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An Archaic Recording System in the Uruk-Jemdet Nasr Period

Denise Schmandt-Besserat
American Journal of Archaeology
Vol. 83, No. 1 (Jan., 1979), pp. 19-48
DOI: 10.2307/504234
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/504234
Page Count: 31
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An Archaic Recording System in the Uruk-Jemdet Nasr Period
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Abstract

In the ancient Middle East (ninth-second millennia B. C.), reckoning was practiced with the help of clay tokens in geometric and odd shapes which stood for numbers and various commodities. This paper presents an assemblage of 661 tokens dating from the end of the fourth millennium B. C. (Uruk-Jemdet Nasr period) which are classified into 15 main types with some 200 subtypes. Charts illustrate the occurrence of each type in major sites of Iran, Iraq and Syria. The paper discusses the series of major innovations which characterize the evolution of the token system at the end of the fourth millennium B. C. and in particular: 1. An improvement in the manufacture of the tokens. 2. An increase in the repertory of shapes of tokens including the appearance of naturalistic types such as animal heads, vessels and utensils. 3. A proliferation of markings on the surface of the tokens: incised lines (55% of the tokens), punched markings (4%) and appliqué pellets or coils. 4. The appearance of perforations on 30% of the tokens, suggesting the stringing of tokens for special transactions. 5. The storage of tokens in archives by means of sealed envelopes (bullae) sometimes provided with exterior markings which correspond with the shape and number of tokens included inside. The various innovations in the archaic recording system around 3100 B. C. are viewed as a response to the pressure of economic developments such as the expansion of crafts production in workshops, the increase in local and long distance trade and the emergence of bureaucracy in the new city states. The first written tablets which appear about 3100 B. C. are presented as the ultimate result of the evolution of the token system; it is suggested that writing derives from the system of markings used on the bullae. A series of charts stresses the similarity between pictographs and tokens, which leads to the conclusion that the first signs of Sumerian writing represented numbers and commodities according to the shape of the tokens used in the archaic recording system.

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