Portable memory devices

Portable memory devices are just tiny versions of the concept of memory spaces embedded in the landscape or skies. Examples include the Australian churinga/tjuringa, the African lukasa, the Native American song boards, the Ojibway birchbark scrolls, winter counts, Pacific genealogy staves, highly decorated pages of medieval manuscripts and so many more. An object covered in apparently enigmatic motifs can be a powerful memory device. Hard to believe? Impossible – until you try it. I use a variety portable memory devices, all designed to imitate indigenous and early literate memory methods.

Amazingly, once you have used the device for a while, you don’t need it physically present to be able to recall all the information. But the physical form remains very precious.

13. Memory board / lukasa – Victorian birds

My ‘lukasa’ is a piece of wood with beads and shells glued on.

I have encoded the 82 bird families of Victoria, and into them the 408 birds in taxonomic order. I am close to being a walking field guide.  My precious lukasa is so familiar that I can list of the families and all their birds in order without actually having the board in my hand. With it there, it’s a breeze. I am adding layer upon layer of information – identification, behaviour, distribution, personal stories… I am only confident of calling a bird when I have an exhaustive list to check against – and it’s all in my head. And the characters morph in my imagination from the humans in the stories to the birds they represent. They may be more human if I am thinking about the story, many of which have ethical themes without me planning it that way. The birds are more birdlike when I am in the field. Both these traits – ethical themes and human/animal morphs – are widespread in indigenous stories, and it is just happening naturally as I add information.


The beads and shells were glued onto this lukasa before I started encoding information. I adjusted my memory system to the layout of the beads.

Related post: Memorising birds

14. Memory board / lukasa – History of writing
Tom Chippindall has made me a new lukasa with carving in the style of the Luba lukasa. The back is carved just like the back of real lukasa are engraved in the pattern of a tortoise shell. I am using my new lukasa to memorise a history of writing (ironic, I know), with a special emphasis on the dates for the adoption of scripts and written forms. This will enable me to look at the other artefacts of the culture across this change. I want to see if I can detect a change from mnemonic to aesthetic, especially in the art forms when in museums. But I need to have all those transitions in my head to effectively examine museum collections in the minimal time I have to explore them.

This board will be structured according to the history it is to encode, much as the Luba designed their lukasas to encode their history and associated information. Each was different, but the information encoded followed a given structure.

This is one of the two lukasas I photographed at the Brooklyn Museum in New York. And this is the basis of the lukasa I am working on for the history of writing.

************** LUKASA ADD for radioactive decay series

Change format and justify.

33. Objects for radioactive Decay Sequences

I enjoy my Greek and Roman mythology objects so much, I decided to see if I could use the same objects for a completely different purpose. I decided that I wanted to know the radioactive decay series for the radioactive elements I had in the periodic table (Experiment 7).

I use the same set of objects – although far fewer of them than I needed for the Greco-Roman mythology. Some links emerged, although that was not planned. Neptunium and Plutonium, for example, were named for the gods, so the same object worked for both. Again, this technique is very effective. And the same objects can serve multiple purposes.

10. Winter count – a personal History


I have an inscribed leather scroll, based on the Native American winter counts created on hide. This has a single image for each year, starting at 1900 which overlaps with the 20th Century journey, experiment 4. I find that I tend to use the Journey version for daily use.

For this experiment, I am now creating a personal winter count. This is a representation of my own life with a story for each year hooking the narrative of that year onto a main event in my life and that of my family. Would having personal, incredibly familiar winter counts and other permanent memory aids to our identity help retain knowledge into old age?

I am hugely assisted in these experiments by colleague, Tom Chippindall, an art curator, conservator and luthier (he made musical instruments). Tom has worked in many creative areas gaining a vast range of invaluable practical skills. He is replicating traditional mnemonic technologies for me and others so that we can apply them in contemporary contexts.

17. Memory board – spider families
I am a recovered arachnophobe who is now obsessed by spiders. I even wrote a book about them: Spiders: learning to love them. I only know the commonly encountered families. The total number of families is over 100 according to the latest classifications. I want to know them all. The destining feature is the eye patterns. I love the scientific names of the families. This will take time. It also links to my other blog: The Spiderblogger.

18. Decorated vessel / coolamon – Victorian Habitats
Plants are a major knowledge genre in all cultures, so I can’t leave them out. I am encoding the native trees of my state, Victoria, and using them as the basis of studying habitats. I’ve started with the common trees which define each habitat: the eucalypts (gums, boxes, peppermints, ashes and mallees), tea-trees, paperbarks, wattles, banksias, she-oaks and cypress-pines. Then the bushes, grasses and smaller plants – and link to the birds and other animals – it all becomes integrated yet again.

I am using an imitation of my real Aboriginal coolamon, marked with a wood burning iron made for me by Tom Chippindall. The real one is too precious and I would feel uncomfortable using the actual design for my own experiment. This is the real coolamon:


23. Hand astronomy – KEEP


I am convinced that palm reading arose in the dim distant non-literate past from the more pragmatic use of palms as mobile mnemonic devices. It will take a lot more research to argue my case, though. Meanwhile, I am encoding the science and history of astronomy to my palms and the back of my hands (which I didn’t know very well at all). It is going well and works rather nicely with my skyscapes, history journey, countries and ancestor decks. It really isn’t confusing. I promise you. And the mnemonic device is always readily available.

Change to Astronomy linked?

16. Song board – astronomy – 88 constellations

I am using a wood burning iron to decorate memory boards with the markings structured according to the various systems of the body and the associated anatomy. I feel that dances, pointing to the location of body parts or the movement of body fluids, will aid greatly. The song boards are structured according to the songs, not to the information. They will also have indications of the rhythms and verses of the songs, as I understand is the case on the Native American song boards. A lot of work to do. Lovely research and lovely composing songs. This one is in its infancy. All dances are currently performed with no audience. Ever.

I am modelling this on the Winnebago song board I examined at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography at Harvard University.

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