By Denise Schmandt-Besserat
In grad school, I ran across an article that made a deep impression on me, Denise Schmandt-Besserat's 1986 article on the origin of writing in the West:
Schmandt-Besserat, D. (1986). The origins of writing: An archaeologist’s perspective. Written Communication, 3(1), 31-45.The article, which I ended up citing in the preface of my first book, really altered my understanding of writing. Based on extensive archeological work, Schmandt-Besserat argued that writing was not developed for literature, religion, or storytelling. Rather, it was a hacked-together accounting system, originally implemented as a set of clay tokens. Here's how I glossed it in my book:
Denise Schmandt-Besserat argued in 1986 that Sumerian writing, which was at that time considered to be the oldest example of writing, essentially started as a quirky Sumerian accounting system. According to her account, tax collectors began making clay tokens representing livestock, bushels of grain, and containers of oil to tally the actual goods that they had collected. Since it became unwieldy to carry around these tokens, eventually Sumerian bureaucrats began making clay “envelopes” to hold them. And since it was not possible to see inside these envelopes, they would press each token into the side of the clay envelope to make an imprint before firing it. The resulting group of impressions functioned as a tally of the livestock. Eventually some clever accountant realized that once the impressions were made, the tokens were moot. Soon the envelopes became round tablets and scribes eventually began imitating the tokens’ impressions with a stylus. The rest, as they say, is history.The article really brought home to me the materiality of writing - and the series of accidents and adjustments that went into our most protean tool.
Of course, Schmandt-Besserat's 1986 article was a summary of much longer works. Another, lengthier summary is her book How Writing Came About, a popularized version of her more scholarly Before Writing: Volume 1: From Counting to Cuneiform.
I haven't read the scholarly version yet, but How Writing Came About is just breathtaking. For me, at least, I mean that literally: at several points I was actually holding my breath. Maybe that's corny, but when Schmandt-Besserat carefully peels back the years and reconstructs the trail of innovations that gave us writing, I got a clearer sense of the length of time involved, the problems that had to be solved, the societal and organizational changes that accompanied writing's evolution, and the many ways in which it could have been stifled. Schmandt-Besserat isn't a suspense writer by any means - she has a dry style even in this popularized version - but the material makes up for that, carrying the story forward.
So what's the story? There are two.
The first story is that of the archaeologist unraveling the evidence to determine the origin of writing - not an easy feat, given how broadly that evidence was scattered and how deeply embedded were the assumptions about writing. As Schmandt-Besserat explains in the Introduction, myths claim that writing was a gift from the gods - or God. In the 18th century, scholars adopted the pictographic theory: that writing evolved from pictures (p.4). And in the 1930s, when very early tablets surfaced that seemed to contradict the pictographic theory, archaeologists tried to reconcile evidence and theory by positing earlier versions from which abstract symbols evolved (p.5). Yet challenges continued to occur. One was that tablets did not emerge until well after the establishment of cities. "How, then, did the Mesopotamian city-states function without record keeping?" (p.6). Nevertheless, archaeologists stuck by the pictographic theory. "At the same time," Schmandt-Besserat tells us, "excavations steadily produced small tokens that, as I will show, were the antecedents of writing" (p.7).
small clay objects of many shapes - cones, spheres, disks, cylinders, etc. - served as counters in the prehistoric Near East and can be traced to the Neolithic period, starting around 8000 B.C. They evolved to meet the needs of the economy, at first keeping track of the products of farming, then expanding in the urban age to keep track of goods manufactured in workshops. The development of tokens was tied to the rise of social structures, emerging with rank leadership and coming to a climax with state formation. (p.7)Right. And this gets us to the second story.
Tokens were counters, counters that allowed people to keep track of their goods - a vital precursor to city administration. But counters don't scale well by themselves, since once you get past a certain point, it's quite unwieldy to carry around tokens. So people developed a variety of methods to store and archive tokens. One way was to create clay "envelopes" (like hollow balls) in which tokens were placed and sealed. Of course, a closed and sealed envelope doesn't give you a good idea of how many tokens, or what kinds of tokens, are inside, so "accountants eventually resolved the problem by imprinting the shape of the tokens on the surface of the envelopes prior to enclosing them" (p.7). (I explain to my students that this method is similar to baking a calzone after embedding one of the ingredients on the outside.) Soon - "soon" in archaeological time, anyway - accountants realized that the outer markings made the tokens superfluous. They began producing solid clay balls with token markings on them, then began using a stylus to imitate the imprinting of tokens. "The signs were not pictures of the items they represented but, rather, pictures of the tokens used as counters in the previous accounting system" (p.7).
At this point, the author provides a few photographs. And if you're like me, you stop breathing. I'm not overly emotional, but there's something arresting about seeing these crude tokens and envelopes, invented and adapted by nameless scribes in the deep past, just trying to solve a problem and unwittingly creating a system that would eventually encode legends, histories, laws, sacred texts, mathematics, as well as picayune applications such as bubble gum wrappers and this blog post. It's like seeing the first wheel or hammer. But in these precursors of writing, you can actually see the fingerprints of the craftsmen who developed them. These tools weren't developed by a faceless mass of people - they were developed by individuals with names and families, aspirations and disappointments.
The solid clay balls were a turning point because the markings, although superficially the same, "assumed an entirely new function. Whereas the markings on envelopes repeated only the message encoded on the tokens held within, the signs on the tablet were the message" (p.55). After the envelopes gave way to the clay balls ("tablets"), it took 200 years (eight generations) to move from token impressions to additional pictographic representations (p.57). The plainer tokens were conveyed by being impressed, while more complex tokens were "transcribed into incised pictographs" (p.79). That is, there were two different scripts. Why? The author speculates that this is due to "the way tokens were handled in various offices": simple tokens were impressed because they were kept in clay envelopes, but complex tokens weren't - because they were "perforated and strung," that is, kept on strings or thongs (p.57). And why were there two different kinds of tokens stored in different ways? "The plain tokens represented products of the farm and the countryside, whereas complex tokens stood for goods manufactured in the city. It is therefore logical to assume that the two types of tokens were handled by different hands in different offices" (p.57). Eventually, they met in the emerging writing system.
The plain/complex token division gives us some idea of the environments that produced writing. In Ch.5, Schmandt-Besserat further explores these environments, taking us back to pre-writing symbols (e.g., notches on bones), then to the neolithic symbols that emerged in conjunction with agriculture: "the clay tokens modeled in distinctive shapes, each representing a precise quantity of a product" (p.93). Unlike the previous symbols, the tokens were entirely manmade and entirely for communication and record keeping (p.93). "The greatest novelty of the new medium, however, was that it created a system. ... This system made it feasible to simultaneously manipulate information concerning different categories of items, resulting in a complexity of data processing never reached previously" (p.93). And "Furthermore, the system was open; that is to say, new signs were added when necessary by creating new token shapes, and the ever-increasing repertory constantly pushed the device to new frontiers of complexity" (p.94).
Tokens were in fact "the first code," and evidence suggests that they even used a rudimentary syntax: "It is likely, for example, that the tokens were lined up on the accountant's table in a hierarchical order, starting on the right with tokens representing the largest units. That was how Sumerians organized signs on a tablet, and it is logical to assume that the procedure was inherited from former usage in handling tokens" (p.94). As a code, the token system spread intact across the entire Near East.
Schmandt-Besserat speculates that the token system itself evolved from "a former usage of counting with pebbles, shells, twigs, or grains." But "the various shapes have no known Paleolithic or Mesolithic antecedents. But the counters have the merit of bringing together as a set, for the first time, each of the basic geometric shapes, such as the sphere, cone, tetrahedron, triangle, quadrangle, and cube" (p.94). Some were probably iconic, but others appear arbitrary (p.94).
Yet as the system became more widely used, it failed to scale well. For one thing, "the tokens lacked a capacity for dissociating the numbers from the items counted" (p.96). For another, "the number of types and subtypes of tokens multiplied over time in order to satisfy the growing need for more specificity in accounting. ... This proliferation of signs was bound to lead to the system's collapse" (p.96). The system had advantages: "the system was simple" and "the code offered new performances in data processing and communication" (p.96). And the system "presaged the Sumerian writing system" in its semanticity, discreteness, systematization, codification, openness, arbitrariness, discontinuity, independence of phonetics, syntax, and economic content (pp.97-98). But its drawbacks included its format, the difficulty of making permanent records, and its inefficiency due to its limited repertoire of tokens (p.98). These drawbacks led to writing, which offered permanence; accommodation of more diverse information, an end to the repetition associated with one-to-one correspondence, and an end to the limited system of concept signs by becoming phonetic (p.98).
Look how long it took:
- 30,000-12,000 BC: tallies
- 8,000 BC: tokens
- 3,100 BC: writing
- The author argues that before agriculture, people needed only to track time (via tallies), since "lunar notations would make it possible for dispersed communities to gather at intervals to reaffirm their ties and celebrate rituals" (p.101).
- But "agriculture brought about a need for accounting," so tokens appeared (p.102). Interestingly, tokens did not seem to be used for trade yet.
- With the advent of industry, the token system expanded, for the first time generating "complex tokens" that represented "finished products typical of urban workshops, such as textiles, garments, vessels, and tools; processed foods, such as oil, bread, cakes, and trussed ducks; and luxury goods, such as perfume, metal, and jewelry." Still, these complex tokens were not related to trade (p.102). Complex tokens were strung, while simple (agricultural) ones continued to be kept in clay envelopes.
- hunter-gatherer societies do not accumulate many goods, so they don't need an accounting system, just a tally system for keeping track of time (p.103). She estimates that the egalitarian system typical of hunter-gatherers can manage a maximum of 300 people (p.104).
- agricultural societies are "rank societies," in which an elite oversees a redistributive economy (p.104). Such rank societies involve both redistribution and control - two functions at which writing excels. "Writing was the backbone of the economy of redistribution - an economy that brought prosperity to Sumer" (p.105).
- The State resulted in complex tokens (p.107). "Complex counters belong to the Mesopotamian temple institution, where they coincided with such socioeconomic changes as monumental architecture, the monopoly of force, and bureaucracy which point to new strategies in pooling communal resources" (p.108). These changes also include taxation (p.108).
Part III of the book consists of pages and pages of artifacts - mostly tokens - categorized by type and function. It's fascinating.
Okay, let's wrap it up. Go get this book and read it. As I said, it's a popularization of Schmandt-Besserat's scholarly work - work which I'll need to read and cite soon - but it's packed with insights and careful inferences that will change your understanding of writing. It's especially important for those who study the history of writing, but I hope you can also see how it informs information design, information architecture, professional communication, and socioeconomic studies of writing. If you have a scrap of reverence for writing, this book will make you breathless too.