In February 2009, I bought a Tuareg “magic square” ring – actually, both my first and my favorite one – from an online gallery in the US, and shortly thereafter found myself having to explain to the enthusiastic vendor why I wasn’t also interested in buying an African divination box made from a monkey skull. At the time, it took some thought on my part to articulate an answer. “I’m primarily interested in magic symbols,” I wrote, “and the monkey skull has no markings. My interest in an artifact is determined by the symbols it carries.” “You have an unusual collection hobby,” she replied, sounding deflated. I think that she doubted the sincerity of my rationale.
If I had difficulty justifying my “collecting policy” to a vendor of magical monkey skulls, then I shuddered to think how my idiosyncratic enthusiasm might be received by my colleagues at work, all of them dedicated research scientists at Australia’s national agency for scientific and industrial research. In fact, it was only in the middle of the present year – and then only because I was pressed to reveal why I had opted to take (very) early retirement – that I admitted nervously one lunchtime to “an interest in mysterious symbol systems,” and mentioned the Tuareg talisman rings as an example. There was an uncomfortable silence, much as if I had confessed to a secret conviction that the earth was flat. “Sounds nerdy,” volunteered a friend awkwardly, and the subject was quickly changed. Magic, famously dubbed by Sir James Fraser as “the bastard sister of science,” is essentially off-limits to the 21st-century molecular biologist. And if you simply must have an affair with your wife’s illegitimate sibling, you are expected not to chat about it at the family lunch-table.
It was therefore in a private and largely clandestine capacity that I began to collect silver Tuareg magic square rings. I had for some years previously been interested in a set of seven magic symbols that, since medieval times, have featured prominently in Islamic talismans, but up to that point I had mainly encountered them in manuscripts and paper amulets from the Middle East. Yet here, within the cells of the grids engraved on these West African rings, I was sure that I could see some of the familiar “Seven Seals” dispersed amongst other arcane symbols that were as yet unknown to me. Fuelled by intellectual curiosity and aesthetic delight in the complex designs, I began to buy. Between 2009 and 2013, I acquired a modest collection of Tuareg magic square rings – mostly sourced from Mali and Niger – that spanned the available range of templates and symbol types. From the outset, I also took care to record the properties of all the other symbol-bearing Tuareg jewelry that came to my attention online. Even at that early stage, I could sense that this was fertile ground for a research paper. And I happen to enjoy writing research papers, particularly ones on topics that I’m not supposed to know anything about.
To try to understand the meaning and purpose of the rings’ inscriptions, I turned first to popular “coffee table” books on African adornments, and then to the academic research literature – monographs, chapters in edited books, and articles in scholarly journals. In all cases, the topic appeared to be a marginal one that, at best, received a cursory mention and perhaps a photo or two. There certainly was no in-depth description of the magic square rings or how they were used, much less an account of the origin or meaning of the symbols they contained. To my mind, this was a striking omission. In the spirit of an armchair Indiana Jones, I resolved to redress this inequity by undertaking my own analysis. After all, how hard could it be?
All of my professional life has been spent analyzing data – hunting for motifs in DNA sequences, discriminating signal from noise in assay results, noticing correlations, testing conceptual models against reality, and looking for exceptions that require the hypothesis to be reformulated. I found that my scientific training and experience could readily be conscripted to this new task. For good or ill, I had no choice but to tackle the subject matter in the manner of an experimental scientist; I suspect that a professional ethnologist or semiotician may have gone about the work in quite a different way. I began by trying to organize the ever-increasing collection of magic symbols into a minimal set of distinct characters. At first I was quite cautious, preserving even modest differences between similar-looking symbols, until my sheets of pencil-markings became so overcrowded that I could no longer bear to look at them, and shelved them in despair. When I did return to this exercise several years later, it was with a sense of grim foreboding. This time I was ruthlessly parsimonious, meaning that far fewer symbols were admitted as “archetypes” and much more latitude was granted in the execution of each symbol by the artisans. To keep numbers down, I also excluded universal symbols, such as standard Arabic numbers and letters, and deemed each archetype to include inversions, rotations, and reflections of the primary glyph. In the end, this intransigent minimalism won through; I had a core repertoire of manageable size. Subjective, inevitably, but as objective as I could make it.
Although I can’t offer any explanation for the phenomenon, it seemed to me that there were recurring parallels between the progress of my scientific work and of the magic symbol study; discovery of an error or oversight in one seemed to be matched within days by a similar setback in the other, while unexpected insights would often happen around the same time in both. It was heartening to sense a mysterious correspondence between the two seemingly unrelated quests – a comfort in what, at face value, was a rather schizophrenic existence.
One of the difficulties of researching strange symbols from foreign cultures is that it is difficult to harness effectively the enormous potential of Google and other internet search engines, on which so much depends nowadays. A huge amount of academic and other specialized content is currently available online, making possible home-based research that a decade ago would have been unthinkable. However, to access the relevant information on the symbols inscribed on African talismanic jewelry, you first need to know what the components of interest are called, if indeed they have names. Moreover, you need the relevant vocabulary not just in English but also in the language of those who make and use the artifacts, of their religious literature, and of the former colonial powers in the region. One can hardly imagine a challenge more refractory to text-based web searching! I did my best, but it took a long time. Online work was augmented by library visits, inter-library loans and the purchase of some musty second-hand books. As is often the case, it was cheaper for me to buy a second-hand copy of Griaule & Dieterlen’s Signes Graphiques Soudanais (1951) and import it from England than to travel from Sydney to Canberra in order to consult the nearest library copy, the one in the National Library of Australia.
In the middle of my Tuareg collection-building and analysis, it was by pure chance that an eBay notification alerted me to the existence of symbol-bearing talismanic rings on the other side of Africa, namely in the highlands of Ethiopia. Although the format of the Ethiopian talismanic rings was quite different to their Tuareg counterparts, there appeared to be some overlap in their symbol content. Naturally, the scope of my interest and collecting activity broadened to include these east African specimens. The literature on these items was even more sparse than for Tuareg rings, so (once again) it seemed that, if I wanted a systematic analysis of the symbol repertoire, I would have to do it myself. In this case, the task was less onerous because there were far fewer examples to consider. One of the few sources to discuss the symbol-bearing Ethiopian rings was the Ethnic Jewels Forum, so I made a mental note to return there if ever I got around to completing my research paper. By now, though, the outline of the paper was expanding into something far more wide-ranging than I had originally contemplated: a comparison of the symbol repertoires of the east and west African rings. And, since my day-job had also become more difficult and demanding, it seemed that I would never get the time to write it. Due to its subject matter and the enormity of the challenge, I jokingly came to think of it as my “Lloyd of the Rings” paper.
By the end of 2013, almost five years after my first encounter with a Tuareg example, I considered that I had seen enough of both the Tuareg and Ethiopian talismanic rings to make a start on the long-anticipated research paper. The Christmas/New Year holidays of 2013/4 provided enough uninterrupted time to get the juggernaut rolling. In total, it took me about six months to crunch the numbers, compile and check the results, complete the photography, assemble the figures and write the text. As with most of my non-science publications, the resulting paper was interdisciplinary to a degree that made it unsuited to any traditional journal. It was also long, illustrated by many color photographs, and accompanied by lengthy appendices with complex formatting; all up, a prime candidate for direct release to the Web via a platform such as Academia.edu or Scribd.com. And so it came to pass. The paper, titled “The Magic Symbol Repertoire of Talismanic Rings from East and West Africa,” went live on July 12, 2014. Shortly thereafter, I drew its existence to the attention of my work friends, who found it sufficiently rational and interesting that they forgave me my strange esoteric leanings, or at least excused them. I was even encouraged to bring the magic square rings to work for a show-and-tell, where they were very well received.
Remembering my intention to return to the Ethnic Jewels Forum, I joined up and posted a link to the online paper. I was immediately delighted by the level of interest and feedback from members, many of whom uploaded pictures of previously unpublished Ethiopian rings. Some of these were exquisite, being laden with symbols to a degree I had never seen before. Of course, encountering new examples of such elusive artifacts after publication was rather unnerving, insofar as my analysis could immediately have been proven flawed or incomplete. In this case, I was lucky; the new data did not warrant any major revisions to the paper.
Another bonus of joining the Forum was the that it led to the generous and unexpected invitation to write this personal account of my journey – a writing project quite different to anything I’ve previously undertaken. On the topic of trying new things, I am hoping that my early retirement – now just a week away – will facilitate many further academic adventures, ideally with less reliance on eBay and more emphasis on field-work. While a number of research topics clamor for my attention, I would be the first to admit that there remain many unanswered questions about the Tuareg and Ethiopian talismanic rings that might be settled by in-depth visits to the relevant regions. One can only hope for a speedy end to the disease and warfare ravaging so many African countries at the time of writing. In the midst of such peril, it is easy to see how the talismanic protection of health and wellbeing could assume great importance to the locals. It is all too easy for me to forget that the apotropaic power of these beautiful rings may have been considered by their original owners to make the difference between life and death.