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-Brooklyn_Museum
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.

2015_Garma_Poster_Yolngu_V2

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.

Uluru as a set of memory locations

I’ve talked about the method of loci – a set of locations in the landscape used as memory aids – the most effective memory aid known. I believe that the singing tracks of the Australian cultures, the sacred trails of the Native Americans and sacred paths found in cultures around the world served the needs of memory in exactly the same way.

uluru-ian-161-1000
Uluru, Central Australia. Photo: Ian Rowland.

The massive natural Central Australian monolith, Uluru, is easily visualised as mythological landscape with a path encircling the entire rock. The pathway around Uluru is nearly nine kilometres long. The many crevices and indentations around the base are each linked with stories. As I detail in my research and forthcoming books, the songs and stories of non-literate cultures are the means by which a vast store of information is retained, much of which is knowledge of plant and animal classifications and characteristics, navigation, weather, tides, a calendar, a pharmacopoeia, rules and ethics, genealogies all integrated with history and religion.

Australian anthropologist, Charles Mountford, described how almost every feature on the surface of Uluru (at that time referred to as Ayers Rock), is named, acting as a mnemonic for mythological story.

uluru-mountford-800

It is so easy to imagine walking the rock, each crevice and point reminding you of a story and the encoded knowledge. Over years of learning, the amount of knowledge encoded in this sequence of locations would become vast.

The Anangu traditional owners describe Uluru as part of their knowledge system, Tjukurpa, which they explain has many deep, complex meanings including the law for caring for each other and their Country, the relationships between people, plants, animals and the physical features of the land, the past, the present and the future.

It is not necessary for the Anangu knowledge specialists to be walking the rock to recall the stories. The sequence of sites is so well-known after years of learning that they can travel and part of the perimeter in their memories whenever they want. This is the art of memory exactly as described by the ancient Greeks.

 

 

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.

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

spider-possum-600

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.

anc-pueblo-petroglyph-spira

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.

cover-morphy

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.

cover-luba-memory

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!