How Writing Came About

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Another way early historians explained these anomalies was by asserting that the Mesopotamians had deployed their now-lost system of pictographs only on biodegradable material, such as bark or animal hides. But this explanation rests on two undocumented phenomena: 1 an unknown pictographic writing system which had been executed exclusively on 2 a medium now lost.

Nevertheless, in the absence of any form of writing preceding cuneiform or any better explanation for its aboriginal complexity, the pictographic theory trudged on, in spite its obvious flaws.

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Over time, as more and more tablets came to light and our understanding of cuneiform improved, other issues arose to challenge further the theory of a pictographic origin. When scholars could see more clearly how early cuneiform developed, they realized that those few signs which did, in fact, arise from pictographs had been introduced after the invention of this script. Other historians pointed out that pictographs do not form the basis of other ancient scripts, like the Eskimo and Indian writing systems.

Mesopotamian origins

Another issue concerned geography. In Sumeria, the earliest cuneiform tablets come from Uruk, a major hub of civilization in the Near East and the focus of much early archaeology.


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But later archaeologists found evidence that cuneiform was also being used in Syria far to the west and Iran to the east at almost the same time as it first appears in Uruk. And this raised a further issue. Uruk was at that time an urbanized community with a large economy and population. Syria and Iran were relatively poor areas, sparsely populated. But cuneiform appears in all these places simultaneously. How did a complex form of writing with many abstract signs used mainly to keep a tally of properties and possessions spread with such uniformity so widely and rapidly across both city and country?

Yet another challenge to the pictograph theory came from the material it was most often written on, clay. So, because of its sheer abundance alone, clay was the logical choice for Mesopotamians to use as a writing medium. Clay is, in fact, very difficult to write on. It has to be pressed into a workable shape first, which is usually something rounded, something that will fit in the palm of the hand. And circular is indeed the form in which we find many a cuneiform tablet.

Yet virtually all early cuneiform is found on clay, as if it were somehow to the ancient people of this area their traditional vehicle for writing. Looking at the abstract nature of even the earliest cuneiform signs, their widespread use and, most of all, the material on which they were impressed led her to a new theory and a better account of this all-important development. But as she was searching for bits of clay floors, hearth linings, beads and figurines, she kept running into massive piles of small ceramic pieces found in various shapes and sizes.

Clay Tokens from Mesopotamia, c. Realizing they must have stood for things, she started calling them tokens, the name by which they are now known. But still no one had any idea what they stood for, or how they were used. Schmandt-Besserat noted some important clues, however. Many of these tokens are incised—that is, they have various markings engraved on them—and they come in a wide variety of shapes: spheres, cones, disks, cylinders and so on.

Sumerian clay tokens, c. There is also a clear evolution in their design. Those found in earlier layers are plain, few in number and naturalistic in shape, while those dating to the latest times, after BCE, are more highly incised and decorated. Also there are more shapes and greater complexity among later tokens—at the same time, none required high-level skill in ceramics to create—including naturalistic renditions of beds, fruit and tools.

Most intriguing of all, they stop being made after BCE, just as cuneiform enters the scene. In that final phase of their evolution, tokens revert to fewer and plainer shapes and eventually fall out of use entirely. There are several other things notable about the nature and disposition of these tokens. For another, they date to very early times, as far back as BCE. Furthermore, there is evidence some care went into their creation because many have been fired. Firing signifies a desire to preserve them, which in turn argues that they had value of some sort. They are, in fact, among the earliest fired ceramics known.

Clay writing tokens, c.

How writing came to be

Most of this was already evident, if inexplicable, when Schmandt-Besserat began her work. Awareness of the existence of tokens, in fact, went back almost all the way to the beginning of Near Eastern archaeology in the nineteenth century. And as early as , evidence emerged that tokens represented part of a system of enumeration, functioning as counters of some sort. In particular, an envelope-tablet had been found—envelope-tablets are hollow balls of clays with tokens inside—which contained on the exterior a list of sheep and on the interior the exact number of tokens matching that inscribed on the outside.


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But because this was the only such tablet known, it seemed a stretch to reconstruct a entire system of token-counting based on one single piece of evidence. But, as Schmandt-Besserat later noted, the existence of many tokens having the same shape but in different sizes does, in fact, suggest they once belonged to an accounting system of some sort. The decipherment of that system became the hallmark and triumph of her career. She noted initially that several of the designs used on and for tokens resembled later cuneiform signs.

From there it was not much of a conceptual leap, though its implications to history were immense, that the tokens had originally functioned as counters representing one unit of a particular item, in much the same way later cuneiform signs denoted items in written form. How did this token system of counting work, and what was it used to count?

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And, most important, why was it necessary? What do they have to count? To the contrary, a settled community where goods can be stored is where one expects to find an accounting system develop, but to the first users of tokens urbanization lay far off in a distant future they could hardly have imagined. Or so it once seemed. Recent archaeological investigations have been pushing the horizon of urbanized life back further and further in time.

This suggests, in fact, that urbanization began at the very brink of agriculture which in some places developed as early as the eighth millennium BCE, and since farming entails a settled lifestyle and the accumulation and storage of goods, it makes sense that a counting system like tokens would also have roots that deep in history. Similar counting systems, for one, can be found even today all over the planet.

Of particular interest here, modern shepherds in Iraq still use pebbles in counting sheep. But pebbles are undifferentiated, making it unclear what they represent.

The solution to that problem is obvious and conforms precisely to the archaeological evidence seen in tokens, to differentiate the counters. This makes it easy to understand how tokens would have been deployed in counting, as Schmandt-Besserat argues. The evolution of tokens over time only adds further to the supposition they represent an ancient accounting system of some sort.

In terms of their shapes and signs, many tokens remained highly stable, changing remarkably little during their over four millennia of use in prehistory. Others, however, became more complex, especially in their latest incarnation around and after BCE as the cities of Mesopotamia were in ascendance. Their increasing vocabulary of incisions—that is, inscribed lines used to signify things—was, no doubt, the by-product of mounting urbanization. After all, as larger and more complex cities began to develop, there would have been more and more things to keep track of, necessitating a richer language of incisions to account for all that.

And one final piece of evidence attests to the use of tokens as a system of communication, the fact that many later ones have perforations, doubtlessly designed to allow them to be strung together. But why? As a filing system of some sort? Or, were they threaded on a string—a string, of course, is biodegradable and would not have survived over time—with its loose ends sealed together with a bulla , a stamped clay seal of some sort. That the more complex tokens are the ones most often found with perforations argues in favor of such an interpretation of the evidence.

As noted before, it was common practice in Mesopotamian society after the invention of cuneiform to enclose a contract in a clay envelope, with a copy of the contract on the outside. This ensured no one had tampered with the details.

How Writing Came About

A Mesopotamian cylinder seal depicting a god sitting behind a sacred tree, facing a woman and a serpent. What Schmandt-Besserat showed was that this tradition extended far back in time, long before cuneiform itself. The envelope-tablet mentioned above in which tokens were deployed as counters had been discovered as early as Schmandt-Besserat showed this was no fluke. Indeed, some ancient Near Eastern contracts have numerous cylinder seal impressions on them, which are, in effect, the signatures of the individuals involved in the contract.

Envelope-tablets with the text of a contract and the signatory cylinder seal impressions on the inside offered the advantage of ensuring the validity and integrity of a business transaction. But when the cuneiform document was completed and sealed inside its envelope, it was difficult to know exactly what the contract stipulated since the clay envelope hid the text inside.

Denise Schmandt-Besserat

Archaeology shows, however, that the ancients found a ready solution to that problem. They copied the contract onto the envelope itself. While the clay is still wet, the tokens themselves were sealed inside, and the whole package was left to dry or be fired. The copy of the tokens on the envelope is itself an important conceptual leap, a first step toward representing tokens abstractly as two-dimensional cuneiform signs, not three-dimensional tokens.


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  8. This was especially necessary for incised tokens, because their marks which are crucial to their meaning do not transfer well onto wet clay. And as incised tokens became more popular in the economic boom starting around BCE, the need to represent them precisely on envelopes would only have increased. All a contract really needed to ensure its lasting validity was the symbolic signs on the outer envelope, originally an exterior copy of the contract but now the whole contract itself.

    Schmandt-Besserat sums it up this way:. The signs were not pictures of the items they represented but, rather, pictures of the tokens used as counters in the previous accounting system. The first tablets were a decisive step in the invention of writing and amounted to a revolution in communication technology. The last step to a full and independent writing system was the creation of new cuneiform signs not based on an original token design.