The Emergence Of Handwriting Didn't Bring An End To Prehistoric 'Bookkeeping'
July 14, 2014

The Emergence Of Handwriting Didn’t Bring An End To Prehistoric ‘Bookkeeping’

Gerard LeBlond for - Your Universe Online

It was previously believed that the use of clay tokens for trade records discontinued with the arrival of written bookkeeping. However, a new discovery of clay tokens dated after written records commenced, suggests the token system was still used thousands of years later. This discovery compares to today’s use of the pen and paper along with computer-based word processors.

These tokens are believed to be a form of bookkeeping in prehistoric times. They were small pieces of clay that varied in shapes, including, spheres, discs and triangles, with some shaped like oxhide and bull heads. Each shape was considered to represent a unit of possessions like livestock and grain. It is thought that the tokens would be given and later sealed in more clay for a permanent record of trade, similar to a contract.

This system was believed to be used up until around 3000 BC. After which time clay tablets began to be utilized with pictorial symbols etched on them with triangular-tipped reeds, a form of primitive writing. However, the recent discovery of a large quantity of tokens at Ziyaret Tepe, a dig site at the ancient city of Tushan, were found to be from 2,000 years after the use of clay tablets began.

“Complex writing didn't stop the use of the abacus, just as the digital age hasn't wiped out pencils and pens. 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,” said lead researcher Dr John MacGinnis from Cambridge's MacDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.

The two forms of bookkeeping utilized together created a more sophisticated record. “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,” he added.

According to MacGinnis, the two systems were used in the regions of Turkey, Syria and Iraq up until roughly 900 to 600 BC. The written tablets that were found with the tokens, represented grain trades. It is unclear what the tokens represented. In the team’s best theory, they were most likely used for grain trade, as well as livestock, but also could have been used for oil, wool and wine exchanges.

“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. The inventions of recording systems are milestones in the human journey, and any finds which contribute to the understanding of how they came about makes a basic contribution to mapping the progress of mankind,” MacGinnis said.


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