the images to get larger sizes.]

Miroslav Kalous from Prague in the Czech Republic, wrote and asked:

I’d like to thank you for the idea of “large memory spaces” which is really thrilling and I’m on the verge of building my own ones (one related to history till 1900, one for 1900+ years, one for specifically “all things Egypt” as that is a major country-project I’ve begun dealing with now).

However, I would also like to ask you one question before I begin, very practical one: unlike you (from what I understood between the lines), I don’t live at a permanent place; probably in 2 years I am going to move, then live somewhere else for other 3 years, then perhaps settling down for a longer time span at one place. As an experienced mnemonist, do you think it makes sense to start building the spaces where I live now? But what happens when I (or you) move? Re-writing all the loci spots into new palace/memory space is probably not realistic… and I am too much of a newbie to mnemonics to know if you can operate with, i.e. two complementary places. Also, I suppose, when moving somewhere else you lose the (critical?) advantage of going through the space and using them as “flashcards” prompting active recall of the stuff stored in there.

What a great question! I am so embedded in my landscape now that nothing would make me move. But as Miroslav points out, that is not practical assumption, especially for those much younger than me.

The first idea is to use public spaces which are unlikely to change. A quick check on Google images of Prague and – wow  – what a stunning city! The bridges across the Vltava River, as in the image above, looked wonderful to use as a set of memory loci.

There are a huge range of other possible solutions. These are often discussed on the Art of Memory Forum under “Method of Loci” – my favourite forum on the Internet

http://mt.artofmemory.com/forums/method-of-loci

One solution which was talked about in memory treatises written in the Middle Ages was to use an imaginary memory palace. One suggested way back then was to use Noah’s Arc as described in the Bible, but maybe something a little more contemporary is required.

Some people use sets of locations from their favourite films or books. It is a matter of creating the palace and a set of locations from that film or book using your imagination to add in extra locations or details. You would then, I expect, draw that memory palace and label it and keep it forever as your reference. You could even use Tolkein’s Middle Earth.

You could create your own imaginary world much as fantasy writers do. In fact, I have created imaginary worlds before when teaching science fiction and fantasy writing and I have just decided to try this as a memory experiment because I loved doing the maps and creating the worlds.

One quite common virtual memory palace is to use one from a video game. I’ve never tried this so I have no idea how it would work but I gather they can be very effective.

Another palace people use is this school or home from childhood and re-create these locations by drawing maps, just adapting any blurry remembering with imagination.

Commonly recommended in classical Greek and Roman, mediaeval and Renaissance times was using a famous building. Gothic churches were extremely popular and even designed with this use mind. Chartres Cathedral, as in the three images shown, is often discussed in these terms. 
You can use any streetscape. I would imagine the National Mall in Washington, for example, would work a treat. With the White House and all the Smithsonian museums and plenty of images online, you could easily create a memory palace that could be infinitely adaptable by adding the internals of each of the buildings if you wanted to expand it. There are visitor maps online for all the buildings. See below.

This is really fun thinking about all the possibilities, but I’ve got far too excited about creating my own fantasy world to write more. Sorry! Gotta go and start drawing!

 

Guest blog: experiments with memory

I am getting a lot of emails from readers which is so rewarding. Some are trying out the memory methods and are as astounded as I was about how effective they are.

A memory palace - From Emma Willard, The Temple of Time, 1846.
From Emma Willard, The Temple of Time, 1846.

Barry described his experiences. I will hand over the blog to him as he writes so well I don’t want to change a thing:
________________

I thought you might get a kick out of hearing how your work has impacted someone. It’s certainly had a powerful effect on me!

I’ve always been interested in the mystery of prehistoric civilisations, and of Australian indigenous culture before its catastrophic disruption by the Europeans. Your book has changed the way I see all of that. Myths and legends are not childish fantasies, but are multilayered storehouses of information! Astonishing, and yet, in retrospect, so obvious!

Anyway I could rave for ages about the insights into human history you’ve given me, but I will resist. I’ve been happily raving to practically everyone I know.

Of course, your book is a double-whammy — not only casting a new perspective on non-literate culture, but also painting an intriguing picture of the potential of using these long-neglected memory systems. I’d encountered memory palaces before, but they always seemed like too much hard work, and perhaps of dubious worth beyond remembering long shopping lists and playing cards.

Charged with new enthusiasm, I decided to make some memory journeys of my own. I too normally have a rather vague and temporary kind of memory. Here’s what I’ve tried:

First memory path

I live in a small town in the Sunshine Coast hinterland, and often walk to my office in town — about a 10 minute journey. I took note of potential sites and took photos of them all. Then I added them to a spreadsheet and gave them all unique names. I then worked to be able to remember each in order.

Following your principle of marking 5s and 10s, I added special markers to every 10th item. Every 5 spots I make special by imagining them as extremely cold. This worked well, as any story I add is enhanced by the dramatic cold. I can easily remember where the “cold” sites are.

This path is now 118 stations long. I’ll make it longer but it will involve a lengthy hike into the outskirts of town where landmarks are further apart.

Periodic Table of Elements

As a test, I decided to memorise the elements. It’s not something that I particularly need, so I figured if I messed it up it wouldn’t matter. It took about three weeks, but I got there. The marker system makes it easy to jump to any point by atomic number. It piqued my interest and I bought a little pocket book about the elements, which I’m now using to add interesting facts to the stories.

Countries of the World

I liked this idea and decided to emulate it, using my existing memory track. I was worried that the Elements would interfere but to my surprise they made it even easier! Each station is now ready-made with extra meaning and personality that makes them distinct; so the countries and the elements just seem to reinforce each other without getting confused.

I’m still working on this one. I’m up to Bolivia (the Monkees singing “Daydream Believer” in a South American accent, compressed into a Ball of Ears and rolling around. It’s also the station for Lead, and fishing lines with lead sinkers are casting their hooks into the ears and pulling them around painfully).

I do like this journey, because the countries of the world are mentioned all the time, and now when I hear their names I think of their special place and I have a chance to add to it.

Ukulele Chords

I’m sick of not being able to remember the chords when I jam with people. I normally have to look them up on my phone. Now I just have to think for a moment and I have the chord I need.

I made a small circuit in my garden, with 12 stations, each representing a musical note. Each station has a totem animal to remind me of the note, eg “B flat” is Beetle. Each station has two stories, one for the minor chord and one for the major. The major story is high up, the minor story is low down or underground. I turned the finger positions for each chord into 4 numbers and converted them into words using a version of the “major system”. This gives me the basis for each story.

I guess I eventually I won’t need this system as I’ll have learnt it by rote.

(BTW did you know that the etymology of “rote” is unknown, and may have the same origin as “route”? Interesting…)

Future Plans

Next I would like to learn something about the natural world. such as all the known edible native plants of Australia. I don’t really want to make another great big memory trail, so I thought a portable memory device might be the way to go. If you can provide any guidance in the construction and use of lukasa-style devices I’d be very grateful.

Other ideas:
major stars by constellation
bones of the human body
muscles of the human body
planets and moons
geological time
history
trees of Australia
birds
fish
Spanish vocabulary
software design patterns (I’m a software developer)
That’ll do. I hope you found my account of adventures in memory land of value!

Thanks again for your magnificent work.
Regards
Barry

______________

Thank you for your magnificent email, Barry!

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.

Stonehenge – they moved their memory palace from Wales!

Thank you to the many people who sent me links to the various reports of this discovery and commented on how wonderfully it suited my theory on the purpose of Stonehenge.

“Stonehenge was a Welsh monument from its very beginning. If we can find the original monument in Wales from which it was built, we will finally be able to solve the mystery of why Stonehenge was built and why some of its stones were brought so far.” Mike Parker Pearson, archaeologist who led the study.

sh-bluestones
Click on image to go to University College London website and the full story.

I could not be more delighted by this discovery. In my recent Cambridge University Press book, Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies, and in my forthcoming book, The Memory Code, I offer a new theory for the purpose of Stonehenge and monuments around the world. The new findings in Wales fit the theory a treat.

My research is on the way non-literate cultures memorized vast amounts of practical information when they had no way of writing it down. All oral cultures used a combination of memory techniques and physical devices – their survival depended on accurate retention of practical information on plants, animals, navigation, genealogies, astronomy and timekeeping, seasonality, resource management, intertribal agreements and so on. The memory technology employed universally is the ‘method of loci’ or the ‘art of memory’, the use a sequence of physical locations to act as a set of mnemonic subheadings to the knowledge system. The information for each location is then stored in song and mythology, stories and dance – all kept in memory.

Stonehenge was built in the transition from a mobile hunter gatherer society to a settled farming community. Mobile cultures used a range of landscape locations to store information, such as the Australian Aboriginal songlines. The ancient Greeks and Romans used their buildings and streetscapes in the same way, attaching information to each location and then recalling it by walking, or imagining themselves walking through their memory sites. Modern memory champions refer to their sequence of locations as memory palaces.

What happened when hunter gatherer cultures started to stay in one place, an essential development if they are ever to farm? They were no longer moving between their landscape locations over the annual cycle but didn’t yet have a built environment. The simplest thing to do was to replicate their landscape sequence locally, such as with a circle of stones or posts.

The original monument at Stonehenge is now considered to have been a circle of stones or posts, possibly the Welsh bluestones. The huge stones in the centre, the familiar sarsens, didn’t come to the monument for 500 years after the first circles.

I have argued in my PhD thesis and both books, that the bluestones were particularly suitable as memory locations because of the variety of textures and colours in their material made them visually so variable which is great for encoding information. I thought that the builders brought the stones and knowledge of the method of loci from Wales.

If Parker Pearson and his team are right, then they brought their entire memory palace!

I could not have hoped for a better development.

 

The Memory Code will be published by Allen & Unwin in July 2016 in Australia and later in the UK by Atlantic Books.

 

My 130 Ancestors

I received this comment on the My Books page today:

I’ve seen you over at the mnemotechnics forum. I wonder if there is a place where you’ve listed your 52 ‘ancestors’ for playing cards? I love the idea of my 52 characters being useful memorable items themselves – and possible pegs for further info.

Graham is talking about two of my memory experiments which I referred to in a discussion over on the mnemotechnics forum. These are the two experiments as I describe them on the page called My 40 Memory Experiments.

They are in chronological order because that adds more information to the memorisation. I’d be intrigued to know which characters people would chose, which they’d leave out and which they would add who I have not mentioned.

Standard card deck – 52 Ancestors

heirloom-deck-1
Part of the card deck. I use the old fashioned royal faces on the right.

The world memory champions memorise shuffled card decks by giving a character to each one and creating stories. My ancestors are in chronological order. I start with Homer and go to Oliver Cromwell, to be followed by the Tarot Ancestors below. I consider the method to being akin to the stories told by indigenous cultures of the pantheon of mythological characters.

For example, Attila the Hun is the 7 of Hearts. I call him Atilda the Honey. I imagine a tilda (~) as the horizontal bar of the 7, and he is a honey because it’s Hearts and all lovely. It is so ludicrous a nickname that it is memorable.

Having given historical characters to each card in my deck, I am using them to memorise  their roles, expanding to the historical events, contemporaries and the context of their lives. They are memory hooks for far more than just their lives. This has gone very well and I am now extremely interested in these people. Having a hook enables me to remember more about them than before. It now overlaps with History Journey and Countries. But it is not confusing, just each mnemonic device aiding the other.

Tarot deck – another 78 Ancestors

tarot-deck-1
Half the tarot deck

The 78 cards of a tarot deck are heavily illustrated, lending themselves to the creation of stories. I have encoded another 78 historical characters, from Blaise Pascal to Linus Torvalds. I’m now adding more layers of data to the structure.

The fact that image may not bear any relationship to the character is no problem. I just have to get imaginative to make the link.

I have chosen people who I think give me the best chance of covering a great deal of the influences on my culture. I am sure others would have chosen differently. I wonder how much my personal biases show.

Spades
A Homer 800 BC
2 Pythagorus 570 BC
3 Confucius 551 BC
4 Herodotus 484 BC
5 Socrates 470BC
6 Plato 428? BC
7 Aristotle 384 BC
8 Alexander the Great 356 BC
9 Euclid ~300 BC
10 Archimedes 287 BC
J Cicero 106 BC
Q Julius Caesar 100 BC
K Cleopatra 69 BC
Hearts
A Augustus 63 BC
2 Jesus 4 BC
3 Pliny the Elder 23
4 Ptolemy 90
5 Constantine the Great 272
6 Augustine of Hippo 354
7 Attila 406
8 Mohammed 570
9 Charlemagne 742
10 Averroës 1126
J William the Conqueror 1028
Q Genghis Khan 1162
K Thomas Aquinas 1225
Diamonds
A Dante Alighieri 1265
2 William of Ockham 1287
3 Petrarch 1304
4 Geoffrey Chaucer 1343
5 Johannes Gutenberg 1398
6 Mehmed the Conqueror 1432
7 Pachacuti Inca Yupanqui or Pachacutec 1438
8 Christopher Columbus 1450
9 Leonardo da Vinci 1458
10 Erasmus 1466
J Niccolo Machiavelli 1469
Q Nicholaus Copernicus 1473
K Michelangelo 1475
Clubs
A Sir Thomas More 1478
2 Martin Luther 1483
3 Henry VIII 1491
4 Charles V, Holy Roman Emporer 1500
5 John Calvin 1509
6 Miguel de Cervantes 1547
7 Francis Bacon 1561
8 William Shakespeare 1564
9 Galileo Galilei 1564
10 Johannes Kepler 1571
J Thomas Hobbes 1588
Q Rene Descartes 1596
K Oliver Cromwell 1599
Pentacles     1
1 Blaise Pascal 1623
2 Louis XIV of France 1638
3 Isaac Newton 1642
4 Gottfried Leibnitz 1646
5 Johann Sebastian Bach 1685
6 Voltaire 1694
7 Benjamin Franklin 1706
8 Carl Linnaeus 1707
9 Leonhard Euler 1707
10 Jean-Jacques Rousseau 1712
knave Denis Diderot 1713
jack Adam Smith 1723
queen Immanuel Kant 1724
king James Cook 1728
chalices         1
1 Paul Revere 1735
2 James Watt 1736
3 Edward Jenner 1749
4 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe 1749
5 Louis XVI of France 1754
6 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart 1756
7 Napoleon 1769
8 Ludvig von Beethoven 1770
9 Jane Austen 1775
10 Johann Carl Friedrich Gauss 1777
knave Charles Babbage 1791
jack Michael Faraday 1791
queen Charles Lyell 1797
king John Stuart Mill 1806
wands           1
1 Abraham Lincoln 1809
2 Charles Darwin 1809
3 Otto von Bismarck 1815
4 Karl Marx 1818
5 Queen Victoria 1819
6 Florence Nightingale 1820
7 Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevski 1821
8 Gregor Mendel 1822
9 Louis Pasteur 1822
10 Leo Tolstoy 1828
knave James Clerk Maxwell 1831
jack Lewis Carroll 1832
queen Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky 1840
king Frederich Nietzsche 1844
swords         1
1 Thomas Edison 1847
2 Alexander Bell 1847
3 Oscar Wilde 1854
4 Sigmund Freud 1856
5 Nikola Tesla 1856
6 JJ Thompson 1856
7 Emmeline Pankhurst 1858
8 Max Planc 1858
9 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle 1859
10 Marie Curie 1867
knave Gerturde Bell 1868
jack Mahatma Gandhi 1869
queen Vladimir Lenin 1870
king Ernest Rutherford 1871
Arcana           0
0 Winston Churchill 1874
1 Joseph Stalin 1878
2 Albert Einstein 1879
3 Leon Trotsky 1879
4 Ataturk 1881
5 Benito Mussolini 1883
6 John M Keynes 1883
7 Neils Bohr 1885
8 Erwin Schrodinger 1887
9 Ramanujan 1887
10 Jawaharlal Nehru 1889
11 Agatha Christie 1890
12 Haile Selassie 1892
13 Mao Zedong 1893
14 Louis Leakey 1903
15 Georges Simenon 1903
16 Alan Turing & Paul Erdos 1912
17 Indira Gandhi & Nelson Mandela 1917
18 Rosalind Franklin 1920
19 Benoît B. Mandelbrot 1924
20 Martin Luther King 1929
21 Linus Torvalds 1969

Mike Pitts – Digging Deeper blog on Durrington Walls standing stones

[This was supposed to be reblogged from Mike Pitts’s site, but my reblog has gone to my old site. I hope that a copy and paste is legal. The original site: https://mikepitts.wordpress.com/2015/09/07/are-we-rewriting-the-history-of-stonehenge-again/]

This discovery is a fantastic fit for my theory on the purpose of the Stonehenge / Durrington Walls complex of monuments as just published in the Cambridge University Press book, Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies. I shall cover this addition in the new book to be published next year. Over to Mike Pitts:

Are we rewriting the history of Stonehenge – again?

Durrington Walls 2015 (1)Let’s see what we’ve got. I can’t claim to know much more about the newest Stonehenge story than any other journalist. The discovery of a stone row at Durrington Walls was first announced a year ago, almost to the day. We were given little data then, however, and I seemed to be the only one who noticed! So what do we know now?

  1. What do they say they have found?

Durrington Walls 2015 (2)Evidence that there was once a row of up to 90 standing stones about 3km north-east of Stonehenge, west of the road between Amesbury and Durrington,. The stones, probably local sarsens, ran for at least 330m. At the east end the row stops short of the line of a modern road, and apparently does not continue beyond; at the west end it continues to the edge of the survey area, so may extend further there.

At the eastern end up to 30 of these stones (the largest of which is 4.5m x 1.5m x 1m) are still there, having been pushed over and buried beneath the bank of the Durrington Walls henge. Elsewhere “the stones are fragmentary or represented by massive foundation pits”.

The row could be contemporary with the sarsens at Stonehenge, or be earlier in date.

Electromagnetic induction data showing central dry valley through the henge

This row followed a curving natural depression to the north, apparently artificially accentuated by a chalk-cut scarp. The scarp and stones delineated “a C-shaped ‘arena’ … [which] may have surrounded traces of springs and a dry valley leading from there into the Avon”, close by to the east.

  1. What is their evidence?

DuringtonGPR2The key evidence for this comes from “a cutting-edge geophysical and remote sensing survey at an unprecedented scale and resolution”. The survey began in July 2010, and (I gather from Nick Snashall, National Trust archaeologist) was concluded two weeks ago at Durrington Walls, after spending a total of about 120 days in the field. Techniques employed include magnetometry, ground-penetrating radar, electromagnetic induction, earth resistance survey and terrestrial 3D laser scanning.

This is the survey that caused much interest on TV last year, and earlier in the press in 2011: the Stonehenge Hidden Landscape Project, conducted by the Universities of Birmingham and Bradford, and the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Archaeological Prospection. The listed technologies refer to the entire survey. Images specially for Durrington Walls are attributed to ground penetrating radar (showing the whole stone row), electrical resistivity tomography (showing a buried stone) and electro-magnetic induction (showing landscape topography). The images are impressive, but not much detail has been released.

  1. How do they know the features are stones?

Durrington Walls 2015 (4)ed

On the evidence we have been given, the geophysical evidence for a row of large features is compelling. Less certain is what those features are, though again they seem to have evidence that suggests something solid is underground, and stone would be an obvious candidate.

They say the stones are probably sarsen for two reasons. First, there is a lone sarsen stone still on the surface in a field across the road, known as the Cuckoo Stone. Secondly, anything up to 4.5m long is just too big to be the other type of Stonehenge megalith, bluestone. They are joining up dots that are quite a long way apart, so really this is an open question.

  1. How do they know how old the row of stones is?

DuringtonGPR22The argument for the age of the row depends on evidence that the stones are buried beneath the henge bank. The digging of the ditch that threw up the original bank is quite loosely dated to around 2500BC. So if the stones were buried when the bank was first thrown up, they must have been lowered around or before 2500BC. The sarsen circle at Stonehenge is dated to about the same time.

We have not been shown evidence for why they think the stones are buried beneath the bank (rather than, for example, buried down through the bank), though we might expect that to show in GPR plots.

  1. What else might they be?

Durrington Walls 2015 (9)

Rows of large pits – often referred to as pit alignments, of unknown purpose – are not uncommon in prehistoric Britain, dating mostly between the early bronze age and iron age; so not as old as Stonehenge or Durrington Walls.

The area has been close to active military works since before the first world war, so an unknown military structure is not impossible. There seems to be no evidence for that, however, and old maps show nothing anywhere near the alignment.

  1. Will the history of Stonehenge have to be rewritten?

Durrington Walls 2015 (11)

Not yet.

There’s no denying they’ve found something, and any explanation that does not involve the long history of Stonehenge looks like special pleading. This is a genuine challenge to how we think about these sites, and potentially a major discovery and a stunning achievement for the research team.

Without excavation, however, we will never get to the bottom of what it is they have found – what the pits are, what the solid things are, and how old they are.

But for now, this is how they think it looked:

Phase 1 from above

Phase 1 oblique

Phase 1 on the ground

Phase 4

All illustrations in this post are from the Stonehenge Hidden Landscape Project

Orality – why it is so important for prehistoric archaeologists

Primary orality is what you have when you don’t have literacy.

It is often commented that prehistoric cultures didn’t leave a written record. What is almost never mentioned is that cultures which had no contact with writing did have an alternative. They had orality. Most aspects of orality have been literally overwritten by writing, but they do leave a trace in the archaeological record.

Oral cultures employ a wide range of techniques to retain a vast amount of information in memory because they don’t write it down. The research on primary orality talks about the way song, stories, dance and mythology encode vast stores of information in memorable forms.

What is important for archaeologists is that primary oral cultures also used material devices to aid memory: from the landscape and art through an incredible range of enigmatic portable objects. It is these material signs which can be detected in the archaeological record.

lukasa-Brooklyn_Museum
Lukasa from the Brooklyn Museum

For example, the African Luba use a memory board known as a lukasa, among many mnemonic devices. It is used in a very similar way to the Australian churinga/tjuringa. These devices are restricted to knowledgeable elders. Their prehistoric equivalent should be found in ceremonial sites, but almost never in domestic settings.

Songs, dances, stories and mythological representations are not simply for entertainment nor are they purely superstitious. They are an essential way of recording masses of pragmatic information. Performance spaces should exhibit a public/restricted dichotomy as is found in all indigenous cultures.

It is too often assumed that knowledge is simply handed on through stories told around the campfire or casually taught, parent to child, out on the daily gather and hunt. In years of research, I have never found a single culture which operated that way. All cultures teach in formal settings – oral and literate.

2015_Garma_Poster_Yolngu_V2

To understand the nature of orality, I started with some of the oldest continuous cultures on the planet, the 300 or so Australian Aboriginal language groups.

The Yolngu of Arnhem Land share their knowledge at the annual Garma Festival. They offer some of the best understanding of orality because they have explained it on their terms.

Indigenous survival depends on masses of practical knowledge. There are many commonalities about the memory methods used by oral cultures from the mobile Australian to the more sedentary Native American, African and Pacific cultures.

It is those commonalities which can offer another tool for archaeologists interpreting ancient ceremonial sites: orality.

Archaeological interpretation needs to include knowledge systems

ancient-cult-sitesI am not denying that ancient people, like many modern people, believed in lots of superstitions. What I am arguing as loudly as I can is that they wouldn’t have survived without a massive store of practical information. All my ethnographic research points to the memorising of pragmatic knowledge was, and in some cases still is, a critical practice of non-literate cultures at their ‘ritual sites’.

The report is about really interesting sites in Israel and the quality of the archaeology is obviously superb. I just have one small niggle.

Reports, such as the one linked above, invariably talk about cults and fertility rites and death rituals but never about knowledge systems. My research shows clearly that a large proportion of esoteric rituals serve to repeat the knowledge on which survival depends – vast stores of animal and plant information, navigational knowledge, geology, water sources, laws, weather and seasonal indicators and so on. People aren’t only interested in sex and dying.

The descriptions given in this article fit all that I would expect from a knowledge sites, they describe restricted spaces, reference to the landscape, a great deal of effort without obvious reason, decorated objects, evidence of sequence and space for performances. Each small group would require these knowledge spaces, with clusters representing those used for larger gatherings.

In Australian Aboriginal terms, these are referred to as bora grounds and corroboree sites. Evidence from all of the 300 or so language groups in Australia is that the transfer of practical knowledge was key to the purpose of these sites.

 

Primary orality – what is it?

‘Primary orality’ is all about the way societies communicate and store information when they have no contact whatsoever with writing. If they don’t have literacy, they do have orality.

Orality is an information technology, a tool which increases the ability of humans to store and process information. It is simply extraordinary how much can be memorised using orality.

Indigenous cultures stored vast amounts of knowledge about the thousand or so animals and just as many plants in the various habitats they knew intimately. The Navajo, for example, stored a classification of over 700 insects along with habitats, behaviour, identification and metaphor for human behaviour. And that’s just insects. Then there’s navigation, geology, genealogies …  the list goes on and on.

How on earth did they memorise so much stuff? That’s what primary orality is all about.

The oral encyclopaedia was (and in some cases, still is) woven into stories, vivid imaginative sung narratives, with the specific information often associated with characters within the story. Thousands of stories integrated with spiritual beliefs were kept in mythological form, constantly repeated to ensure they were not forgotten. 

Catlin_Bear_Dance

The Bear Dance, painted by George Caitlin, 1844

Most significantly, knowledge is performed; songs, dances and mythological reenactments being far more memorable than facts stored in prose. Hence the research on primary orality always includes mythology as a mnemonic form, while acknowledging the substantial spiritual role.

My research adds material memory aids – mnemonic devices – to the topic of primary orality. It is through these physical devices, along with public and restricted performance spaces, that we can link primary orality to the archaeological record.