Numbers and Writing

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Numbers and Writing

Denise Schmandt-Besserat made the great discovery that the origins of writing are actually found in counting. This discovery began as most ground-breaking work does, with an unrelated pursuit. The University of Texas at Austin professor began her academic career in the 1960s. At that time, the main concern was not where writing came from but little bits of clay and their role in ancient Middle Eastern life. At nearly every Middle Eastern archaeological site, researchers found these perplexing little pieces of fired clay.

Though it was sure that these bits of clay played an important role in ancient civilization, for years no one knew what they were. Then along came Denise Schmandt-Besserat. The French-born graduate student, through a number of fellowships and grants, began what ended up being more than two decades of combing archives and sites all over the world trying to discover, and then to prove, what the clay cones, cylinders, spheres, and disks might have been. She referred to them as "tokens."

Since her discovery, Schmandt-Besserat has written article after article to build her ironclad case. She has explained a mystery that frustrated archaeologists, anthropologists, and philosophers for years.

She found that the tokens made up an elaborate system of accounting that was used throughout the Middle East from around 8000 to 3000 b.c.e. Each token represented a certain item, such as a jar of oil or a sheep. The tokens were used to take inventory and keep accounts. The ancient people sealed the tokens in clay envelopes, and then the envelopes were marked with the debtor's personal "cylindrical seal." The seal acted as a kind of signature.

After using this system for some time, a new one emerged. People began to impress the token into the side of the envelopes before sealing them. This way they would not have to break the seal, and thus the bargain, to check the contents of the envelope. It later occurred to people that they did not need to put the tokens in the envelopes at all. They could just impress the image from the tokens onto the clay so they could keep track of the account.

Another later change also occurred. The ancient Sumerians realized it was possible to simply inscribe the image on the token. They used a stylus to do the inscribing. This served as the earliest type of written sign. Schmandt-Besserat had found her answer to the mystery of how writing began: from counting.

Her theory helped solve another mystery. Schmandt-Besserat had explained why so many pictographs did not look like what they were supposed to represent. She filled in the missing link between the object and its sign. For example, a sheep was a circle with an X on it. It became apparent that the mark was not supposed to represent a sheep; it was supposed to represent the counter for the sheep.

The origin of writing has always been a sensitive subject. It is a far more heated area of debate than the origin of counting. Schmandt-Besserat's findings have proven that writing began with counting. She has also dealt with the transition from writing as accounting to writing as literature.

Max Brandenberger


Schmandt-Besserat, Denise. The History of Counting. New York: Morrow, 1999.