Research, Training & Collaboration : Lectures

Occasional Lecture Series

Script Boxes and Story Boxes: The Material Culture of Oral Narratives in India

by Rukmini Bhaya Nair (Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi)

4.30pm, 1 June, 2012
The McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, Downing Site, Cambridge

How are the oral repertoires of cultures reconstituted by their acts of writing? Writing, this paper argued, is a sort of ‘box’ that serves to contain the creative productions of script cultures. Like a box, it stores and preserves the legends and stories, the quotidian speech acts of greeting, declaring, promising or ordering as well as the fundamental scientific conjectures and dreams that animate all speech communities. Unlike a run-of-the-mill box, however, writing acts upon and redesigns the cognitive materials that it holds, formatting inchoate information into ‘knowledge packets’ that can be efficiently transmitted across time and space. In this unique characteristic lies its almost unlimited power over the human imagination. Yet it is worth noting that writing is a relatively recent linguistic invention which experts calculate is no more than eight or nine thousand years old at most. To put things in perspective, written scripts came along at least 40,000 years after humans began to talk and exchange meanings.

This paper examined some of the cognitive and cultural issues that arise from a near exclusive concentration on the powerful and often hegemonic, yet still evolving, medium of writing in a region like the Indian subcontinent that comprises nearly half the formally illiterate population of the world. It did so by looking at a device commonly known as a kavad or ‘story-box’. The kavad, sometimes also called a ‘portable shrine’, is used to illustrate and amplify oral performances of story-telling. In contrast to the metaphorical ‘writing-box’ that I have invented for the specific purposes of this paper, it is a longstanding and integral part of material culture in northern India and in particular the state of Rajasthan. It has a tangible presence and can be handled, opened, closed, broken, mended, reassembled and even carried on one’s shoulders. Most importantly, it is a shared narrative resource and a reservoir of emotional empathy.

Information about this lecture has been archived to DSpace@Cambridge. Click here to listen to Professor Nair's lecture.

The Encyclopaedia of Literature in African Languages

by Ursula Baumgardt and Marie Lorin (National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilisations (INALCO) and Mixed Research Unit (UMR) CNRS, Language, Languages and Cultures of Black Africa (LLACAN))

5.00pm, 5 March, 2012
The McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, Downing Site, Cambridge

The Encyclopaedia of Literature in African Languages (ELLAF) project focuses on oral and written literature in African languages. The ELLAF project proposes the creation of a website presenting and analysing literary texts in African languages, in order to make a wide range of these written or oral texts, in Sub-Saharan African and Malagasy languages, available to enthusiasts, students and specialists from around the world. The project aims to build up a research database based on literary works produced in their original languages, translated into French and/or English and presented in their linguistic, social and cultural contexts.The website signifies the creation of new tools for presenting and analysing textual data, centred on written/oral African literature in African languages regardless of their sociolinguistic status. This presentation favoured research through various fields (language, author, literary genre, predefined keyword and/or full text keyword) using a cross-disciplinary and comparative method. The method provides access to, for example: every text from a particular literature, the same genre found in several literatures, one theme in several literatures, a figurative element in several genres, notional degrees not necessarily made explicit by lexical occurrences. The material available here is ready for teaching straight away in regards to the transmission of factual knowledge: presentation of a language, overview of literature, contextualisation of literary production, bibliographic data. Furthermore, the bringing together of oral and written literary texts is not only of interest in a practical and documentary sense, but equally from a theoretical point of view.

Information about this lecture has been archived to DSpace@Cambridge. Click here to download a PDF poster advertising Professor Baumgardt and Dr Lorin's talk, and click here to listen to their lecture.

The Oral Traditions of the Inugguit of North-West Greenland

by Stephen Pax Leonard (Trinity Hall, Cambridge and Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge)

4.00pm, 6 January, 2012
The McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, Downing Site, Cambridge

Dr Stephen Pax Leonard is a research fellow at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, and research associate at the Scott Polar Research Institute. He has carried out both linguistic and ethnographic fieldwork in Iceland and the Faroe Islands and has become particularly interested in aspects of dialect formation, the role of identity in small language communities as well as language revitalisation and more generally endangered languages and cultures in the Arctic and elsewhere. He has recently started a new project, documenting and researching the endangered oral traditions, verbal behaviour and communicative practices of the Inughuit people in north-west Greenland.

Information about this lecture has been archived to DSpace@Cambridge. Click here to download a PDF poster advertising Dr Leonards's talk, click here to listen to his lecture, and click here to view his presentation as a PDF file (165 MB). The video Living with the Inugguit can be viewed here.

The Last Words: Documenting Endangered Languages of the Andaman Islands

by Anvita Abbi (Centre for Linguistics, School of Language, Literature and Culture Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)

5.00pm, 1 December, 2011
CRASSH, 17 Mill Lane, Cambridge

The latest research by geneticists indicates that the indigenous inhabitants of the Andaman Islands are the descendants of early Paleolithic colonisers of South East Asia. The languages of these colonisers are important repositories of our shared human history and civilisation. This talk discussed recent attempts at documenting some highly endangered languages of the Andaman Islands, namely Jarawa, Onge and Great Andamanese.

This Leverhulme lecture shared the exceptional experiences of compiling a multilingual and multiscriptal interactive dictionary of the present Great Andamanese language. The ethno-semantic and ornithological account of the local birds and their names in the language that feature in the dictionary and in the recent publication of the book ‘Birds of Great Andamanese’ in great part reveals the various ecological and archaeological signatures of the original communities that maintained close ties with their environments. Languages are witnesses to the diverse and varying ways in which human cognitive faculties deal with the world, so the study of the language of the present Great Andamanese and the recent compilation of a dictionary open windows to a world-long past. As a result of the richness of the information thus gleaned, we have been allowed a unique insight into the world views of the speakers of this unique language which is in danger of disappearing from the face of this earth.

The talk included examples of rare original sound and video recordings of the native speakers of this dying language.

Anvita Abbi is Professor of Linguistics at the Centre for Linguistics, School of Language, Literature and Culture Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. During her work on minority languages of the Indian sub-continent she has carried out first-hand field research on the six language families of India. She has published in the areas of areal typology, language documentation, structures of tribal languages, language policy and education, and analysis of ethno-linguistic aspects of language use. Her most significant recent work has been on the highly threatened languages spoken in the Andaman Islands, especially the languages of the Great Andamanese which she has documented.

Information about this lecture has been archived to DSpace@Cambridge. Click here to download a PDF poster advertising Anvita Abbi's talk and click here to listen to her lecture.

How to say 'I love you' in Greenlandic: An Arctic Alphabet

by Nancy Campbell (website)

5.00pm, 16 June, 2011
CRASSH, 17 Mill Lane, Cambridge

Nancy Campbell discussed her latest artist's book, which celebrates the endangered Kalaallisut language. The Greenlandic language – famous for its many words for snow – expresses the Arctic ecosystem better than the writings of any climate scientist. It is indispensible for our understanding of the environment, yet UNESCO declares it to be in danger of extinction. How to say ‘I love you’ in Greenlandic is an introduction to this evocative Arctic language, and presents a romantic narrative as well as a lesson in linguistics. All twelve letters of the Greenlandic alphabet are represented with words ranging from eqisimarput (‘we walk arm in arm as lovers’) to kinguneqartarpoq (‘he drinks a second brew from old coffee grounds or tea leaves’). These words and their English definitions are accompanied by a series of pochoir prints depicting icebergs. As in contemporary Arctic life, the denouement is caused by the disappearance of the ice.

Nancy Campbell is a poet and printmaker. Nancy read English at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, and apprenticed in letterpress printing and bookbinding at Barbarian Press in British Columbia, Canada. She worked at The Center for Book Arts in New York before becoming an itinerant printmaker, living and working with artists and fine presses across Britain and North America.Her books combine her interests in language and printmaking, and she often works in collaboration with visual artists. Nancy's poetry publications include Yan Tan Tethera (2005), Boat Trip (2006) and After Light (2009). In 2010 Nancy and the artist Sarah Bodman were commissioned to engage in the Poetry Beyond Text debate; their response became Dinner and a Rose, a multimedia riff on Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels. Last year Nancy was appointed writer-in-residence at Upernavik Museum, Greenland. Her latest book, The Night Hunter (Z’Roah Press, New York, 2011), relates her experiences during the Arctic winter.

Click here to download a poster advertising the event.

Lumbini: Preserving and Protecting a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Nepal

by Professor Robin Coningham (Durham University)

5.30pm, 19 April, 2011
Ancient India and Iran Trust, 23 Brooklands Avenue, Cambridge CB2 8BG

In January 2011, an international team of archaeologists began a three year UNESCO-sponsored survey and excavation of archaeological remains at Lumbini, the birth place of the Buddha. Excavating within the Maya Devi Temple, the team cleaned back the exposed archaeological sections to take scientific samples to date the earliest brick-built monument and investigate its character and sequence of development. In parallel, a second team conducted a geophysical survey and auger profile and excavated trenches on the Village Mound, to the southwest of the Maya Devi Temple. This allowed them to explore the character and sequence of development of South Asia's earliest named village, Lumbini game, as named on the Asokan Pillar, and to map it to protect it for the future. These activities are part of the wider UNESCO project entitled "Strengthening the Conservation and Management of Lumbini; the Birthplace of Lord Buddha, World Heritage Property" which is funded by the Government of Japan within the framework of the Japanese Funds-in-Trust for the preservation of the world's cultural heritage. This lecture will present our initial findings for the first time. This lecture has been organised by the Ancient India and Iran Trust in association with the Britain-Nepal Academic Council (BNAC) and the Centre for South Asian Studies in Cambridge to coincide with the Nepal Study Day.

Robin Coningham is the Pro-Vice-Chancellor and Head of the Faculty of Social Sciences and Health and holds Chair in Archaeology in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Durham. He studied archaeology and Anthropology at King’s College, Cambridge and completed his PhD under the supervision of the late Dr F.R. Allchin. Professor Coningham has conducted fieldwork in Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka aimed at refining Early Historic chronologies and investigating the region’s Iron Age urbanisation and the genesis of the Indian Ocean trade. In Lumbini, Professor Coningham will supervise the implementation of the project as the advisor for archaeological investigation and as a member of the ISSC. His team will work on project component two: Archaeological Identification, Evaluation and Interpretation of Lumbini.

Divine Divas: Storytelling as Journalism of Mythology

by Dr Vayu Naidu (Vayu Naidu Company)

3pm, 23 March, 2011
Coslett Building, Room 117, Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge

Dr. Vayu Naidu demonstrated her unique storytelling techniques based on the Indic oral tradition, and talked about her work as a promoter of storytelling and stories. This event was organised in association with Anglia Ruskin University.

Vayu discovered Storytelling along the South Eastern Coast of India and in Chennai, her home city. She came to England in 1988 to study at the University of Leeds for her doctorate, which was on Indian Performance Oral traditions and their interpretations in contemporary western theatre. Her subsequent career has covered many fields including teaching, writing and performance. In 2001 she founded Vayu Naidu Company, to promote storytelling as theatre, with a signature style combining text, music and dance.

Click here to download a poster advertising the event.

Disciples of a Crazy Saint: Photographing the Buchen of Spiti

by Patrick Sutherland (University of the Arts London)

4.30pm - 6pm, 14 February, 2011
CRASSH, 17 Mill Lane, Cambridge

The Buchen of Spiti in the Indian Himalayas are performers of rituals, actors and disciples of the fourteenth / fifteenth-century "crazy saint" Thang Tong Gyalpo. They are renowned for performing an elaborate exorcism called the Ceremony of Breaking the Stone. They also enact a local form of the Tibetan Opera for village audiences. These Buddhist morality plays illustrate the principles of karma and ideas of impermanence but also offer a space for uninhibited speech and earthy humour. Photographer Patrick Sutherland has been photographing the Buchen for many years. When he recently gave them some prints he was told that they were so awful that the performers had torn them up and thrown them in the fire. Disciples of a Crazy Saint describes Sutherland's further return to Spiti to investigate Buchen ideas about photography and to negotiate a form of documentation more appropriate to the Buchen self-image as specialist religious practitioners.

Patrick Sutherland is a documentary photographer and Reader in Photojournalism at the University of the Arts London. He has been photographing in Spiti since 1993 and his work has been exhibited and published internationally. A book entitled Spiti: The Forbidden Valley with an essay by Tibetan filmmaker Tenzing Sonam and a dedication by Henri Cartier-Bresson was published in 2000. Disciples of a Crazy Saint was funded by a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, with project partnership from the Pitt Rivers Museum, where it is being exhibited until 3 July, 2011.

Information about this lecture has been archived to DSpace@Cambridge. Click here to download a PDF poster advertising Patrick's talk, click here to listen to his lecture, and click here to view his presentation as a PDF file (36.33 MB).

Journeys into ‘The Heart of Interpretation’: Narrative, Culture and Meaning

by Professor Molly Andrews (University of East London)

1pm - 2:15pm, 18 October, 2010
Seminar Room, McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, Downing Street

What are the implications of doing narrative research in communities of which one is not a member? Does this necessarily limit the quality of the data to be collected, or might there be some advantages in being considered an outsider, that is, one to whom entire stories must be explained as nothing can be taken as obvious? The paper will consider how our cultural positioning, as it is perceived by ourselves and by those who we include in our research, feeds into the very heart of the projects we undertake.

Molly Andrews is Professor of Sociology, and Co-director of the Centre for Narrative Research at the University of East London, England. Her research interests include the psychological basis of political commitment, psychological challenges posed by societies in transition to democracy, patriotism, conversations between generations, gender and aging, and counter-narratives. She is the author of Lifetimes of Commitment: Aging, Politics, Psychology (Cambridge 1991/2008), and the co-editor of Lines of Narrative (Routledge 2001), Considering Counter-narratives (John Benjamins 2004) and Doing Narrative Research (Sage 2008). Her most recent monograph is Shaping History: Narratives of Political Change (2007) which won the 2008 Outstanding book of the year award of the American Education Research Association: Narrative and Research Special Interest Group.

Information about this lecture has been archived to DSpace@Cambridge. Click here to download a PDF poster advertising Professor Andrews's talk, click here to listen to her lecture, and click here to view her presentation as a PDF file (1.5 MB).

The Digital Museum Project for the Languages and Cultures of Ryukyu: The Case of Ikema Ryukyuan

by Professor Yukinori Takubo and Tamaki Motoki (Kyoto University)

4pm - 5:15pm, 4 October, 2010
Seminar Room, McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, Downing Street

Ikema is an endangered dialect of Southern Ryukyuan spoken on Miyakojima Island, Japan. The community is deeply concerned that the younger generation is not acquiring Ikema and has imaginatively tackled this problem by, among other methods, creating a vernacular musical titled Nishihara Muradate ‘The making of the Nishihara village’. The musical, depicting the migration to Nishihara from their ancestral island, was filmed and made into a DVD.

Using such recordings of Ikema as a springboard, Professor Takubo will discuss the development of the Digital Museum Project, a web-based three-layered digital storage space for endangered languages. The first layer provides open-access exhibit space; the second provides password-protected access for specialist researchers while a third layer contains raw data only accessible to the research group. This talk will conclude with a demonstration of the resource.

Professor Yukinori Takubo is Professor of Linguistics at Kyoto University, Japan. He has written extensively on Japanese as well as on endangered languages spoken in Japan, and currently serves as an editorial board member for Nihongogaku - Studies in Japanese Language.

Information about this lecture has been archived to DSpace@Cambridge. Click here to download a PDF poster advertising Professor Yukinori Takubo and Tamaki Motoki's talk, click here to listen to their lecture, and click here to view their presentation as a PDF file (2 MB).

Citing the Spoken Word: Adventures in Language and Cultural Documentation

by Dr Nicholas Thieberger (University of Melbourne and University of Hawai'i at Mānoa)

1pm - 2:15pm, 7 May, 2010
South Lecture Room, Department of Archaeology, Downing Street

Digital tools are providing exciting new possibilities for linguists and ethnographers to collate and compile fieldwork data, and to share the results with communities of origin. In this lecture, Dr Thieberger will outline the methods he used in his work on South Efate (Vanuatu) which involved building a corpus at the same time as developing his linguistic analysis. He will then profile a more recent initiative to design an open-source method for hosting texts linked to streaming media online (EOPAS). Thieberger suggests that integrating such processes into fieldwork naturally results in better outcomes, both for speakers and for the research community, and reflects on the associated challenges and opportunities provided by these technologies.

Dr Nicholas Thieberger is an Australian Research Council QEII Fellow at the University of Melbourne and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Linguistics at the University of Hawai'i at Mānoa. He works on the Pacific and Regional Archive for Digital Sources in Endangered Cultures ( and is the technology editor for the journal Language Documentation and Conservation.

Information about this lecture has been archived to DSpace@Cambridge. Click here to download a PDF poster advertising Dr Thieberger's talk (older version here), click here to listen to his lecture, and click here to view his presentation as a PDF file (12 MB).

Land, Truth, Water: Finding the ≠Khomani Bushmen of the Southern Kalahari

by Professor Hugh Brody (Canada Research Chair in Aboriginal Studies, University of the Fraser Valley)

1pm - 2:15pm, 16 March, 2010
Seminar Room, McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, Downing Street

In 1996, a small group of Bushmen, known as the ≠Khomani San, launched a claim to South Africa's second most important National Park. This was one of the first such land claims in Africa, and led to research, negotiation and, in 1999, a settlement.

A set of research projects - recording oral histories, mapping relationships to land and resources, filming with the community - put together the land claim, and then monitored its consequences. In this lecture, Hugh Brody, who co-ordinated the research projects with the ≠Khomani San from 1997-2008, will describe the process and invite discussion of how the results of such work can have maximum value, both for the people who told the stories and made the claim, and for those who wish to draw on and analyse the materials.

Professor Hugh Brody is the Canada Research Chair in Aboriginal Studies at the University of the Fraser Valley and an Associate of the Scott Polar Research Institute at the University of Cambridge. He has worked with governments and indigenous communities on land claims issues in Canada and South Africa since the 1970s. He was an adviser to the Mackenzie Pipeline Inquiry, a member of the World Bank's Morse Commission and chairman of the Snake River Independent Review, all of which involved encounters between large-scale development and indigenous communities.

Information about this lecture has been archived to DSpace@Cambridge. Click here to download a PDF poster advertising Professor Brody's talk, click here to listen to his lecture, and click here to watch the video.

Ifugao Oral Epics: Reflections on Living Traditions and Cultural Heritage in the Philippines

by Dr Maria Vladimirovna Stanyukovich (Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography, St Petersburg, Russia)

1pm - 2:15pm, 13 October, 2009
Seminar Room, McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, Downing Street

Dr Maria Vladimirovna Stanyukovich is Chair of the Department of Australia, Oceania and Indonesia at the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography (Kunstkamera), Russian Academy of Science, St Petersburg, Russia. She has been working on the epic oral traditions of the Philippines for over 30 years, and has also conducted fieldwork in the Altai Republic, Uzbekistan, Dagestan, Cuba, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan.

Dr Stanyukovich was in Cambridge to work with Civilizations in Contact, a Research Project within the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, funded by the Golden Web Foundation.