Mesopotamian "Receipts" Illuminated by 3D Technology

Oriental Institute researchers investigate clay "envelope" balls from Iran

Intact clay envelope from Choga Mish, Iran. The exterior is stamped with seal impressions, while the interior contains tokens. These envelopes were used as receipts in economic transactions in Mesopotamia. Photo by Anna Ressman courtesy Oriental Institute.

Employing advanced technology, researchers are coming closer to understanding clay balls used in economic transactions in Mesopotamia. Christopher Woods and his colleagues at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute have collaborated with leading CT-scan and digital imaging firms to study 18 clay balls excavated at Choga Mish, Iran. The balls, which can be as small as golf balls or as large as baseballs and functioned as early “envelopes,” are marked with seal impressions. Contained within these hollow balls are small clay tokens.

Scholars agree that the envelopes, the earliest of which date to the middle of the fourth millennium B.C.E., were an early administrative device for proto-literate societies. The envelopes served as receipts: The tokens sealed within the envelopes represent commodities involved in an exchange, and the sealing of the tokens within the envelopes prevented fraud.

Still being studied is the relationship between the seal impressions on the outside of the envelopes and the tokens contained within. One famous, though hotly debated, theory first developed by Denise Schmandt-Besserat in 1992 proposed that the tokens were the earliest cuneiform signs. According to the theory, the flat tablet eventually replaced the ball-shaped envelope. In place of seal impressions and tokens, two-dimensional cuneiform signs that evolved from these geometric-shaped tokens were drawn onto the tablet. The theory has since renewed discussion over the origins of writing in Mesopotamia.

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According to one theory, these tokens were the earliest cuneiform signs. Here, the tokens are shown with their respective cuneiform graphs (from top to bottom) for sheep and goats, wool, and silver. Image courtesy Oriental Institute.

Hindering thorough study of the envelopes is the destructive nature of the investigation: Traditionally, the clay envelopes would have to be broken to examine the tokens inside. It is estimated that 80 of the 130 envelopes discovered from excavations in Iran, Syria and Iraq are still intact; to break them would mean destroying the seal impressions on the exterior of the envelopes. Thankfully, new technology is providing a non-destructive method of studying these objects without having to break the artifacts. The Oriental Institute researchers created 3D CT images of the envelopes as well as the tokens inside; 3D digital models were then produced from these images. The 3D models allow the tokens to be analyzed in relation to one another within the envelopes as well as in isolation.

According to LiveScience, one envelope held tokens that were made of a low-density material, likely bitumen, an adhesive used to waterproof objects in antiquity. The digital models showed that the tokens had air bubbles around them, indicating that a cloth, which would have disintegrated over time, may have been wrapped around the tokens before they were sealed in the envelopes. Evidence also suggests a liquid, likely liquid bitumen, was poured over the tokens. The reason why bitumen was used in this envelope remains unknown, but Woods told LiveScience that the envelope may have represented a receipt for an exchange involving bitumen.

The research team at the Oriental Institute hopes these state-of-the-art techniques can help elucidate the relationship between the types of tokens, the seal impressions and the provenience of the clay envelopes as well as the nature of administrative practices and the development of writing in Mesopotamia.

3D digital models of the clay envelopes and their contents help researchers study the objects without destroying them. Image courtesy Oriental Institute.

Read more about the research conducted by the Oriental Institute.

Visit the BAS Archaeological Technology page.

BAS Library Members: Read more about the use of 21st-century technology in archaeology:

Bruce Zuckerman, “Archaeological Views: New Eyeballs on Ancient Texts,” Biblical Archaeology Review, November/December 2011.

Ann Killebrew, “Archaeological Views: Biblical Archaeology in the 21st Century,” Biblical Archaeology Review, November/December 2013.

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1 Responses

  1. Joe Davidi says:

    Apparently Iran has balls.

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1 Responses

  1. Joe Davidi says:

    Apparently Iran has balls.

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