Writing – the complication of definitions


What is writing?

Specifically, when does what I call a mnemonic object really constitute a written device?

It all depends on definitions.

Let’s start with the most controversial question it the area – is the Inca khipu a written or mnemonic device?

quipu khipu
Khipu as displayed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. (Lynn Dombrowski, under Creative Commons Attribution, Share Alike.)

This knotted cord device is the most adaptable portable memory device that I have found so far. In combination with their landscape pathways known as ceques, the khipu was the reason the Inca could maintain a vast empire in South America without writing. That is, if you define, as I do, the khipu as a mnemonic device.

But it isn’t simple. I have also found it less memorable in my experimentation than the landscape locations forming songlines or the portable devices such as the African lukasa. Was it ever intended to be fully memorized? Was it much closer to a written script? 

In The Memory Code, I use the narrowest definition of writing, that of a script which represents the sounds to a degree that an independent reader of the same culture will reproduce the exact words inscribed by the writer. Hence, there needs to be an alphabetic script, or at least one in which syllables can be represented, for me to call the symbols on a physical media ‘writing’.

urton-khipu-bookGary Urton, in his fascinating book, Signs of the Inka Khipu, defined writing as:

the communication of specific ideas in a highly conventionalized, standardized manner by means of permanent, visible signs.

However, he goes on to define ‘true writing’, a term he acknowledges as inflammatory and ethnocentric and wants dropped. Urton wrote:

I would also like to subscribe to the qualification that the forms of writing that accomplish the most highly specific level of denotation of ideas are those in which the signs of writing denote the sounds of the language community in question.

Urton, among many others, would prefer the terms glottographic (sound based) and semasiographic (non sound based) with further qualifications.

Using Urton’s definitions, I am happy to consider the two khipus I am using in my experiments as written devices although I may find that I start to  memorise them much as I do the other devices. That isn’t the case yet, but all these experiments take years. More on that in a future blog.

But what about those who consider all indigenous inscriptions to be writing?

Again, I hand over to Gary Urton, who talks about the description of wider definitions which include dance and music, images on textiles and ceramics as writing thus:

However, I think such signing devices are best classified as icons bearing conventional but highly abstract, context-specific meanings. Referring to such productions as writing, while perhaps satisfying what I would argue are essentially politically motivated programs or agendas promoting inclusiveness and multiculturism (to which I am sympathetic), renders the concept of writing virtually meaningless and (more to the point) useless for analytical purposes.

I think we can only conclude that there is a continuum from devices which are clearly mnemonic to those, like this blog post, which are clearly writing and that a very specific division between writing and mnemonics isn’t possible. The people who created the symbolic forms were more interested in storing and communicating information than they were in my future struggles with definitions.

History is usually defined as the study of the past where there are written records. Before written records, it is prehistory. Consequently, the division between history and prehistory is similarly blurred. Such is the reality of studying the human past.

I am going to give Urton the final word here. He wrote that

the point on which differentiation between different types of signing/ recording systems would turn … is that of need, rather than intelligence. (His emphasis).

Quotes are taken from Gary Urton, Signs of the Inka Khipu, (2003), University of Texas Press, pp 26-8.

See also:

My 25 Memory Experiments

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)

(c) ABC

Conversations with Richard Fidler is also available on Soundcloud.

Life Matters with Ellen Fanning (20 minutes)


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…

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

Monuments for memory – the Ten Indicators


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.

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.

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.

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

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

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.

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
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
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
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

Speaking about orality – it’s all about memory


I have now finished all the speaking engagements for the year. I am delighted with all the new friends and the wonderful feedback. The video of my talk in Brisbane last weekend should be on YouTube soon.

Although people were really interested in the new ideas about Stonehenge and other archaeological sites, I was surprised that the topic which seemed to dominate many of the question sessions – memory and the incredible memory systems used by indigenous people.

Lots and lots of people wanted to know how best they could use the memory systems themselves in everyday life. They didn’t want to memorise shuffled decks of cards like modern memory champions. Nor did they care about memorising Pi to thousands of decimal places. They want to memorise practical information as I do – the countries of the world, prehistory, history, birds …. all in my 25 memory experiments.

I know that I have so much more to explore on this topic, far more than I can accomplish in what’s left of my life. I love the idea that others are asking questions which I have never before considered. I must admit that I was really chuffed by this response from a 14 year old who had also heard Noble Prize winner (and a hero of mine) Brian Schmidt. Kristopher wrote on Facebook:

So I’m back from the Brisbane Skeptics Society convention and I am absolutely amazed at the speakers and their topics. I especially like Brian Schmidt who’s a professional astronomer and wine maker. But who amazed me the most was Dr. Lynne Kelly who is currently researching Stonehenge and the other henges around it such as wood henge. Now she only explained briefly her theory because she only had a 30 minute talk but within that half hour she completely blew my mind. But what really amazed me was that she came up to me and asked for my help in finding flaws in or adding stuff to her theory. And when I asked her if she knew if the portable tablets were just directions to the sacred sights (her theory being that Stonehenge was built to help store memory like the indigenous did in Australia) and she apparently had not and asked me to keep in contact and now I am sitting here still amazed.

I shall answer lots of the questions that I noted down after the talks here over the next few weeks. Thank you to all the audiences – every single one was great!

Memorising birds

White-winged chough. Photo: Damian Kelly.

I have now memorised the 408 birds of my state, Victoria, in taxonomic order. That means I can name each of the 82 scientific family names and all the birds in that family – all from memory. I am using a combination of methods used by indigenous cultures starting with encoding the families onto my memory board, an adaptation of the African lukasa.

I am then using stories and puns and weird images to encode the members of the families.

My memory board – a perfect size to hold in one hand
A whistling kite (family Accipitridae) being chased by an Australasian raven (Corvidae). Photo: Damian Kelly.

Now that the structure is in place and I know all the birds, I am adding more information, much as indigenous cultures do as they move to higher levels of initiation. I’m adding memory aids to identification, distribution and other characteristics. I will soon be a walking field guide with a knowledge base which is becoming constantly more comprehensive.

A year ago, I would have sworn I couldn’t do this. Now it is fun and I am convinced I can memorise anything which can be structured in some way.

This is just one of the experiments in my 40 memory experiments.