Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Megalithic memories.

I'd not had high hopes for Dr Lynne Kelly's Monumental memories:Indigenous memory and Stonehenge talk at the London Fortean Society on Monday evening. I'd somehow imagined a vague, woolly, lecture about how the ancients were somehow more spiritual than us modern folk - and therefore better than us. A telling off almost.


I couldn't have been more wrong. Dr Kelly made no claims to spirituality whatsoever and spoke only of the experiential. Her research had been rigorous, scientific and, even if I wasn't sure about every point she made, utterly plausible. She started by asking if anyone could name every indigenous species of bird in the country. There being approximately 600 nobody claimed they could. In Lynne's country, Australia, there are nearly 900 and she said she'd learnt a technique that meant she could remember them all.

It was a method she picked up by studying (with) various Aboriginal Australian groups. Having been native to the island since before the written word evolved, approximately 50,000 years ago, they still needed ways to pass information on. What animals were dangerous? Which ones were potential food? When is that food to safe to eat? Etc; The elders of these groups learnt hundreds of birds, mammals, insects, and plants and in the form of song and dance passed that knowledge down to future generations.

Directions and morals were learnt the same way too. In some cases an indigenous Australian would be able to navigate over one hundred miles in unforgiving territory by singing a song as they go. Bruce Chatwin wrote about it in his 1987 book The Songlines. It may sound far-fetched but think how much easier it is to remember the words of a song than it is to recall prose. Often, you start singing the first line and the whole thing comes flooding back to you.


Lynne's theory was that this didn't only happen in Australia but anywhere in the world where native people still lived. Africans and native Americans were cited as examples. Visual aids could help too. Lynne had provided some to pass around the sold out audience. Some of them were absolutely gorgeous but I'd have to admit had I not attended this talk I would have only been able to enjoy them on a purely aesthetic level.

A collection of various shells and pebbles attached to a piece of wood can carry huge amounts of data if you let it. You have to do the work though. For each shell (or stone) you simply need to think of a story. One you'll remember so usually a rude one is a good idea. Eventually each one will come to represent something:- a bird, a dingo, a eucalyptus tree, your mother, a feared enemy, an amoral act, and so on.



Extrapolating from this Dr Kelly posited that the ancient megalithic monuments and stone circles that are found all around the world were, quite simply, aide memoires writ large. She spoke of Stonehenge, Avebury, Newgrange in County Meath, Ireland (which she dismissed as the worst reconstruction of a historic site she'd ever seen), Chichen Itza in the Yucatan, and Gobekli Tepe just north of the Syrian border in Turkey. The Nazca Lines in Peru never cross each other so as not to hinder your walking, and singing your history, as you perambulate along them.




The ancient Greeks and Romans used a mnemonic method called loci to help them visualise, and thus recall, facts, locations, or, essentially, any other data they needed, or wanted, not to forget. These 'memory palace' techniques are now utilised by the sort of people that win the World Memory Championships. The 2006 champion, Clemens Mayer from Germany, used a 300 point-long journey through his house for his world record memorising of 1,040 random digits in a half-hour. Gary Shang has used loci to memorise pi to over 65,536 digits. Lynne herself intends to compete in the Australian memory championship to show how successful, and how life changing, her work has been. As a 'senior woman' (her words, not mine) she's not the type of person you'd expect to win.

I hope she does. She gave an interesting, engaging, and often surprising speech. It dispelled me of a few preset notions that resided in my head and taught me to try to be a bit more open when it comes to accepting knowledge from those with more experience of a subject than me.


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