Record Keeping and the Origins of Writing in Mesopotamia

Term Paper for Ancient Mesopotamian History and Culture by Darci Clark

Early forms of record keeping in Mesopotamia led to the development of the first known writing system called cuneiform. A system which used clay tokens was first developed around the eighth millennium BCE. These clay tokens were used to represent individual commodities. Eventually markings were used on the tokens which led to pictographic writing. The token system also helped to develop our concept of abstract numbers. This evolution of record keeping and writing systems arose due to the need to account for agricultural commodities and the growth of urban environments and trade.

Simple Clay Tokens

The token system was first used around 8000 – 7500 BCE with the advent of agriculture. Tokens were usually made of clay but some that have been found were also made of stone. Most tokens were formed in geometric shapes including cones, spheres, and cylinders. Animal and tool shaped tokens have also been recovered. The tokens were one inch or less across in size. The clay tokens were baked at a low temperature which caused them to vary in color from pink to black.

Each token shape represented a certain quantity of a particular good rather than standing for the actual number one, two or three, etc. For example, if a single ovoid shaped token represented a jar of oil, then five such tokens would represent five jars of oil. These simple tokens remained in use until around 3500 BCE when complex tokens came into use. Complex tokens had distinctive markings and were styled in new geometric and naturalistic shapes. These new tokens with additional shapes and markings could be used to indicate an increase in the number of goods available to trade. As new items were traded, a specifically designed token was designed to represent it.

Complex TokensEven though tokens were effective in representing commodities since they were easily identified and duplicated, they could not convey any other information such as the quality of a product. Since tokens were small they were easy to handle, but were not very effective when dealing with large amounts of goods. Clay envelopes were devised to hold large numbers of tokens and to ensure the correct number of tokens reached its destination without incident. These envelopes, also called bullae, were hollow clay balls. They were sealed with geometrical impressions which would need to be broken if the envelope was opened to verify the contents. Some bullae had impressions representing the number of tokens on the outside of the envelope so it would not be necessary to break the seal to count the actual number of tokens enclosed.

Bullae – Clay Envelope and Tokens

The practice of noting token information on the outside of envelopes evolved into an early version of solid clay tablet writing. It must have been realized that the idea of sending the same information twice was redundant; the tokens themselves and the same token information noted again on the envelope. A realization was made that the same information could be conveyed with the token impressions only carved on a clay tablet. This was an important step in the development of writing because these tablets actually communicated a message from one person to another. Eventually small sketches were used to depict other things besides commodities and the pictographic style of writing began. Even the first use of abstract numbers, meaning numerals that were not related to any particular commodity, occurred in pictographic writing. These early numerals were represented by wedges and circular markings on the tablet, and stood for the quantity of an item instead of the token itself indicating the quantity of items.

Pictographic writing was a big step forward in the development of writing but there were still limitations. Even though a wider a variety of ideas could be communicated, it was still not possible to document movements or relationships between the items represented on the tablets. It was also impossible to ask a question relating to the items shown. These new pictographic images were called logograms, or word signs. To solve some of the limitation problems, logograms were eventually used to depict a single syllable of a word instead of simply an object. “For instance, they would take a logogram such as the original pictographic star-shaped AN—meaning “star,” “heaven,” and “god”—and read it as the syllable an; unrelated to word sign.” At this stage logograms ceased to be just depictions of objects and became syllabograms, or phonograms, which represented actual sounds used in language; a phonetic script.

Evolution of Cuneiform Script

The final step to create a true writing system which could communicate and document speech was the evolution of the logograms/phonograms into stylized linear representations. Called cuneiform, these wedge-shaped signs were incised in clay tablets with a prism-shaped split reed. The main impetus of the change to this true writing script was the use of the Semitic language in in the first half of the third millennium in Sumeria. Over the next five hundred years as Semitic words were added to and translated into the Sumerian vocabulary, cuneiform became based entirely on language itself. Besides the Sumerian and Semitic languages, the Akkadian, Elamite, Hurrian, and Hittite languages also influenced the final development of the cuneiform writing system.

Writing was the exclusive province of the privileged scribal class. The majority of the population would not have been able to read or write cuneiform, including a majority of Mesopotamian kings. Sons of aristocratic families would attend scribal schools to learn to read and write cuneiform by studying and copying texts. Preparing letters and contracts were a professional scribe’s main duties. Keeping literacy exclusive to the scribal class may have been designed to keep the majority of the population from questioning the policies of the government. Since scribes were the only group allowed to have any control over bureaucratic communications, it was in the government’s best interest to offer them a privileged lifestyle to lessen the chance of political or social unrest among them.

Cuneiform Writing on Tablet

In her essay on the token system, “Record Keeping Before Writing,” Denise Schmandt-Besserat says, “It is remarkable that the first writing system developed from a counting technology.” The simple system of using tokens to represent agricultural commodities evolved over several millennia to become cuneiform, the first true writing system. The progression from simple and complex tokens to bullae set the stage for the early forms of pictographic writing on clay tablets. Pictographic logograms evolved into syllabograms and phonetic writing. An influx of new languages in Mesopotamia assisted in the transformation of phonetic writing into the first true writing system of cuneiform. The invention of writing led to the elevation of the literate class from the illiterate masses, and soon became of tool of government bureaucracy. Today without writing it would be difficult, if not impossible, to study the events, beliefs, and daily lives of the ancient Mesopotamians.

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