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Clay tokens used for 'book-keeping' long after invention of writing

last modified Aug 04, 2014 03:19 PM
Latest excavations led by McDonald Institute researcher John MacGinnis, show prehistoric clay tokens remained integral to recording trade across the Assyrian Empire - millennia after this system was believed to have vanished.


Recent excavations at Ziyaret Tepe – the site of the ancient city Tušhan, a provincial capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire – have unearthed a large quantity of tokens dating to the first millennium BC: two thousand years after ‘cuneiform’ – the earliest form of writing – emerged on clay tablets.

It has long been believed that clay tokens, which were often used to represent units of commodities such as livestock or grain, were only circulated in the period leading up to around 3,000 BC after which they became obsolete.

MacGinnis believes that the new evidence points to prehistoric tokens used in conjunction with cuneiform as an empire-wide administrative-system stretching right across what is now Turkey, Syria and Iraq. In its day, roughly 900 to 600 BC, the Assyrian empire was the largest the world had ever seen.  

“Complex writing didn’t stop the use of the abacus, just as the digital age hasn’t wiped out pencils and pens….. 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 were used together.”

For more information:

An Oral History of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research