Before Writing, From Counting to Cuniform, Schmandt-Besserat
I ran into a reference to this work, and the other companions as yet unread while looking into some additional details related to Marshak’s work. It took a real effort to locate a copy of the books and they proved to be quite expensive. This copy came from a library in California and from the look and smell, it had never been opened. Pity….There are 2 volumns to the publication with the second being a very detailed inventory of all the tokens known to the author at the time. By a mistake, I bought 2 copies of the first volumn.
The core idea is that a variety of small and ubiquitous objects that are found in ancient sites in Mesopotamia are clay “tokens” that were used as the first form of counting and record keeping. The objects were found all over the area and were generally ignored as they were neither fancy or rare. The evidence is that they were a standardized way of identifying both a count of an item as well as identifying the items itself. For example, a token in the form of a cylinder meant 1 jug of oil; 2 tokens meant 2 jugs and so forth.
The evidence is overwhelming that this is a valid theory.
A summary of the time-line of the objects and how and when they were eventually the predecessors of writing:
8000 – 3000 BC: Plain tokens were characterized by mostly geometric shapes and a plain surface
4400 – 3100 BC: Complex tokens had a larger repertory of geometric shapes and also included more natuaralistic forms. They bore a greater variety of linear and punched markings. Some specimens were perforated in order to be strung for safekeeping in archives.
3750 BC: Comples tokens formed series of counters of the same shape, with a variable number of lines and punctuations
3500 BC: The comples of tokens reached a climax. At that time they spread to sites of northern Mesopotamia, Susiana and Syria, where the southers Mesopotamian bureauracracy was involved.
3700 – 2600 BC: Groups of tokens representing particular transactions were enclosed in clay envelopes to be kept in archives
3500 – 2600 BC: Some envelopes bore on the outside the impressions of the tokens help inside. These envelopes bearing markings were the turning point between tokens and writing.
3500 – 3100 BC: Tablets displaying impressed markings in the shape of tokens superseded the envelopes
3100 – 3000 BC: Pictographis script traced with a stylus on clay tablets marked the true taskoff of writing. The tokens dwindled.
A couple notes from the reading:
The markings that Marshak analyzed might also be explained as markers counting time until an event, such as “in 9 moons or 120 sunrises, we need to be at such and such a location”….I like that.
“Two does not exist in nature”
To answer Thomas Astle’s question:
Whence did the wond’rous mystic art arise
Of painting speech, and speaking to the eye?
That we by tracing magic lines are taught
How both to colour, and embody thought?