World’s Oldest Accounting System Withstood Invention of Writing

Neo-Assyrian clay tokens provide new insights into accounting in Mesopotamia


Clay tokens discovered in a first millennium B.C. administrative building at Ziyaret Tepe in Turkey suggest that the token system was not rendered obsolete with the development of writing, as popularly believed. Photo: Ziyaret Tepe Archaeological Project.

Did the invention of writing in Mesopotamia phase out the world’s earliest accounting system—the use of tokens in recordkeeping? Recent discoveries at Ziyaret Tepe in southeast Turkey have challenged this popular theory.

Around the middle of the eighth millennium B.C., farmers in prehistoric Mesopotamia began using a token system to track the trading of goods. It is believed that the clay tokens, which were fashioned in a range of geometric shapes, including spheres, cones and cylinders, represented the goods being bought and sold, such as livestock or grains.

Four millennia later, administrators in Mesopotamian city-states began to seal the tokens in hollow clay balls. These clay “envelopes,” which kept the transactions organized and tamper-proof, served as the world’s oldest contracts.

A popular theory posits that the token system eventually led to the development of writing. As Denise Schmandt-Besserat explains in the January/February 2002 issue of Archaeology Odyssey:

Some of these envelopes’ surfaces bear impressions of the tokens they contained. Impressions were made by stamping tokens onto the wet clay of the envelope. The markings allowed officials to know the type and number of tokens in an envelope without opening it. This was the first real step toward writing, for now three-dimensional symbols (tokens) were represented by two-dimensional signs (envelope markings).

A dramatic simplification of this system occurred around 3300–3200 B.C., as we know from 200 tablets in collections from Mesopotamia, Iran and Syria. Instead of filling envelopes with tokens, recordkeepers began to make impressions of the tokens on flattened clay balls. Thus were created the world’s first tablets, or texts written on flattened clay—dispensing entirely with the actual counters. Consequently, the markings no longer merely represented tokens; they were independent signs standing for grain, sheep, oil or woven rugs.

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Around the end of the fourth millennium B.C., accountants began to use pointed reed styluses to draw the pictorial symbols (cuneiform) on flat clay tablets. According to popular belief, the token system had been rendered obsolete and was phased out when this more efficient means of recordkeeping was invented.

New discoveries at the site of Ziyaret Tepe in Turkey, however, demonstrate that the use of tokens in recordkeeping continued alongside the use of cuneiform tablets. Excavations conducted at Ziyaret Tepe—ancient Tušhan, the provincial capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire—uncovered hundreds of tokens dating to the first millennium B.C. The tokens were discovered in an administrative building alongside cuneiform clay tablets. These finds suggest that the token system was an integral part of administrative practices in the Neo-Assyrian Empire two thousand years after tokens were thought to have been made obsolete.

“Complex writing didn’t stop the use of the abacus, just as the digital age hasn’t wiped out pencils and pens,” said Dr. John MacGinnis, director of the British Expedition to Ziyaret Tepe, in a University of Cambridge press release.

MacGinnis and his research associates have published their findings in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal.

Read more about the discoveries at Ziyaret Tepe.

Learn how 360-degree photography is providing archaeologists with a new look at Mesopotamian cylinder seals.


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  • Mildred says

    Because these are physical objects just like your pots and pans. The objects have been deciphered for their meaning in the same way your pots and pans will be recognized as cooking implements a million years from now by their composition, residue and markings, It will require experts in archeology and ancient languages to figure out what they are and remark about the kind of primitive civilization that used such objects. There will be people in those days who won’t believe that the pots and pans civilization existed either. Tools and artifacts change through the millennium but people don’t. They will ask the same question you did.

  • Jess says

    Why should I believe this is true?

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