Songlines: the power and promise

The last 5 months have been flat-chat working on a new book at the invitation of Margo Neale who is the Head of Centre for Indigenous Knowledges and Senior Indigenous Curator & Advisor to the Director, all at the National Museum of Australia. It is a huge honour to have my work on Indigenous knowledge systems recognised by someone I admire so highly.

Songlines: the power and promise -cover.

Ours is to be the lead book in the First Knowledges series, published by Thames & Hudson, with the National Museum of Australia (NMA). It will be published in October 2020.

Thames & Hudson’s page on it: https://thamesandhudson.com.au/product/songlines-the-power-and-promise/

Margo curated the hugely successful Songline: tracking the Seven Sisters exhibition at the NMA in 2017 / 18. It is now touring, first to Perth and then internationally. There is a stunning catalogue for that exhibition. (click to go to NMA page)

Our book will add a different perspective, explaining the power of songlines for Aboriginal people and the promise for non-indigenous readers – a lot of memory things! The book offers insight into the same topic – songlines – from two very different perspectives that interweave beautifully.

Songlines: the power and promise has a blend of Indigenous and non-Indigenous voices. It offers what Margo calls ‘the third archive’. Aboriginal people use songlines to store their knowledge, while Western cultures use writing and technology. Aboriginal people now use a third archive – a combination of the two, as so beautifully demonstrated at the Seven Sisters exhibition.

Margo and I believe that the third archive offers a promise of a better way for everyone to store, maintain and share knowledge while gaining a much deeper relationship with it.

I shall be writing much more about this book as we approach publication in November. I just couldn’t wait to talk about it now because I am so delighted to have such prestigious validation of all the ideas drawn from indigenous knowledge systems in The Memory Code and Memory Craft and the implications for archaeology in Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies.

Art as a memory device

I get the most wonderful emails from readers. This one particularly delighted me because of the stunning painting attached.

How good is that?!? There are more of Eric Wert’s paintings on his website.

Eric wrote (quoted with permission):

“I recently heard your interview with Sean Carroll on Mindscape and want to say, as I’m sure many others have, that your discussion of memory and culture was eye-opening. I thought you might be amused by an experience I had with the Mindscape podcast which was unusual in itself, but was then surprisingly punctuated by your (incredible) interview.” [If you haven’t discovered Sean Carroll’s podcast then you are in for a treat!]

“I’m an artist from Portland, Oregon, US and my paintings can take months to make, so I’m always looking for good listening material to keep company in the studio. I found Mindscape while starting my last big painting, and inhaled most of the episodes- listening to one after another. Loved every minute, but hearing so many interviews in a day is not so great for retention. I regretted blowing through them so quickly, and felt that I couldn’t recall them very clearly (having been concentrating hard on my project while listening).

When the painting was done, I put it aside for a week to dry before varnishing. When varnishing, you have to touch every square inch of the painting, and when I did this, parts of the conversations came back with incredible clarity- to the point where I felt I could hear the particular voices of different guests depending on which part of the painting I touched. It was a very strange experience, almost like the voices were locked in the painting! The mnemonic effect doesn’t seem to work if I just look at it… only when I get up close and touch a particular spot. It was actually quite eerie, but I was doubly surprised when I later heard your discussion of memory being so closely linked to objects and locations. My experience seems to confirm this, as my recall was so much more powerful than say, having taken notes during a lecture (admittedly not a strong suit for me). I wonder if this effect will still be there over time, and I wonder what memories are locked in my other paintings in peoples homes around the world.

It’s so interesting to think that there may be methods of storing and accessing memory that are so different from the way it’s commonly taught, or may differ dramatically between people. So, attached below is a small image of the painting that somehow contains all of these podcasts, like some sort of Stonehenge. Thanks again for your inspiring work, I look forward to reading your books!”

I replied about my experiment using Bruegel’s painting, Children’s Games. as a memory palace as I have written about in this post. Eric commented in his reply:

“I love the idea of using an existing painting as a tool for encoding memory, and Bruegel is one of my very favorite artists – if nothing else it must be a treat to have an excuse to study his work.

It was a genuinely striking experience for me to hear your interview discussing cultural artifacts as practical memory tools. I have such powerful memory experiences with paintings, both my own, and those that are owned by others or visit in museums, but have never discussed this with anyone, or heard anyone other than Proust talk about paintings, or other artifacts in this way.”

Now to find out what Proust said. Does anyone know?

Adding layers to a memory palace & The Eastern Curlew

I had a lovely time at the Stories of Influence writers’ festival at Lake Tyers in Gippsland, Victoria. With indigenous and non-indigenous participants, the role of story and art in all sorts of cultures dominated the weekend’s activities.

After delivering a worksop and talk on memory methods, I was part of a panel about writing. One of the highlights of the festival was meeting Harry Saddler, sitting next to me on the panel.

Harry is the author of the fascinating book, The Eastern Curlew. This book and meeting Harry gave me a terrific opportunity to add another layer to my bird field guide, which I have encoded to a lukasa.

The same approach works for layering any new knowledge. You need the memory structure (memory palace, songline, memory board …) in place first. I have described the lukasa before. It is a memory board adapted from those used by the African Luba people. It functions just like a miniature memory palace.

I use this lukasa as a field guide to the birds of Victoria which I use all the time when out birding. I don’t need it with me – it is all in memory. I first encoded all the bird families and species. Now I am adding all sorts of information about each species. Layer upon layer.

The Eastern Curlew is in the Sandpiper family, Scolopacidae. My story for the 25 species is about a band playing at a beach party. The Sand Pipers. I remember the family name by imaging that you have to pass under a pole (the old limbo dance) to get in. The tell you to sco-low-[to]-pass.

The family is associated with the red bead on the bottom, to the right hand end of the lukasa. The Eastern Curlew is the 9th species – all the curlews are curly haired attendees at the party.

I then add details about the Eastern Curlew to the character in the story. The fantasy and the real facts just make it memorable. My brain never confuses the two. It does play with the images, though!

See that Eastern Curlew feather that Harry is holding? He showed me the wear on the edges. That feather flew with the curlew for over 10,000 km. They are the most extraordinary migrators – from here in southern Australia to Russia and suchlike. Incredible.

The migration behaviour has just fleshed out my Eastern Curlew character at the beach party. He now flies in from a great distance to get to the party – as do many of the other species. I am slowly adding details of the migrations to the family members – those who stay here to breed (some wild things go on at this beach party) and those who travel great distances to do the same thing.

The more that you play with the knowledge in your memory palaces, the more beautiful, imaginative, fun and informative they become.

The Memory Code – In Chinese

I am delighted to announce that The Memory Code is now available in Chinese. I have only started learning the language, so I can’t read what this says, but I am really chuffed to see this Good Publishing Co edition.

It is available from (among others):

http://goods.ruten.com.tw/item/show?21823146912830

https://www.cite.com.my/product_info.php?products_id=731216

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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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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.

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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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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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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