The Dwarfie Stane / Stone

Reader Jimmy Dalek wrote to me about one of my favourite places on the planet – the Dwarfie Stane on wonderful Orkney. The stane or stone (both spellings are widely used) is a huge block of red sandstone about 8.5 metres long. It was hollowed out using the only tools available to Neolithic people: stone tools, deer antler picks, and a great deal of human effort over a long time.

Situated on Hoy, one of the Orkney Islands north of Scotland, this remnant of the British Neolithic is usually referred to as a ‘tomb’ – but the evidence is minimal. I have linked to the Wiki article about it below so you can see the accepted wisdom.

I think the Dwarfie Stane had a totally different purpose – that of a restricted meeting place – a critical component of all oral cultures.

One of the most astounding aspects of the Dwarfie Stane is the acoustics. I sat cross-legged and chanted in it and was blown away by the effects. Stunning acoustics might be a coincidence, but it certainly doesn’t offer much to dead bodies in a tomb. I believe that it was deliberate. Acoustic enhancement is one of my Ten Indicators of a Mnemonic Monument.

Jimmy sent the following message and photos:

I have just returned from a week in Orkney. I wanted to visit the Ness of Brodgar dig and see the stones, henges and cairns etc. So I did, with my beautiful friend. Last wednesday we got the ferry from Stromness to Hoy and we cycled to the Dwarfie Stone. I knew about it from Julian Cope’s book. The left hand chamber is bare with a slight lip on the floor the right hand chamber has a beautifully carved lip all round the front. I sat in this “main” chamber and hummed and sang some notes. When I got to just before the lowest I can go (I’m a baritone-ish) the whole slab hummed. Then stopped until I hummed it, then stopped. Then sang, it hummed etc.

In the space of a few minutes I had started to get the hang of it so in the hands of a master this would be an astonishing instrument. I came out after a while, grateful and knowing that this was where many students learned the song from the master. I say master because of the lowness of the notes required to make the stone hum. I tried higher notes but may not be as good with these as others. …

I realised that the difficulty in maintaining the vibration within the stone was probably caused by the damage to the roof and its consequent concrete repair compromising the sonic integrity of the stone.

p.s. It was barely audible outside the stone and thats without the large stone plug in position.

British Neolithic archaeology never ceases to astound me. I adore Orkney and its incredible Ness of Brodgar and many other Neolithic sites. Most of all, I adore the Dwarfie Stane.

Click here to go to the Wikipedia article.

 

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Rapscallions add character to aid memory

A Pueblo kachina ‘doll’ at the Brooklyn Museum, New York.

Characters make stories, and the information they encode, every so much more memorable.

Very early in my PhD research, I became aware of the universal use of a pantheon of characters in all indigenous cultures. The ancient Greeks and Romans also taught about using characters to tell stories when memorising information.

The Native American Pueblo Indians call their mythological characters ‘kachina’. I was entranced by these vivid and wildly varied characters and their representations in all art forms. They featured on pottery, in petroglyphs, had specific masks, danced at ceremonies and permeated all aspects of life. Most entrancing of all were the dolls used to introduce the characters to children. I was able to examine a range of these kachina at the Brooklyn Museum in New York.

I soon learned how much more memorable any information became when characters (real or mythological) populated the stories. Referred to in Western writing as mythological characters, ancestors and a range of other names, there really is no equivalent in Western culture. The most appropriate terms are those used by the cultures in question. For the Pueblo, they are kachina (katsina).

It is culturally insensitive to use terms which may imply that we are adapting kachina or any other indigenous pantheon to contemporary life, so the team of educators I work with decided to call our characters rapscallions. This in no way implies that all kachina or characters from other indigenous cultures are rascals. Starting with a rascal-like concept just worked well for children when wanting to give their new friend personality.

I have chosen my own set of ‘ancestors’ from history to tell the stories of my culture. I have linked these to cards because that gave me a physical representation of them. One of the students I have been working with from Castlemaine Secondary College has done the same thing.

Reuben has selected his 53 ‘ancestors’ from across a range of disciplines and linked them to the 53 cards (including the joker) of a deck. We have then placed them in a history memory trial of his own design, but more of that in a future post.

Although I have my set of real ancestors, I have also found that I wanted vivid ‘mythological’ characters that I could manipulate according to the data I was memorising. I have commissioned my lead rapscallion from one of my favourite artists, Suzanne McRae of Hip Hip Decay.

I am absolutely delighted with my new best friend, Rapscali. He performs the very best stories in my imagination!

With Paul Allen and Alice Steel at The Orality Centre, I have been exploring how best to use rapscallions with adults and students.

Our youngest advisor at The Orality Centre, Haku, is using a toy bear as a rapscallion.

Alice Steel has created rapscallions with her science classes. She has some as puppets ready to perform and others as small creatures created by the students.

I am also using rapscallions with classes at Malmsbury Primary School. They have created them in art and we are now using them to help with work right across the curriculum. I have no doubt that my understanding of the value of using rapscallions will just grow and grow. They are a universal in oral cultures so there must be a very good reason!

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I memorised a shuffled deck of cards!

I really didn’t believe that I would be capable of memorising an entire shuffled deck of cards, but today I did it!

It took 35 minutes to memorise the shuffled deck and then 25 minutes to reconstruct the order with a different deck of cards.

Those times would make all the experienced competitors laugh – but they would laugh kindly knowing what an important step this is.

Each card is given a character, action and object. Having memorised that over the last few months, I also need a set of ten empty memory palaces, each with 50 locations. I have most of those now in memory as well. Each group of three cards creates a weird combination of character, action and object, the strange image to be placed in a location in the memory palace. I am very new at the entire process, so thrilled that I managed to fill 17 locations with images for each group of three cards and not forget a single one. Nor did I forget the Queen of Clubs who was left over.

My head hurt terribly after the hour of intense concentration.

American science journalist Joshua Foer trained intensively for a year to win the 2006 United States Memory Championship and write his wonderful book Moonwalking with Einstein, a title drawn from the strange images created. In The Memory Code I wrote:

He set a new US record by memorising a shuffled deck of 52 cards in one minute and 40 seconds. To achieve this feat, Foer trained in his basement with earmuffs and goggles to reduce distraction. Foer talks about how much he enjoyed getting better and better at dreaming up bizarre, weird, raunchy, funny and violent images to store in his memory spaces. My training is not as intense. I could not deal with the pressure of competition nor memorise at high speed. Joshua Foer trained by having fun in his silent basement. I went out and walked the dog.

My precious little dog has since died of old age. And I train in ear muffs in my silent studio. I, too, love making up the weird stories. What I don’t know is if I can ever manage the pressure of competition nor gain enough speed to qualify. Cards feature in only two of the ten events, but I’ll write more about that in future posts.

I am being helped in my training by British memory expert Dominic O’Brien. We both believe that memory loss is not inevitable in later years. At 65, my memory is the best it has ever been. With all my memory experiments, I am gaining hooks to link anything I want to remember. Click on the image below to read more about Dominic’s adventures:

Memory competition could never be described as a spectator sport – a lot of people in a silent room barely moving. This is what it looked like at the World Championships in China in 2015:
Knowing how much work it has taken just to get to the stage of attempting to memorise an entire deck of cards, I understand why there are so few competitors in Australia. This was most of the field of memory athletes receiving instructions in Melbourne in 2016:

In November this year, I will be joining them!

See also Memory Sports: I am hooked.

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