Friday, July 13, 2012

Ancient script, modern wisdom

Czech Egyptologist links hieroglyphics to mind mapping

By Fiona Gaze 

There are few people whose eyes will light up when you ask them about their jobs, or who will reply, "I have the most awesome job ever." But for Renata Landgráfová, being an Egyptologist with a specialty in translating and interpreting Egyptian hieroglyphics is about as cool as it gets. Her work at the Charles University Czech Institute of Egyptology has taken her not only to the sites of archeological digs in Egypt numerous times but also past the brink of a new discovery: the connection between hieroglyphics and the modern practice of mind mapping and memory coaching.
Landgráfová, 35, reads the writing on the wall - specifically, the messages in tombs, tablets and texts from ancient Egypt. She is often one of the first experts onsite at a newly opened tomb in Egypt, and the first to not only hold a text that has not seen the light of day in several millennia but to decipher its meaning and relevance. Through her various publications and her university teaching, she presents a new way to look at hieroglyphics, revealing histories and stories of an ancient civilization that hold much more than mythology for the modern age.
In addition to the excitement of quite literally holding history in her hands, Landgráfová says the study of hieroglyphics and the culture behind them holds lessons we can apply today.
"I think it helps us - as all history does - to understanding a little more about humanity, and this is, in the end, what mankind's quest for knowledge has always been about," she says.

"Hieroglyphics can teach us to learn faster and remember better; of course, the Art of Memory today is not exactly what it was in Classical Antiquity, taking into account the most recent neurological discoveries and cognitive research, but the basic techniques remain the same, and they're the most effective."
For much of her academic career, the study of Egyptology came first. Landgráfová has always been interested in linguistics and began learning to translate hieroglyphics when she was 17. She describes it as an ongoing process.
"Last semester, I taught introductory Middle Egyptian to our B.A. students, and by explaining all the phenomena of Egyptian grammar to them and answering their questions, I learned a lot more than in the past few years," she says.
Landgráfová's biggest revelation, however, came not from a dimly lit tomb but from a postdoctoral program in Berlin. The project, titled "Iconicity of Writing Systems" at Freie Universität Berlin, required a reassessment of the ancient Egyptian writing system within the context of global written languages.
"As I worked on details of the script I had never even considered before, I discovered that the system of hieroglyphic script lies under the classical Art of Memory, as discovered in ancient Greece and developed by ancient Roman rhetoricians," she says.
The Art of Memory, closely associated with the concepts of mind mapping, as put forth by the Greeks, dates back to about 500 B.C., and was labeled an "art" under the Aristotelian precepts. It aims to conscript memory to the mind through the use of pictorial and cognitive associations, as well as other spatial usages.
But Landgráfová maintains the concept did not originate in Greece; rather, it was a cornerstone the Greeks took from the Egyptians and built upon. Likewise, the teaching of memory techniques is inextricably linked to that of rhetoric, she says, but no one has utilized this connection.
"[When I was in Berlin,] I was also finishing my training as a memory coach, and then it hit me: The Art of Memory was born out of rhetoric, as an integral part of it," she says. "Yet no one, to my knowledge, was teaching memory techniques as part of rhetoric, even though being able to deliver a speech without the need of written notes, for example, is a crucial aspect in gaining confidence."
It was after this realization that she began teaching rhetoric and putting her theories into practice in the classroom.
"We are now rediscovering the Art of Memory for the purposes of easier and faster learning, as well as for rhetoric. I am using it in my classes, and the results are quite striking," she says. "Being able to read hieroglyphics gives me a big edge in the memory techniques."
According to Landgráfová, enhancing memory is based on two principles. In the first, "in order to facilitate recall, one must have a clear, unambiguous sequence in your head with slots into which you will place symbols for whatever you wish to remember," she says. "The ancients used public buildings for this purpose, but a familiar journey - say, from home to the office - can work just as well."
The second principle is where hieroglyphics come into play. "In order to remember things, we have to make them interesting for our brains. Our brains don't like abstract things," she says, citing the example of the keyword system used for numerology, the roots of which can be found in Ptolemaic hieroglyphs.
"Each number is symbolized by an image of a concrete thing connected in a symbolic way to the given number," Landgráfová says. "In Ptolemaic, the number seven is coded by the human head, because it has seven openings."
Numbers form the most basic parts of the system's relevance, building on concepts that are taken for granted in modern thinking.
Photo credit: The Prague Post
Political barriers 
Landgráfová splits her time between research, teaching, coaching and her original passion: translating hieroglyphics. The political upheaval in Egypt over the past few years, however, has hindered the work of Charles University's Egyptology institute. While Landgráfová is able to do the majority of her work using high-resolution images of texts, nothing can beat the excitement of being on the ground.
Up until 2010, she was able to travel to sites once a year, when new texts were discovered. Her favorite discovery was the wooden tablets that were part of the Book of the Dead for a funerary priest named Nekau, which she identified a few years ago, and Landgráfová is wrapping up a publication on the topic.
She has not been back for two years, though, and the uprisings of the Arab Spring brought the institute's work to almost a standstill. As reported at the time in The Prague Post, the group's storeroom at the site of Abusir was broken into in early 2010, and several illegal digs were started; the staff's access was cut off for several weeks.
The Egyptian authorities have been "very helpful," Landgráfová says, and the team is still documenting the extent of the damage, two years on.
The Czech Egyptology Institute, which was one of the largest and well-known internationally, will also be facing budgetary cuts and a reduction of staff. For researchers whose work spans millennia of kingdoms rising and falling, it's another bump in the road.
"We are slowly returning to our regular work," she says. "Only time will tell."

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