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

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!


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

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.


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 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.


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.

Art: from orality to literacy

Art has a vastly different purpose in non-literate cultures than it does in literate ones.

Art in oral cultures is primarily a memory aid to the knowledge system while art in literate cultures is primarily aesthetic. A rash statement? I hope it’s one which generates debate.

 Australian Aboriginal art, which may have been traditional or may have been produced for the Western market.


Spider by Linda McRae, Possum by Ron King-Smith.

Too often I read that non-representational art in the archaeological context must have been for religious rituals, and interpretation is left at that. If the ‘primitive’ art is recognisable as an animal or scene, it is often assumed to be simply a repsresentation.

If the art is abstract, it is assumed to be due to some nebulous ritual. Except when interpreted by archaeologists who are very familiar with an indigenous culture, motifs are rarely, if ever, described in terms of the complex knowledge systems known from non-literate cultures such as the Australian Aboriginal and American Pueblo peoples.


Spiral petroglyph, Petroglyph National Monument, Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA.

There are a wide range of resources which document the way non-literate cultures use abstract motifs as memory aids to the knowledge system. Often, the same abstract sign can signify a range of meanings depending on the context, ceremony and person reading the signs. It is essential that interpretation of traditional art of non-literate cultures, historic or archaeological, be considered in terms of the way in which art aids the way a vast corpus of knowledge is memorised.

Two books, among many, have been hugely influential in my thinking on this topic.


Ancestral Connections: Art and an Aboriginal System of Knowledge. Howard Morphy is a leading writer about the Yongu of northwest Arnhem Land, one of the Aboriginal cultures which has retained a great deal of their traditional knowledge and been willing to convey it to anthropologists such as Morphy. Among many other aspects, Morphy explains how a single set of abstract images can lead to a multiplicity of interpretations by the Elders depending on the situation.


Memory: Luba Art and the Making of History covers the extraordinarily beautiful art of the African Luba people. It is claimed that their success as a culture in terms of longevity and range, was due to their memory devices, including the memory board known as a lukasa. Mary Nooter Roberts and Allen F. Roberts have edited this book on the Luba and their memory systems as well as written extensively on the topic themselves. Although the Roberts focus on the historical knowledge, they also refer to knowledge in a variety of genres including the pragmatic information which is my particular interest.

This topic fascinates me. I will be coming back to it many times in the future!


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.