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Prehistoric “bookkeeping” continued long after invention of writing

July 14, 2014
Courtesy of the University of Cambridge
and World Science staff

Ar­chae­o­lo­gists in south­east Tur­key have found clay to­kens that served as rec­ords of trade un­til the ad­vent of writ­ing, or so it was be­lieved.

But the new find dates from a time when writ­ing was com­mon­place – thou­sands of years af­ter the to­kens were thought to have been be­come ob­so­lete. Re­search­ers com­pare it to the con­tin­ued use of pens in the age of the word pro­ces­sor.

Some of the to­kens. (Im­age cre­dit: Zi­ya­ret Te­pe Arch­aeo­lo­gi­cal Pro­ject)


The to­kens – small clay pieces in a range of sim­ple shapes – are thought to have been used as a ru­di­men­ta­ry book­keep­ing sys­tem. One the­o­ry is that their dif­fer­ent types rep­re­sented un­its of var­i­ous com­mod­i­ties such as live­stock and grain. These would be ex­changed and lat­er sealed in more clay as a per­ma­nent rec­ord of the trade – es­sen­tial­ly, the world’s first con­tract.

The sys­tem was used be­fore around 3000 BC, at which point clay tab­lets filled with pic­to­ri­al sym­bols drawn us­ing triangular-tipped reeds beg­in to emerge: the birth of writ­ing, and con­se­quently his­to­ry. From this point on, the to­kens dwin­dle and then dis­ap­pear, lead­ing to the as­sump­tion that writ­ing quickly sup­planted the to­ken sys­tem.

The ex­cava­t­ions at Zi­yaret Te­pe – the site of the an­cient ­city Tušhan, a pro­vin­cial cap­i­tal of the Neo-As­syr­i­an Em­pire – un­earthed many to­kens dat­ing to the first mil­len­ni­um B.C., 2,000 years af­ter “cu­nei­form” – the ear­li­est form of writ­ing – emerged on clay tab­lets.

“Com­plex writ­ing did­n’t stop the use of the ab­a­cus, just as the dig­it­al age has­n’t wiped out pen­cils and pens,” said John MacGin­nis from Cam­bridge Uni­vers­ity in the U.K., who led the re­search. “In fact, in a lit­er­ate so­ci­e­ty there are mul­ti­ple chan­nels of rec­ording in­forma­t­ion that can be com­ple­men­ta­ry to each oth­er. In this case both pre­his­tor­ic clay to­kens and cu­nei­form writ­ing used to­geth­er.”

The to­kens turned up in the main ad­min­is­tra­tive build­ing in Tu­šhan’s low­er town, along with many cu­nei­form clay tab­lets as well as weights and clay seal­ings, the re­search­ers said. Over 300 to­kens were found in two rooms near the back of the build­ing that MacGin­nis de­scribes as look­ing like a ‘de­liv­ery area’, per­haps an an­cient load­ing bay.

“We think one of two things hap­pened he­re. You ei­ther have in­forma­t­ion about live­stock com­ing through he­re, or flocks of an­i­mals them­selves. Each farm­er or herd­er would have a bag with to­kens to rep­re­sent their flock,” said Mac­Gin­nis.

“The in­forma­t­ion is trav­el­ing through these rooms in to­ken form, and end­ing up in­scribed on­to cu­nei­form tab­lets fur­ther down the line.”

Ar­chae­o­lo­gists say that, while cu­nei­form writ­ing was a more ad­vanced ac­count­ing tech­nol­o­gy, by com­bin­ing it with the flex­i­bil­ity of the to­kens the an­cient As­syr­i­ans cre­at­ed a rec­ord-keeping sys­tem of great­er so­phis­tica­t­ion. “The to­kens pro­vid­ed a sys­tem of move­a­ble num­bers that al­lowed for stock to be moved and ac­counts to be mod­i­fied and up­dat­ed with­out com­mit­ting to writ­ing; a sys­tem that does­n’t re­quire eve­ry­one in­volved to be lit­er­ate.” 

Mac­Gin­nis be­lieves that the new ev­i­dence points to pre­his­tor­ic to­kens used in con­junc­tion with cu­nei­form as an em­pire-wide ‘ad­min’ sys­tem stretch­ing right across what is now Tur­key, Syr­ia and Iraq. In its day, roughly 900 to 600 BC, the As­syr­i­an em­pire was the larg­est the world had ev­er seen. 

Types of to­kens ranged from bas­ic balls, discs and tri­an­gles to to­kens that re­sem­ble ox-hide and bull heads.

While the ma­jor­ity of the cu­nei­form tab­lets found with the to­kens deal with grain trades, it’s not yet known what the var­i­ous to­kens rep­re­sent. The team said that some to­kens likely stand for grain, as well as dif­fer­ent types of live­stock (such as goats and cat­tle), but – as they were in use at the height of the em­pire – to­kens could have been used to rep­re­sent com­mod­i­ties such as oil, wool and wine.

“One of my dreams is that one day we’ll dig up the tab­let of an ac­count­ant who was mak­ing a me­tic­u­lous in­ven­to­ry of goods and sys­tems, and we will be able to crack the to­ken sys­tem’s codes,” said Mac­Gin­nis, whose find­ings are pub­lished in the Cam­bridge Ar­chae­o­log­i­cal Jour­nal.


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Archaeologists in southeast Turkey have found clay tokens that served as records of trade until the advent of writing, or so it was believed. But the new find dates from a time when writing was commonplace – thousands of years after the tokens were thought to have been become obsolete. Researchers compare it to the continued use of pens in the age of the word processor. The tokens – small clay pieces in a range of simple shapes – are thought to have been used as a rudimentary bookkeeping system. One theory is that their different types represented units of various commodities such as livestock and grain. These would be exchanged and later sealed in more clay as a permanent record of the trade – essentially, the world’s first contract. The system was used before around 3000 BC, at which point clay tablets filled with pictorial symbols drawn using triangular-tipped reeds begin to emerge: the birth of writing, and consequently history. From this point on, the tokens dwindle and then disappear, leading to the assumption that writing quickly supplanted the token system. The excavations at Ziyaret Tepe – the site of the ancient city Tušhan, a provincial capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire – unearthed many tokens dating to the first millennium B.C., 2,000 years after “cuneiform” – the earliest form of writing – emerged on clay tablets. “Complex writing didn’t stop the use of the abacus, just as the digital age hasn’t wiped out pencils and pens,” said John MacGinnis from Cambridge University in the U.K., who led the research. “In fact, in a literate society there are multiple channels of recording information that can be complementary to each other. In this case both prehistoric clay tokens and cuneiform writing used together.” The tokens turned up in the main administrative building in Tušhan’s lower town, along with many cuneiform clay tablets as well as weights and clay sealings, the researchers said. Over 300 tokens were found in two rooms near the back of the building that MacGinnis describes as looking like a ‘delivery area’, perhaps an ancient loading bay. “We think one of two things happened here. You either have information about livestock coming through here, or flocks of animals themselves. Each farmer or herder would have a bag with tokens to represent their flock,” said MacGinnis. “The information is traveling through these rooms in token form, and ending up inscribed onto cuneiform tablets further down the line.” Archaeologists say that, while cuneiform writing was a more advanced accounting technology, by combining it with the flexibility of the tokens the ancient Assyrians created a record-keeping system of greater sophistication. “The tokens provided a system of moveable numbers that allowed for stock to be moved and accounts to be modified and updated without committing to writing; a system that doesn’t require everyone involved to be literate.” MacGinnis believes that the new evidence points to prehistoric tokens used in conjunction with cuneiform as an empire-wide ‘admin’ system stretching right across what is now Turkey, Syria and Iraq. In its day, roughly 900 to 600 BC, the Assyrian empire was the largest the world had ever seen. Types of tokens ranged from basic balls, discs and triangles to tokens that resemble ox-hide and bull heads. While the majority of the cuneiform tablets found with the tokens deal with grain trades, it’s not yet known what the various tokens represent. The team said that some tokens likely stand for grain, as well as different types of livestock (such as goats and cattle), but – as they were in use at the height of the empire – tokens could have been used to represent commodities such as oil, wool and wine. “One of my dreams is that one day we’ll dig up the tablet of an accountant who was making a meticulous inventory of goods and systems, and we will be able to crack the token system’s codes,” said MacGinnis, whose findings are published in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal.