Clay Tokens and The Origin of Writing

Disclaimer: this post is definitely high on the nerd-ometer scale.

In an earlier post, I described how clay tokens found in ancient Mesopotamia were used as religious souvenirs. I got interested in these early tokens and did some research, ultimately stumbling into a book entitled, “How Writing Came About” by Denise Schmandt-Besserat. The thesis of the book is that small, hand-formed clay shapes were used for 5,000 years as an early accounting system to count goods in prehistoric cultures of the Near East. Perhaps more importantly, the evolution of marks made on these clay tokens and, particularly, on holders for these tokens ultimately set the foundation for human writing.

The author traces the origin and use of small clay objects in distinct shapes (cones, cylinders, spheres, etc) in early settlements across what is now Iraq and other parts of the Middle East, beginning about 8,000 B.C.

She calls these small clay objects “tokens” and, based on archaeological findings, theorizes that tokens were formalized into distinct shapes (e.g., cones, spheres, disks, cylinders, etc), with each shape representing specific farming goods (e.g., grain, sheep, goat, etc) in early agricultural-based economies. For example, a cone might represent a small basket of grain, a sphere might represent a large basket of grain, and a cylinder might represent a sheep.

The author observes that these clay tokens were among the first example of fired clay objects.

Around 3,500 BC, as societies became more complex and bureaucracies increased, the tokens were adapted to account for finished goods such as bread, rope, jars of oil and even cloth, pieces of furniture and tools.

Since the number of shapes was limited, this additional information was conveyed with markings and incisions on the tokens. Archaeologists have documented patterns used to denote different information, as in these disk shapes to the right.

Initially, these simple clay tokens were accumulated as counters of farming goods. For example, if someone owned 3 sheep, that ownership would be represented by holding 3 plain cylinders. Why these goods needed to be counted is not clear – it appears to relate to some type of storage or taxation system. Over time, archaeologists believe people began either storing the separate clay shapes inside a clay “envelope” or tying the clay shapes together with a string, sometimes also sealing the string with a “bullae” made of clay and carrying the stamp or markings of some administrator.

Clay envelopes were given marks that indicated the number of clay tokens inside. Typically, if there were 3 cylinders inside a clay envelope, a scribe impressed 3 cylinders on the outside of the clay envelop after sealing it.

These exterior markings became more elaborate over time. For example, the author notes:

The invention of numerals … provided a new formula to express numbers of units of goods. We know from the token contents of envelopes that tokens were repeated as many times as the number of items counted. “One jar of oil” was shown by one token standing for a jar of oil; “two jars of oil” by two such tokens, “three jars of oil” by three tokens, and so on. This rudimentary system was replaced … by numerals or signs used to express abstract numbers, such as 1, 2, 3, etc.

So the progression was individual clay shapes representing individual items to envelopes holding those individual clay shapes and marked on the exterior with impressions of those

shapes to pictographs representing numbers of items contained within the envelope. Ultimately, the clay envelopes holding individual clay shapes gave way to tablets marked with signs representing items being counted and quantities.

It’s not a leap to imagine how this foundation evolved into written language, expanding from “thing” (sheep) and “quantity” (10) to include additional information: “10 sheep received from Kurlil”. Denise Schmandt-Besserat writes:

…pictographic tablets inherited from tokens the system of a code based on concept signs, a basic syntax, and an economic content. Writing did away with the greatest inadequacies of the token system by bringing four major innovations to data storage and communication. First, unlike a group of loose, three-dimensional tokens, pictographs held information permanently. Second, the tablets accommodated more diversified information by assigning specific parts of the field for the recording of particular data. For example, signs representing the sponsor/recipient of the transaction were systematically placed below the symbols indicating goods. In this fashion, the scribe was able to transcribe information such as “ten sheep (received from) Kurlil” even though no particular signs were available to indicate verbs and prepositions. Third, writing put an end to the repetition in one-to-one correspondence of symbols representing commodities such as “sheep” or “oil”. Numerals were created. From then on, these new symbols, placed in conjunction with the signs for particular goods, indicated the quantities involved. Fourth, and finally, writing overcame the system of concept signs by becoming phonetic and, by doing so, not only reduced the repertory of symbols but opened writing up to all subjects of human endeavor.

More information on these topics can be found on Wikipedia, at ThoughtCo, and in an online publication by Denise Schmandt-Besserat.

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