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21 July 2014
Prehistoric 'bookkeeping' continued long after invention of writing

Recent excavations at Ziyaret Tepe - the site of the ancient city Tushan, a provincial capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, in what is now southeast Turkey - have uncovered a large number of clay tokens dating to the first millennium BCE, believed to have been used as records of trade until the advent of writing. Surprisingly, the new finds date from a time when writing was commonplace - 2,000 years after the tokens were presumed to been made obsolete. They range from basic spheres, discs, and triangles, to shapes that resemble ox hides and bull's heads.
     One theory is that different types of tokens 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 up to around 3000 BCE, at which point clay tablets filled with pictorial symbols drawn using triangular-tipped reeds begin to emerge.
     "Complex writing didn't stop the use of the abacus, just as the digital age hasn't wiped out pencils and pens," says Dr John MacGinnis, of Cambridge's MacDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, who led the research. "In fact, in a literate society there are multiple channels of recording information that can be complementary to each other."
     The tokens were discovered in the main administrative building in Tushan's lower town, along with many cuneiform clay tablets, as well as weights and clay seals. Over 300 tokens were found in two rooms near the back of a building MacGinnis describes as having the character of a delivery area. "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. The information is travelling through these rooms in token form, and ending up inscribed onto cuneiform tablets further down the line."
     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 the new evidence points to an empire-wide system stretching right across what is now Turkey, Syria and Iraq. In its day, roughly 900 to 600 BCE, the Assyrian empire was the largest the world had ever seen. "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."

Edited from EurekAlert! (13 July 2014)

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