Archaeoastronomy and Gobekli Tepe

 Archaeoastronomy is one of my great interests. I am honoured to have been elected as a full member to ISAAC, the International Society for Archaeoastronomy and Astronomy in Culture. Consequently I was fascinated to read of new ideas about one of the most fascinating sites in the world, Gobekli Tepe in Turkey. But new ideas need checking, as one of the archaeologists I trust most, Jens Nortoff,  points out below. As someone who has put a new idea about archaeological interpretation knows, this will all take time and debate – as it should be.

News of a new theory abut Gobekli Tepe in Turkey hit the news this week. It says, in part:

Ancient stone carvings confirm that a comet struck the Earth around 11,000BC, a devastating event which wiped out woolly mammoths and sparked the rise of civilisations.

Experts at the University of Edinburgh analysed mysterious symbols carved onto stone pillars at Gobekli Tepe in southern Turkey, to find out if they could be linked to constellations.
(Click on the image or here for the full story.)

The full academic article can be found here: Martin B. Sweatman and Dimitrios Tsikritsis, Deconding Gobekli Tepe with archaeoastronomy: what does the fox say? 

Odd things about this report concerned me, but I am not in a position to judge without a great deal further investigation. So I went straight to the authority I respect most on Golbekli Tepe, Jens Nortoff at The Tepe Telegrams. These reports are from the archaeologists in the trenches.

I will be blogging more from The Tepe Telegrams as there are quite a few reports there which I feel are really important ideas. But meanwhile, it is important to note some of Jens’s comments in his post. He writes:

A selection of the carved reliefs found on many of Göbekli Tepe’s T-shaped pillars is linked to and interpreted as depiction of actual stellar constellations. In particular Pillar 43, which is indeed an outstanding (but actually not exceptional) example of the site’s  rich and complex iconography, is interpreted as record of a meteor shower and collision – with quite serious consequences for life on earth 13,000 – 12,000 years ago (this whole ‘Younger Dryas Impact’ hypothesis [external link] actually is disputed itself [external link], so making Göbekli Tepe a ‘smoking gun’ in this argument should absolutely ask for a closer look).

(Click in the image or here for the full report.)

This is the stunning pillar in question from The Tepe Telegrams post. Anyone familiar with my work will now know why I find Gobekli Tepe so intriguing.

“Pillar 43 in Göbekli Tepe’s Enclosure D. (Photo: K. Schmidt, DAI)

Jens concludes: “So, with all due respect for the work and effort the Edinburgh colleagues obviously put into their research and this publication, there still are – at least from our perspective as excavators of this important site – some points worth a more thorough discussion.”

The view of the archaeologists on sites

As someone who has published a new theory for the purpose of sites such as Gobekli Tepe, Stonehenge and many others, it may be assumed that I would automatically be attracted to, and supportive of, other radical new ideas. I am. But I am also hugely respectful of the views of the archaeologists who know the details of what has actually been found there.

Consequently, it was hugely important for me to ensure that my theory was consistent with all the archaeology reported from the field. It was then an imperative to present the ideas to relevant archaeologists, as I did in the UK in February and listen to their concerns. I was delighted that there was no objection to the theory. It is now a matter for debate of the details. That will refine the theory. Getting into the academic debate is the first step.

For that reason, I congratulate Dr Martin Sweatman and the Edinburgh researchers for their work and for raising awareness of this incredible site.

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Memory and ageing

Would we reduce the impact of failing memory, and maybe even of dementia, by formally keeping people in contact with their personal memory devices – song, dance, story, art and landscape?

The many questions I receive about my research on memory tend to fall into three categories:

* How can I memorise better?
* What are the implications for education?
* And is there anything we can do about loss of memory with ageing?

The research focus for us at The Orality Centre will initially concentrate on these three questions.

Reader John Seed wrote a fascinating comment on the post titled Starting a contemporary songline. I have answered some of the post there, but wanted to reply to part of it as a post of its own. John wrote:

__________________  ______________________

I’m fascinated by your book and the possibility that it might help my own fading memory. Do you find that your overall memory has improved alongside your ability to remember those particular things – countries, plants,  for which you’ve built a songline/palace? My memory has been atrocious for years but this doesn’t prevent me from memorising long poems and the like. …

Speaking of workshops, are your workshops about building memory palaces? If so, I’d dearly like to attend one.


I am in my mid 60s. My overall memory has improved massively since I have been using the memory methods – not just the things I am consciously memorising. I am not sure of the reason, though. I suspect it is a combination of factors. I am more confident about my memory but I also set up hooks constantly and make links. I look for them now. Anything I want to remember, I make a funny or wild or quirky link. The more I have been doing this, the more a habit it has become.

As for the workshops, the answer is ‘yes’. I am involved in developing a whole range of workshops through The Orality Centre (TOC) to be starting very soon. Of course the main one will be about memory palaces, but we will also soon be running a workshop on making Personal Winter Counts. The idea is to create a memory device, tried and tested by Native American cultures, which will offer hooks for every year of your life. By maintaining the stories and links throughout life, the hope and belief is that this will provide a permanent memory device to help keep memories alive in old age. There are more details about Winter Counts and the planned workshop below.

What would happen if we embed our stories in memory palaces around our homes, and link them to music and dance and mnemonic objects, right through life? These are the memory systems used by our ancestors for thousands of years. If we use them deliberately throughout life, might this delay the onset of dementia? Or at least reduce the impact? Might living in our memory palaces keep those memories alive?

I have asked members of various indigenous cultures and the reply seems to indicate that by performing the rituals, the repeating of stories and linking to the memory devices, singing the songs and performing the dances, the impact of dementia is reduced. But these are only anecdotes asked in casual conversation. Enticing though it is, that is not evidence. We will be exploring recent research, making contact with experts in the field while following the experiences of those who participate in the workshops.

There have been quite a few reports recently which indicate that the brain retains its links to music and place when other intellectual capacities are failing. This is a few of them.

Alive Inside is a documentary about the non-profit project Music and Memory made by film maker Michael Rossato-Bennett. This is a sample one of the patients working with the  late Dr Oliver Sacks. The Music and Memory website is here:

What if the songs they connected to were more than tunes and tales of love? What if they were songs recording critical information? What of that connection was also reflected in physical memory palaces? Would that make the ‘reconnection with life’ that the Music and Memory people talk about even more effective?

Personal Winter Counts

The Plains Indians of North America use memory devices referred to as Winter Counts. Named because the start of the year is taken from the first snow fall of the year, the animal hides or other fabrics are adorned with a new image each year representing the most signficant event of the year. Other events from that year are then linked to the key event and the stories recalled regularly to ensure the history is not forgotten.

Lone Dog’s Winter Count

Lone Dog recorded his calendar on buffalo hide for the Dakota Nation, each pictograph signifying an outstanding event from 1800 through 1871.



The Wajaje Winter Count provides the early history of the southern Teton Lakota tribes. Beginning with the center glyph, it documents the years 1758- 1759 through 1885-1886.


I have used a TOC-WinterCount to record the years from 1900 until 2013 (I must update it!) with one major event for each year.

TOC- is the prefix we are using at The Orality Centre to indicate that we are using the mnemonic technology of indigenous cultures but in no way claiming that our versions are the same as the sacred items of indigenous people.

At the TOC-WinterCount workshops, TOC staff intend to talk about the memory methods of the Plains Indians and make personal TOC-WinterCounts with attendees, each symbol representing a year of our lives.  An image of the key event will be there for each year on a piece of canvas which is easily rolled and stored. The stories linked to that event, to that year, should be retold and recalled regularly over life just as the Lakota and Dakota did for their community.

Please contact me if this workshop appeals. Although we will run it initially in Victoria, Australia, we may well work virtually across the country and even around the world.

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The theft of a Zimbabwean heritage

“… the feeling of realising that just because your culture had no written text does not mean they did not pass down large amounts of knowledge is revolutionary.”

The above was in an email from Fadzai which brought tears to my eyes. If she was the only reader of The Memory Code, it would have been worth all the work. It was a privilege to meet Fadzai and her daughter in London in February.

This is her story.


This evening I made a journey from Watford (near London) to Birmingham and I decided to listen to an audiobook to alleviate the tedium. I am hoping to improve my ‘artificial memory ‘ and find usable techniques to permanently remember large amounts of information, not just party tricks like decks of cards. It was in that hope that I downloaded ‘The Memory Code’ (using Audible). I have just arrived in Birmingham, so am nowhere near finished but I felt I had to write to you. I am so excited! I am excited not only because what you write about could be of practical use, but also because you reveal some profound truths.

I am from Zimbabwe and have very little, and only surface knowledge of my culture. It was systematically destroyed, partly by belittling it. It has been drummed into generations that before the English came we were dirty, stupid, illiterate (not non-literate) savages. Our ‘witch doctors ‘ peddled superstitious nonsense, our dances showed us to be licentious and the missionaries told us many of our practices were demonic.

When my grandmother died she said to make sure nothing ‘traditional’ was done at her funeral to be sure nothing ‘satanic’ happened so she could make it to the Christian heaven. Now as I approach middle age, I find out that there is more to it. Now you write and show that the fact we did not write things down, or invent central heating does not mean we are stupid. We had our own ways. Sadly they are largely lost but as you say, our forefathers would have died out long ago if they were stupid. And the fact that I have the same DNA but not the same knowledge shows that it is not some sort of ‘instinctual knowledge’ as was explained to put us almost on the level of animals. …

One of my favourite books is called Tigana. It is of the fantasy genre and not likely to win any literary acclaim but it affected me deeply. (Sorry to give a spoiler!) In a magical war, one prominent city was defeated and most of its population killed. The true pain was that the entire memory of the place was removed from the consciousness of everyone else. It became as if the city of Tigana had never existed. The vanquished king and the few survivors had to witness this, and though once from a great city they were now considered to be vagabond itinerants. I feel empathy for the characters because those events seem analogous to Zimbabwe’s fate, and the fate of many other oral cultures. Because, as you pointed out, the initiated are gone, the stories, histories and knowledge is also largely gone, only intermittent patches of these survive in a limited form. …

My maternal grandfather was a minister in the Dutch Reformed church, and as you can imagine of a minister’s daughter, my mother brought us up in a very religious way. … The family apparently adopted their surname some generations prior, when they adopted Christianity, to signify ‘they had now overcome death’. My paternal grandfather’s father (I believe) was the first to embrace Christianity. Their previous surname means ‘many deaths/many funerals’. There was apparently a curse on the family wherein for generations, the firstborn son of the family would always die as a child. My father, their firstborn son, was named ‘Tichaona’, which literally means ‘We shall see’. As in ‘We shall see if adopting Christianity lifts the curse’. He is still going strong in his sixties. My father’s survival was taken as evidence of the power of Christianity and cemented my Grandmother’s Christian faith and led her to funeral request. Many in Zimbabwe ‘hedge their bets’ and have both traditional and Christian rituals for funerals and it is a point of pride in the family that she did this. I never got to know her, unfortunately, even though my middle name is her name. We lived abroad for many years, and when I met her as a pre-teen, she had recently suffered a stroke and I was scared of her. I avoided being near her and she died in my late teens. I am deeply ashamed of this now, and although I have forgiven my younger self, it will not bring back her stories. She named my father’s first born son. My brother’s name is ‘Tinashe’, it is almost a talisman, warding off the evil eye and any curses, as it means ‘We have God here’.

I only speak Shona as a second language and often find it hard to understand. My parents did this with the best of intentions, they felt that by not teaching me Shona they would be putting me and my siblings at an advantage. My mum and dad would speak to each other in Shona, we would join in the conversation in English, speaking to each other in English. I know they were well-intentioned, but the result has been that I am a stranger in the Shona community as well as a stranger in the English one and am a perpetual observer, with no place that I ‘belong’.

Listening to your theory about Stonehenge and the oral mnemonics has opened up something in me. I cannot express it. The trendy phrase ‘paradigm shift’ feels a bit inauthentic, but the feeling of realising that just because your culture had no written text does not mean they did not pass down large amounts of knowledge is revolutionary. I once watched ‘Roots’ where Kunta Kinte had a genealogist recite a long list of his African ancestors, but I understood it to be some sort of ‘trick’ or ‘quirk’ not suggestive of a system of retention of knowledge.

Some general Zimbabwean cultural information you may find of interest if you do not already know it.

One tradition we have retained is that of ‘totems’. Even modern Zimbabweans know what their totems are (mine is ‘heart’) and they are passed down from father to child. The significance is not clear, but it creates an ‘affiliation’ between people of the same totem, which crosses family or ‘clan’ loyalties. Special permission is needed to marry someone of the same totem and people are not supposed to eat the thing their totem is. Easier for those of ‘Elephant’ totem, harder for those of ‘Leg’ who are supposed to eschew drumsticks, and leg cuts of meat! It is for this reason I don’t eat haggis and black pudding, as they apparently have hearts in them. I claim ignorance as a defence when it comes to sausages and burgers!

Family Roles:
Within a family there are the same roles as within a western family; mother/father, child, spouse, grandparent, aunt/uncle. However, for a woman ALL of her sisters’ children are also her children, and for a man ALL the children of his brothers are his own. You are thus to consider the children of your mother’s sister or father’s brother as your own nuclear siblings. Your ‘aunt’ (mother’s sister) is your mother and your ‘uncle’(father’s brother) is also your father as much as your own parent is. It is even considered bad form to make distinctions, in the way a parent would be frowned upon if he says of a child he had raised from birth ‘that’s not my real child, it’s only a stepchild’. The interaction is as is usual between a western mother-child, siblings etc. The interesting part it’s the other side. If a man has a daughter, his own sister is considered an ‘elder sister’ to the girl and her role is to be a guiding force HOWEVER, never to disclose ‘secrets’ to the child’s parents, so similar to the sanctity of a priest’s confessional, or a client-solicitor privilege- This role is ‘Tete’. A woman’s brother has the same role for her sons and is called ‘sekuru ‘grandfather’- even though he is an uncle. With a girl and ‘Tete’ (i.e. her father’s sister) as they are ‘sisters’, Tete’s children are her children and they address her as ‘mother’, even though in English they are ‘cousins’. So for me, Tete’s children call me ‘mother’ but they call my brother ‘uncle’. It can get quite confusing but is taken very seriously. It can often cause offence when diaspora Zimbabweans return and do not express the ‘proper affection’ for a ‘child’, who to them is a cousin, or veneration for a ‘grandfather’ who to them is also a distant cousin. It is in fact a very empowering role for women. When one acts in the capacity of ‘Tete’, for example, you have authority over a man who may be chronologically older or of higher social standing. This is usually exercised in family disputes, marriages etc. Conversely, one gets to be a ‘grandchild’ and cossetted even if you are elderly, and your ‘grandfather’ is some decades younger than you. It allows people to wear different ‘hats’ at different times, and to take on different perspectives at the same time. Three factors are leading to its demise. Firstly, Urbanisation and distance – I do not really feel sisterly affection for second cousins I have rarely seen but am genuinely touched that they will be elated to see you and (sometimes literally) kill the fatted calf in your honour. Secondly is that some roles have been deliberately misinterpreted leading to abuse. One relationship exists which is ‘junior wife’. It is intended as a ‘protective’ role but has been exploited by some paedophiles. Thirdly, it is the general lack of understanding of the meaning of the roles and their function, together with westernisation which has led to many of them falling into disuse.

As you rightly pointed out, the initiated are now few and far between, if at all any still remain. Into the vacuum left by these elders have come charlatans. Confidence tricksters who prey on the superstitious and charge high prices for ‘spells’, ‘good fortune’ etc. and are eschewed by anyone educated. Anyone who has studied the power of placebo can well understand the healing function they could have had. And the in Europe, the old wives’ brew of willow bark tea for pain was eventually synthesised into Asprin and I have no doubt the healers did similar things in Zimbabwe. An aunt once put some sap on a wart my brother had and it fell off a few days later!. I watched an episode of ‘Call The Midwife’ which I generally enjoy very much. They were in 1960s South Africa to help the poor, ignorant and helpless people deliver babies and treat disease. When pictures such as these are painted they do not take into account that traditional practices were wiped out, and the structures which would have addressed these problems no longer existed. The creation of a cash economy meant that people now needed (and wanted) to participate in the western economies. Men had to work miles away in the mines and in the cities. The girl who would have been trained to be a midwife was now a housemaid somewhere, and her garden-boy husband would have been the one with knowledge of how to dig wells. Deprivation and diseases caused by cramped living conditions which would not have existed for their ancestors are now considered part and parcel of being African.

Great Zimbabwe:
The thing most Zimbabweans have great pride in is Great Zimbabwe. It is from that the country gets its name and it means ‘Great house of stone’. It is an example of great architecture, and the function of some of the structures are still unknown. The remarkable thing about it is that the bricks have an interlocking structure, almost like Lego and have lasted for so many centuries, intact, without any sort of mortar, or cement. This type of construction has not been seen anywhere else. One hateful argument sometimes put forward is that the city must have been built by aliens, or non-indigenous people, as black Africans did not have the intellect to construct such a thing. In ancient times there was trade between Zimbabwe and the north. The name Shona, in fact means ‘Gold’ in a western language (I think in Portuguese?) and they were so named as they were producers of gold (and continue to do so to this day). In the ancient city of Great Zimbabwe there was found, tantalisingly, ancient Chinese pottery, suggesting interaction even with them.

Bonus – Conspiracy theory
I watched a documentary on Youtube, some years ago, I can’t remember the title. As you may know, the legend is that the Biblical King Solomon had a relationship with the Queen of Sheba. Ethiopians believe the queen of Sheba was an Ethiopian queen, and their religion states that she bore King Solomon’s son. In Zimbabwe, there have been for many generations African Jewish people. They observe many of the Jewish dietary and religious practices. There is an argument that at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem, some fled, together with the Ark of the Covenant to the Ethiopian Jews. They then migrated southward, ending up in Zimbabwe. The theory also argues that the Ark of the Covenant was in fact a large drum, carried on poles, and inside it was the ‘Holy of Holies. It was carried into battle and the sound of it being played struck terror into Israel’s enemies. This drum was at one point exhibited in the Harare National Museum. Some have argued that the misfortune that Zimbabwe has suffered is due to not returning this ‘Ark of the Covenant’ to Jerusalem.

You mention that ‘The key factor is the way indigenous memory systems ground the basic structure of information and then build it up layout by layer using all the range of memory techniques.’ I now wonder if the traditional childrens’ stories we have in Zimbabwe about ‘Rabbit and Baboon’ may be an element of this. You are right to harness the power of aural learning. We all know word for word the lyrics of pointless songs, anchored by catchy tunes. Using this capacity for useful information is something that should be embraced. The United Nations protects what it terms ‘cultural rights’ in its International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

I greatly appreciated Fadzai taking so much time to write at length. I also appreciated learning more when we met.

So much has been lost. It is so sad that indigenous intellect has not been appreciated and the vast store of knowledge is now mostly gone.


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Lukasa at the Brooklyn Museum

There were many highlights during the month of travel in the US and UK for the publications of the Pegasus Books and Atlantic Books additions of The Memory Code respectively. I expected seeing the two lukasas (more correctly, the plural is nkasa) at the Brooklyn Museum to be one of them. My day there exceeded all expectations.

There are none of the West African Luba memory device known as lukasa in Australia to the best of my knowledge. Despite having read everything I could on them and replicated the technology to act as my own field guide to the birds of Victoria, I had never seen the real thing. I have now!

Curatorial Assistant for the Arts of Asia, Africa, the Pacific Islands, and the Islamic World, Meghan Bill, took me to the storage area where she had the lukasas ready for me. It was sensational to see and hold the real thing.

Research shows that both the front and backs of the lukasa were used as memory spaces. The pattern on the back proved to be very naturally moved through in order when Meghan and I tried stroking it. That pattern is also found on British Neolithic Grooved Ware and Australian Aboriginal shields. It is a pattern which works for humans; they did not share this knowledge between vastly seperate societies. It simply worked so they used it.

The use of lukasa as memory boards has been a fundamental part of my understanding of portable memory devices. This was an incredibly important moment for me.

The lukasa on the Brooklyn Museum site:

You will notice other items in the photo below with Meghan. She had Yoruba divination trays for me to examine (which are also memory devices) and then took me to the Museum’s amazing collection of Pueblo kachina. And the amazing Paracas Tapestry is there as well! That was a discovery to make my heart sing. And there was Nasca pottery and … more posts to come.

Thank you, Meghan and the Brooklyn Museum.

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Media descriptions of my work

I am finally home from the US and UK after travelling there for the publication of the Pegasus Books and Atlantic Books editions of The Memory Code respectively. I have a great deal to write as a result of the trip. All in good time!

It is always intriguing to read the way other writers interpret my work. Two of the longer media articles are worth referring to here.

Jim Rountree‘s article More Than Memory appeared in Australia’s most respected science magazine, Cosmos, in February. It is now available online. Not only does Rountree encapsulate my ideas in a more succinct way than I have ever managed to do, he also writes it beautifully as well. I am very flattered to have such a quality article about my ideas in such a quality magazine. (Click here or on image to go to the article).

The second was a long interview with Memory Athelete, Daniel Kilov. It appeared in the January / February edition of Australian Mensa magazine, TableAus and is now online at Daniel’s blog, Mental Athlete. (Click here or on image to go to the article).




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Getting started on a songline or memory palace

I am getting asked a lot about the specifics of getting started using a memory palace or songline for lots of information. So I have updated the older post on this.

Starting a contemporary songline

Have fun!

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The Memory Code – Public lectures – US/UK

Thank you to those who have been asking about public lectures on my book tour for the publication of the North American edition of The Memory Code by Pegasus Books and the UK / Europe edition from Atlantic Books. There are lots of meetings and other exciting things happening, but below are the public events booked so far.

New York: Note that two events were advertised at the same location, different titles, an hour apart. I am not sure if it is two lectures or one! I’ll fix it here when confirmed. IT IS ONE LECTURE AT 3 PM.

Saturday 11 February, New York Public Library: Stonehenge and Other Strange Places, 3:00 pm, also advertised as:

Saturday 11 February, New York City Skeptics: A Skeptic Tackles Stonehenge: The Memory Code, 3.00 – 5.00 pm, Jefferson Market Library.

Washington DC:

Wednesday 15 February, National Capital Area Skeptics: A skeptic tackles Stonehenge: The Memory Code,  7:30pm. Rockville Library.

Thursday 16 February, American Institute of Architects: The Memory Code and the foundation of architectureA limited number of public seats will be available.


Wednesday 22 February, University of Nottingham: Indigenous memory and Stonehenge – yes, there is a link, Workshop and public lecture.



Thursday 23 February, Cardiff University: The Memory Code, Archaeology seminar. This is an in-house seminar for the archaeology department, but there may be an opportunity for other archaeologists to attend. Please contact me for more information.

Monday 27 February, Fortean Society, London. Monumental memories: Indigenous memory and Stonehenge. The Bell, 50 Middlesex Street, London E1 7EX.
Train and Tube: Liverpool Street. Tube: Aldgate, Aldgate East. 7.45. Bookings:

Thursday 2 March, Gravesend Skeptics in the PubMonumental Memories: No. 84 Tea Room and Eatery, 84 Parrock Road, Gravesend, Kent, DA12 1QF

I know some people are coming from further afield for the London events. I will have dinner beforehand in a nearby restaurant to meet up with them. Please let me know if you wish to be included.

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Reader Response: memorising birds and then more …

Peregrine falcon (c) Damian Kelly

Reader Jonno Roche wrote such interesting emails that I asked permission to quote our conversation here. This is an edited version of the conversation, but left long because I found what Jonno had to say absolutely fascinating:

“I found the idea of the different scales of memory spaces from handheld objects to landscapes just fascinating. …  Anyway, I was inspired. My real question was where to start. I enjoy bird watching in a relaxed kind of way. I find it adds a real sense of depth and vitality to any landscape to notice who lives there, so a list of birds seemed a good place to start.

Great egret (c) Damian Kelly

For a variety of reasons, my best option was a mobile memory tool, and eventually, I decided on a set of tarot cards. Firstly I already own a copy, but more importantly, they give me 78 nicely ordered points broken into convenient sections, they are dense in imagery, highly mobile, and easily replaceable. The only real downside is that I get slightly embarrassed pulling them out in public, because I don’t want anyone thinking I am angsting fruitlessly about my future, when really I am just daydreaming about birds. Still, it’s a small price to pay.”

 I was intrigued to hear how Jonno was using a set of tarot cards for the birds as I use tarot cards for other memory purposes and the African memory board, the lukasa, for the birds as described in the post Memorising Birds.  It is absolutely fascinating to see what other people doing with their memory spaces.

I must admit to having the same issue with using the tarot cards in public. I love Jonno’s expression ‘angsting fruitlessly about my future’. He continued:

“So I made a list birds of Tasmania and Australia’s South East coast. Within a week, I had memorised the order and names of 76 different bird families. I needed an etymological dictionary to help me with the names, because otherwise, they were just so many meaningless noises to me. The translations are often so delightful (Bloody feet, Thick headed, Bald faced pointy beak) that they really add to the imagery. I have one family per card, expect a few very large families which spill over two, just because I ended up with a couple of extra cards. I am now filling out the families with individual species. By the time I am finished, I will have over 300 birds listed.

Superb fairywren (c) Damian Kelly

I am surprised at just how vividly and easily I am able to recall a list which until now seemed impossibly complex.”

I was astounded how fast Jonno had managed to commit the family names to memory using the cards. I took a great deal longer. Jonno also talked about doing little stylised sketches of the cards which is reminiscent of the way indigenous people draw as they tell the story and then either destroy the drawing or just throw it away because it is the process of drawing that fixes things in memory. I find the rhythms of drawing, singing the family names, actions I have for particular families and the characters I have given them all interact to make the information memorable.

Jonno continued to astound me. A fortnight later he wrote:

“I can now recite the complete list of 76 families with 322 individual species. … Although I really appreciated how easy it was to simply add a bird to a family list, some of the cards became a bit overcrowded. There are several cards which have the family and just a single representative, but one has the family name and eighteen birds embedded in it. They fit, but it is not very comfortable. I have found that the ideal size for a block of information is a heading and four to five associated points.”

What fascinated me is that Jonno had come to the same conclusion as I have, that four birds is the most that fit comfortably at a location. For any families of five or more species, I add a little landscape journey for that family putting four birds in every house.

The Ancient Greeks also labeled every fifth location to keep track of things, so maybe that is a natural division for the human brain. Jon continued:

Still, I was really using the birds as a way to explore the process, and I have found it fantastically successful. Because I now have an ordered way of thinking about birds in general, my mind tends to naturally rest on them when there is nothing more pressing to think about.

With it being human nature to see what we think about, I suddenly find I am seeing birds everywhere and in far larger numbers than previously. Also, because I have such a rapid way to categorise them, I can identify them much faster and more confidently than before, even if it is just being able to identify to a potential group of two or three and then use a reference to come to a decision later on.”

I love that Jonno wrote that he can now identify faster. I couldn’t identify before because I didn’t know what was possible. This is part of explaining why these methods are not rote learning, but again it is so hard to explain to someone who has not tried it.

Despite having no information in the list on what the birds look like or what their habits are, I find that just being able to name the bird is usually enough to be able to automatically recall this extra information if I know it. I also have a smallish but slowly growing group of birds which I can identify just by their calls, which adds a whole lot to the experience.

So I am greatly enjoying my bird list.”

But Jonno didn’t stop there!

“While I was about half way through my bird list, I needed to impress some people at work. I decided that since the original intent of these techniques was to recall information which your livelihood depended on, I should probably put some work stuff in there.”

Jon described how he had encoded course summaries for his work in clinical governance to the same set of tarot cards.

Blue faced honeyeater (c) Damian Kelly

“I found I had room for three short courses in the deck. One was on efficiency principles (major arcana), another on implementing organisational change (most of the minor arcana), and a third on basic negotiating techniques (The last 11 cards of the minor arcana). … Memorising the work stuff is much harder than the birds. The ideas are very conceptual – ‘Measure sources of resistance’ for example as opposed to, say, ‘Blue faced honeyeater.’”

Critically he wrote: ““There is such a huge gap between birds and workplace efficiency that they can comfortably occupy the same space without getting mixed up.” 

Jonno has really got hooked on this memorising and has further ambitions which he described at length – this is the gist:

“Once I get all of this information settled in I would like to memorise a book. … I am aiming to memorise Sun Tzu’s ‘The Art of War.’ … I have a few ideas for using a lukasa board type arrangement to map out star patterns and attaching a calendar and practical gardening information to them.”

A fortnight later, Jonno wrote again describing why memorising is not something that requires additional time:

“It is very neat how this information meshes into everyday things. It really does slot into the idle minutes of the day. Outside of little snippets that I use, I run through the deck from start to finish each day for both the birds and the course list, but this tends to happen when I am walking from place to place, or waiting for the kids to go to sleep, or am otherwise not really doing anything. Unless I am actively pressing to learn something in a hurry, it doesn’t displace anything from my day.”

“… The two lists I have on my deck do not interact very much at all. I might be trying to recall cultural alignment in the workplace when a butcherbird leaps to mind, but they don’t really ‘move together.’ I guess this is because the two subjects just have no commonality at all, but I would suspect that as more information goes onto the cards, the stories will start to roll into each other more. I hope so. I think it would have a real ‘adventures of a cultural hero’ feel to it.”

And then a few days later, Jonno wrote again:

“I didn’t mean to write to you again so soon, but I stumbled on to a great success, and you are the logical person to share it with.

I had to do a 20 minute presentation at work to the senior managers justifying what I have spent the last year doing, so that I could then get them to agree to adopt my ideas, extend my project, and give us more funding. It was a very information dense 20 minutes with a lot riding on it. … I really didn’t want to use notes.

I was looking for a method of what I see you have called an ephemeral memory space. I didn’t want to use my tarot deck as I didn’t want short term information confusing it. I found your ideas on palmistry in the 33 experiments section of your blog very intriguing, but wasn’t quite sure where to go with it. Just at the right time, I read a fascinating article you linked to by Tyson Yunkaporta on building characters into the fingers. Based on these two sets of ideas, here is how I laid out a set of characters in my hands.
Little finger – Kinship child
Ring finger – Story mother
Middle finger – Dreaming father
Pointer finger – Ancestor teenager (niece/nephew)
Thumb – Culture hero
Each finger divides into five sections, and these represent different body parts of the character as follows.
Nail – Head
Finger pad – Hands
Middle section – Torso
Bottom section – Legs
Ball of finger – Feet
Although the gender of the mother and father are set, for the other characters, I have males on the right hand, and females on the left. Also to make them more distinctive, I imagine the characters on the right hand to be short and squat, while the characters on the left are tall and thin.
This then gives me ten distinct characters to use as major points, and the sub points are represented by what they are doing with various parts of their bodies.

I spent a lot of time over the three days running over the speech and counting it off on my fingers as I went, while the various characters sprouted trees from their hands, developed talking feet and all the other crazy things that happen with this kind of imagery. In one interesting cross over, the character simply walked on to my imagination stage and held up the appropriate tarot card where I had embedded a bunch of stuff from the workplace efficiency course I mentioned in a previous email. …

I made little sketches to help make them more memorable. I also made a point of practicing under conditions of ‘controlled stress,’ like when I was making dinner while my two kids both held individual conversations with me. 

Needless to say, the presentation was a raging success, and the only sign of me ‘reading from my notes’ was very subtle hand movements where I was counting information on my fingers.

Although I suppose it is technically possible to use this as a long term memory device, I think I will just keep this exclusively for short term situations like what I have just described. I am happy to have a set cast of characters that can have a crazy bunch of adventures for a week or two, and then rest for a while until the next ‘story’ comes along.

Anyway, once again, thanks for your ideas and I hope you liked the story.”

I loved the story. I loved everything about the long emails and our discussion which has been reduced quite a bit for this post. I have found it very exciting to see how someone else has taken the ideas from The Memory Code and implements them differently, yet the underlying principles are so similar.

Rufous fantail (c) Damian Kelly

I thank Jonno for permission to quote his words and look forward immensely to his next update.

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Reader question: moving away from a memory space

[Click on all the images to get larger sizes.]

Miroslav Kalous from Prague in the Czech Republic, wrote and asked:

I’d like to thank you for the idea of “large memory spaces” which is really thrilling and I’m on the verge of building my own ones (one related to history till 1900, one for 1900+ years, one for specifically “all things Egypt” as that is a major country-project I’ve begun dealing with now).

However, I would also like to ask you one question before I begin, very practical one: unlike you (from what I understood between the lines), I don’t live at a permanent place; probably in 2 years I am going to move, then live somewhere else for other 3 years, then perhaps settling down for a longer time span at one place. As an experienced mnemonist, do you think it makes sense to start building the spaces where I live now? But what happens when I (or you) move? Re-writing all the loci spots into new palace/memory space is probably not realistic… and I am too much of a newbie to mnemonics to know if you can operate with, i.e. two complementary places. Also, I suppose, when moving somewhere else you lose the (critical?) advantage of going through the space and using them as “flashcards” prompting active recall of the stuff stored in there.

What a great question! I am so embedded in my landscape now that nothing would make me move. But as Miroslav points out, that is not practical assumption, especially for those much younger than me.

The first idea is to use public spaces which are unlikely to change. A quick check on Google images of Prague and – wow  – what a stunning city! The bridges across the Vltava River, as in the image above, looked wonderful to use as a set of memory loci.

There are a huge range of other possible solutions. These are often discussed on the Art of Memory Forum under “Method of Loci” – my favourite forum on the Internet

One solution which was talked about in memory treatises written in the Middle Ages was to use an imaginary memory palace. One suggested way back then was to use Noah’s Arc as described in the Bible, but maybe something a little more contemporary is required.

Some people use sets of locations from their favourite films or books. It is a matter of creating the palace and a set of locations from that film or book using your imagination to add in extra locations or details. You would then, I expect, draw that memory palace and label it and keep it forever as your reference. You could even use Tolkein’s Middle Earth.

You could create your own imaginary world much as fantasy writers do. In fact, I have created imaginary worlds before when teaching science fiction and fantasy writing and I have just decided to try this as a memory experiment because I loved doing the maps and creating the worlds.

One quite common virtual memory palace is to use one from a video game. I’ve never tried this so I have no idea how it would work but I gather they can be very effective.

Another palace people use is this school or home from childhood and re-create these locations by drawing maps, just adapting any blurry remembering with imagination.

Commonly recommended in classical Greek and Roman, mediaeval and Renaissance times was using a famous building. Gothic churches were extremely popular and even designed with this use mind. Chartres Cathedral, as in the three images shown, is often discussed in these terms. 
You can use any streetscape. I would imagine the National Mall in Washington, for example, would work a treat. With the White House and all the Smithsonian museums and plenty of images online, you could easily create a memory palace that could be infinitely adaptable by adding the internals of each of the buildings if you wanted to expand it. There are visitor maps online for all the buildings. See below.

This is really fun thinking about all the possibilities, but I’ve got far too excited about creating my own fantasy world to write more. Sorry! Gotta go and start drawing!


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Posted in art of memory, medieval, memory, memory palace, memory places, Memory Spaces, method of loci, mnemonics, The Memory Code | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments