I was so pleased to receive this email from Sue Norman telling me how The Memory Code had been part of the ground work for this wonderful project on revitalising Aboriginal languages. The linked report is from the ABC. It is so rewarding to get endorsement from Aboriginal organisations. Sue wrote:
I found your book Memory Code a real eye-opener as oral memory methods are very interesting to me.
I have been working with the Aboriginal community in Eden NSW in revitalising the local language from oral sources and we wanted to keep the learning as orally based as possible.
I am still bowled over by what a skilled teacher with really amazing students can do with the ideas in Memory Craft. The Year 3/4 teacher at Candlebark school, Nat, had heard about my work from her husband, Paul, who had heard an interview about The Memory Code. She invited me to give a workshop at the school – I had no idea how overwhelming it would be. Photos by Nat and Damian Kelly – all with permission of the parents and school.
Nat had already introduced the students to aspects of my work and they really understood how association and memory works. After talking briefly about Indigenous cultures and memory systems, with particular emphasis on Australian First Nations cultures, we made memory boards – each student creating a memory device for a topic they had chosen to investigate in detail. We modelled these on the African lukasa of the Luba people. I recycle beads from the MAAW (Mount Alexander Animal Welfare) Op Shop (Charity Shop) taking all the broken jewellery that they would normally have to discard. Students pin these to boards to represent their chosen topic.
The care students took chasing the right bead for each item in their sequence of information was wonderful to watch. That time is invaluable – it fixes the association between the bead and the knowledge. One white bead with red in the middle represented a heart while a black and white one was a panda. The panda-encoding students was particularly pleased with his choice from a variety of black and white options. The heart-shaped bead was perfect, he explained, because he loves pandas.
A week later, I did the same workshop with first year Cultural Astronomy students at the University of Melbourne under the guidance of Associate Professor Duane Hamacher. There was the same enthusiasm, the same careful selection of beads, the same ability to explain why a particular bead was chosen. The only difference was the complexity of the data encoded – the university students encoded 88 constellations and the meanings of the names. Back to Candlebark…
Having pinned the beads to the boards, often rearranging them a few times, students then used glue guns to fix them permanently.
Damian appeared at the end of the session and was soon surrounded by enthusiastic kids wanting to explain their lukasas (technically, the plural is nkasa) to him.
But the excitement of the lukasa workshop was just the start! Katy, a maths specialist teacher, had taken my Rapscali Tables concept and run wild with it. Students had pre-tested on tables and then illustrated the ones they didn’t know – making them instantly memorable.
7 x 3 = 21. Heaven x tree = plenty sun. The student’s personal character, her rapscallion, is now in a story she has created which starts with the rapscallion in heaven, then with a tree and ending with plenty of sun. Here I am being told the story.
4 x 8 = 32. The story has to take the rapscallion from the door to a gate and end up with a dirty shoe. For some students, it is the story they really embellish.
And some students are incredibly artistic and embellish with art. I was astounded by these examples.
But I was unprepared for the most amazing part of all. I had seen students making lukasa before. I had seen Rapscali tables at work. But I had never experienced students performing a songline through the bush and ending up at a woodhenge.
A few weeks later, the students led a group of parents, siblings, Principal John Marsden, and others up to the bush above the classrooms. They started by telling us – through performance – about how incredibly long Aboriginal people had been in Australia and how we were following their knowledge system based on sacred locations along a sung knowledge trail. We stopped along the trail to hear about 12 different civilisations in chronological order – ancient Egyptians and Babylonians, Romans and Greeks (arguing who pinched what and who was the greatest) – to the present day. There was terrific creativity and humour in the performances, but the basis was solid knowledge – and these students now have grounded this sequence in hooks on which to hang so much more learning.
Arriving at the henge, painstakingly built by Nat, Paul and year 3/4 parents, students took to the 12 posts representing the civilisations.
This was surprising. I had always assumed – without realising the assumption – that the ancient knowledge keepers would have progressed around the henge posts or stones much as I do around a memory palace. It hadn’t occurred to me that there may be experts on each topic, ‘owning’ each post or stone and the knowledge it represented. Is there any way the archaeology could ever tell us if this is the case?
Various performances told us more about the civilisations and what we have learnt from them to inform contemporary life. And they performed their multiplication tables, also linked to their woodhenge! Finally, we were reminded that Australia’s First Nations people had been there long before all of the other cultures and are still here as dynamic cultures today.
After the students had left, I stayed in their woodhenge for a while totally overwhelmed by what had happened. Never have I been more convinced that this is the way Stonehenge and the British Woodhenge and all the other Neolithic monuments would have been used. Never have I been more convinced of the value of Indigenous memory systems for education. And never have I been more convinced that there is an incredible younger generation just longing to learn.
Other classes at the school will use the Woodhenge and the trail through the bush for different topics in the future.
Thank you so much Nat, for being such an incredible teacher and John Marsden, for creating a school like Candlebark which allows students to learn with so much creativity.
Much as I am not impressed by the source – elephant hunters are not my favourite people – this description is well worth reporting. The quote was sent to me by Elizabeth Wayland Barber and Paul T. Barber, authors of the fascinating book, When They Severed Earth from Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes Myth. This book, I highly recommend.
The quote Elizabeth and Paul sent me is from a way less savoury book for my taste, but gives an incredible description of the way in which new knowledge is encoded into song by an Indigenous culture in Africa.
The source is The Wanderings of an Elephant Hunter by Walter Dalrymple Maitland Bell, first published by London, Country Life Ltd. and New York, C. Scribner’s Sons in 1923. The quote is around page 58, depending on the edition and page numbering. The story is of ivory collection – too sad to include that bit here.
It was decided to return to our base through untouched country. The news was received with shouts of joy. It is wonderful how one comes to regard the base camp as home. Whereas, on our way up, the camps had been rather gloomy—disasters having been prophesied for this expedition—now all was joy. The safari chronicler became once more his joyous self and his impromptu verse became longer and longer each night. The chronicler’s job is to render into readily chanted metre all the important doings of the safari and its members. It is a kind of diary and although not written down is almost as permanent, when committed to the tenacious memories of natives. Each night, in the hour between supper and bedtime, the chronicler gets up and blows a vibrating blast on his waterbuck horn.
This is the signal for silence. All is still. Then begins the chant of the safari’s doings, verse by verse, with chorus between. It is extraordinarily interesting but very difficult to understand. The arts of allusion and suggestion are used most cleverly. In fact, the whole thing is wonderful. Verse by verse the history rolls out on the night, no one forgetting a single word. When the well-known part is finished, bringing the narrative complete up to and including yesterday, there is a pause of expectation—the new verse is about to be launched. Out it comes without hesitation or fault, all to-day’s events compressed into four lines of clever metric precis. If humorous its completion is greeted with a terrific outburst of laughter and then it is sung by the whole lot in chorus, followed by a flare-up of indescribable noises ; drums, pipes, horns and human voices.
What a wonderful way to build up knowledge bit by bit. Maybe we should learn history that way – chronologically adding each new event in song. So many possibilities!
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.
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.
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.
There are so many sites nicknamed with the tag “Stonehenge” that I have not had time to explore them all. When the “Spanish Stonehenge” hit the news in recent weeks, I was pointed to the reports by many readers of The Memory Code. They could all see so many of the signs that this site was used as a memory palace, a restricted knowledge site.
People see the same properties as Stonehenge in monuments well separated in space and time because there is one single common factor and that is the way the human brain memorizes information.
The Spanish Stonehenge is more likely a dolmen than an open circle – that is a covered, restricted space. I explain in The Memory Code why restricted spaces are essential for elders to retain accurate information over long time spans. That is why all non-literate cultures have them. Labelling a site as a “temple” leads to assumptions that the space had a single religious purpose, and often that its primary purpose was for burial. Indigenous cultures do not separate the spiritual from the mundane. It is Eurocentric thinking which limits interpreting the purpose of monuments to religious and the ubiquitous ‘ritual’ purposes.
Cultures without writing are dependent on memory to store all their knowledge. Without exception, every indigenous culture I studied right around the world used a similar range of memory techniques. These have evolved everywhere because they match the way the human brain stores information, as described in Memory Craft. We are all working with the same brain structure.
Memory palaces are the most effective mnemonic technology known and used in some form by non-literate cultures across the world. In a memory palace, information is associated with each location in sequence. The engravings within the dolmen, on each of the megaliths, would create a perfect memory palace.
Dolmens are assumed to be burial places. Although burial may be one purpose, all non-literate cultures use restricted performance spaces for initiated elders to ensure knowledge is preserved accurately, especially pan-generational knowledge of survival strategies in time of severe resource stress. The few remains, if any, found in most dolmens, would indicate a location for an elite, such as the knowledge elders. Knowledge and power correlated in oral cultures.
Restricting the songs and stories which encode information avoids corruption of data caused by the so-called Chinese whispers effect. A combination of public and restricted performance spaces is implied here by the open and restricted spaces. This combination is found in oral cultures around the world.
Placement of ceremonial structures near rivers is also a constant all over the world. Large gatherings need water and food, trade routes, while rivers are critical landscape features. Vivid stories, as represented in mythology, are a fundamental method for making abstract and mundane information memorable. Without a continuous culture linked to the monument, there is no justification for interpreting the engraving as a serpent, as a protector.
The idea that such monuments are “thought to have been temples of sun worship” because of astronomical alignments is also demeaning to indigenous cultures. The term ‘worship’ implies that non-literate cultures live in a fog of superstition. They simply would not have survived if that was the case. All the cultures I researched, and talked with, were hugely pragmatic and used the movement of the sun to create a calendar to ensure optimum use of resources and maintain their ceremonial cycle. That is not to deny a spiritual aspect, but to deny an exclusively sacred purpose. Ceremonies are an imperative to ensure practical and cultural information is performed regularly so that it is retained and conveyed.
The idea reported that the elongated wavy engraving on the megalith at the entrance corresponds to the passage of the Tagus River is a very exciting development. A map of the river is exactly what would be expected. We have ample evidence from Australia, where we have a continuous oral culture dating back about 60 000 years, that art was often used as a memory aid to maps. The same can be found in cultures from Africa, the Americas and the Pacific.
Alyssa interviewed Angel Castano, the local historian. She told me:
From what he had previously learned about the menhir at the entrance, there was a snake carved into it that was assumed to be a serpent guarding treasures. Since that was a dominant theory, that’s what he was telling the media when the dolmen first emerged from the water. But after seeing the actual stone and consulting with the original drawings made by German archeologists who discovered it in the 20s, he figured he’d have to close an eye, spin around and use a whole lot of imagination to see a snake in the carving. However, in looking at what was supposed to be the snake, his intuition told him that it may be the Tajo River. He rushed to find an old map of the area before the river had been flooded, and just last night he realized that the squiggly line, once considered a snake, corresponds virtually “100%” with the course of the river. Below is an image he sent me using an old map and the original archeologists drawing of the menhir! I told him your theory and he liked it a lot. Although still unproven, I think his idea of it being a map, not an unjustified protector as you say, goes to show that when approaching indigenous artifacts from the lense of “how was this actually practical, how did it help them survive?” you can come up with a lot more compelling (and interesting) answers than assuming it’s all kooky religious nonsense!
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.
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.”
Great excitement! I have just signed a contract with my publisher, Allen & Unwin, to do a new book. The working title (may not end up being the real title) is Unlocking the Memory Code. Publication date is probably early 2019. There is a lot of work to do first! Edit: it became Memory Craft.
This book is all about using the most effective memory methods from across cultures and throughout time. It is all about how we can use these methods to enhance our lives every day.
One of my great pleasures is encoding layer upon layer in my new lukasa, designed to record the history or writing. Ironic, isn’t it? This beautiful object was made for me by Tom Chippindall.
The vast majority of the emails and messages I receive are about the indigenous memory methods and how we might apply them in contemporary life. The extraordinary memory skills of our ancestors have been gradually lost with the invent of writing and even more so with the prevalence of information technology. Many readers are concerned about this and want to redress the trend by using their memories much more effectively.
I am simply astounded every day by what I can memorise and the way I can then build on the knowledge which is so firmly grounded in the memory devices. I am able to see patterns and the big picture in ways which are just not possible without this basic knowledge at my fingertips. It is also wonderful fun!
Throughout the book I will look at the changes in memory techniques over the millennia and discuss the possible impact on education and on memory loss with ageing. Recent research in neuroscience explains exactly why the memory methods of indigenous culture are so effective. I will report on the science and celebrate indigenous intellect. I will also emphasis how much everything is to remember when it is brought to like through stories and vivid characters.
As indigenous and early literate cultures were masters of memory, so it is from them that we can learn the most. I am adding to the lessons from oral cultures discussed in The Memory Code to include medieval memory systems, ideas from the Renaissance and from ancient Chinese and Japanese handscrolls. I will also look at mnemonic tricks from contemporary times.
The topics to be covered in Unlocking will include the most successful examples from My 40 Memory Experiments which have now been adjusted to reflect the questions I am most often asked.
I am learning a foreign language (French) despite having failed dismally to do so at school. I am using a range of methods to memorise vocabulary and grammar and going really well. And even taking on Chinese (Mandarin).
I have devised a system for memorising names and faces by adapting the concept of a medieval bestiary.
I memorise temporary lists when we are out birding, going shopping or given verbally using a visual alphabet, adapted from those used during the Renaissance.
I am continuing to memorise more details about all the countries in the world and constantly adding to my walks through pre-history and history. I use the field guide to the 412 Victorian birds from memory constantly as husband Damian and I go birding often.
I am attending art classes every week to create the most beautiful contemporary adaptions I can manage of the bestiary, visual alphabet and Chinese hand scrolls. I am becoming addicted to everything about art, especially watercolour. I am using a version of the Inca knotted string khipu (quipu) to record the history of art. As many researchers suggest, the khipu is really nearer to writing than a pure mnemonic device.
I am also creating a personal ‘winter count’ based on the stunning mnemonic skins of the Plains Indians of North America. The one pictured below if the famous Lone Dog’s winter count. I am astonished how little of my life I could remember chronologically until I started this project. How much will this object help me hold onto my identity into very old age?
And every day I train for the Australian Memory Championships. Being old (I’m 65) does not mean a fading memory. I can now memorise a shuffled deck of cards in 12 minutes – way down from the 35 minutes just a month ago. I can memorise long strings of random numbers in decimal and binary and many other useless but surprisingly enjoyable feats.
Life is very good and I have all the readers of The Memory Code to thank!
The first Memory Workshops run by The Orality Centre were a huge success. I want to thank all those who came – especially the enthusiastic participants who travelled all the way from Queensland and New South Wales to our location in rural Victoria.
The staff (L to R): Paul Allen, Lynne Kelly, Alice Steel, Damian Kelly
Lynne Kelly gives the opening address.
Paul’s two Memory Palace workshops ran morning and afternoon. Participants were guided through the crucial skill of how to link seemingly unconnected concepts to places. Initially, they linked the 20 largest countries in the world to different abstract art works.
They managed to link the creation at left to Thailand.
The Memory Palace workshop then went outside to use a memory trail in the landscape to encode information of their choice.
At the end of the workshop they could still name the first 20 countries despite not having thought about them for a few hours.
Alice ran workshops on Winter Counts and Memory boards.
The memory boards are based on the mnemonic device of the African Luba people known as a lukasa.
Lisa Minchin (below right) encoded the local wattle species to her memory board.
Rumour has it that her very patient partner has since been treated to numerous enthusiastic demonstrations of her knowledge of the first 20 countries and the local wattles.