Clay Token System

The Three-Dimensional Precursors of Ancient Mesopotamian Writing

Clay Tokens, Uruk Period, Excavated from Susa, Iran
Clay Tokens, Uruk Period, Excavated from Susa, Iran. Louvre Museum (Department of Near Eastern Antiquities). Marie-Lan Nguyen

Writing in Mesopotamia—if you define writing as recording information in a symbolic manner—took an important step forward with the domestication of plants and animals and the development of trade networks during the Neolithic period of at least as long ago as 7500 BCE. Beginning then, people recorded information about their agricultural goods—including domestic animals and plants—in the form of small clay tokens. Scholars believe that the written form of language that is used to pass this information along today evolved out of this simple accounting technique.

Mesopotamian clay tokens were not the first accounting method developed by humans. By 20,000 years ago, Upper Paleolithic people were leaving tally marks on cave walls and cutting hash marks onto portable sticks. Clay tokens, however, contained additional information including what commodity was being counted, an important step forward in communication storage and retrieval.

Neolithic Clay Tokens

Neolithic clay tokens were made very simply. A small piece of clay was worked into one of about a dozen different shapes, and then perhaps incised with lines or dots or embellished with pellets of clay. These were then sun-dried or baked in a hearth. The tokens ranged in size from 1–3 centimeters (about 1/3 to one inch), and about 8,000 of them dated between 7500–3000 BCE have been found so far.

The earliest shapes were simple cones, spheres, cylinders, ovoids, disks, and tetrahedrons (pyramids). The premier researcher of clay tokens Denise Schmandt-Besserat argues that these shapes are representations of cups, baskets, and granaries. The cones, spheres and flat disks, she said, represented small, medium and large measures of grain; ovoids were jars of oil; cylinders a sheep or goat; pyramids a person-day of work. She based her interpretations on similarities of the forms to shapes used in the later Mesopotamian written proto-cuneiform language and, while that theory has yet to be confirmed, she may very well be right.

What Were Tokens For?

Scholars believe that clay tokens were used to express numerical quantities of goods. They occur in two sizes (larger and smaller), a difference that may have been used as a means of counting and manipulating quantities. The Mesopotamians, who had a base 60 numbering system, also bundled their numerical notations, so that a group of three, six, or ten signs equated to one sign of a different size or shape.

Possible uses for the tokens are associated with accounting and include trade negotiations between parties, tax collection or assessments by state agencies, inventories, and allotments or disbursements as payment for services rendered.

Tokens were not tied to a particular language. No matter what language you spoke, if both parties understood that a cone meant a measure of grain, the transaction could take place. Whatever they were used for, the same dozen or so token shapes were used for some 4,000 years throughout the Near East.

The Sumerian Take Off: Uruk Period Mesopotamia

During the Uruk period in Mesopotamia [4000–3000 BC], urban cities blossomed and administrative needs for accounting expanded. Production of what Andrew Sherratt and VG Childe called "secondary products"—wool, clothing, metals, honey, bread, oil, beer, textiles, garments, rope, mats, carpets, furniture, jewelry, tools, perfume—all of these things and many more needed to be accounted for, and the number of types of tokens in use ballooned to 250 by 3300 BCE.

In addition, during the Late Uruk period [3500–3100 BCE], tokens began to be kept in sealed globular clay envelopes called "bullae." Bullae are hollow clay balls about 5–9 cm (2–4 in) in diameter: the tokens were placed inside the envelope and the opening pinched shut. The exterior of the ball was stamped, sometimes all over the surface, and then the bullae were fired. About 150 of these clay envelopes have been recovered from Mesopotamian sites. Scholars believe that the envelopes were meant for security purposes, that the information was kept inside, protected from being changed at some point along the way.

Eventually, people would impress the token forms into the clay on the outside, to mark what was inside. Apparently, by about 3100 BCE, bulla e were replaced by puffy tablets covered with the impressions of the tokens and there, says Schmandt-Besserat, you have the beginning of real writing, a three-dimensional object represented in two dimensions: proto-cuneiform.

Persistence of Clay Token Use

Although Schmandt-Besserat argued that with the dawn of written forms of communication, tokens stopped being used, MacGinnis et al. have noted that, although they did decrease, tokens continued in use well into the first millennium BC. Ziyaret Tepe is a tell in southeastern Turkey, first occupied during the Uruk period; the Late Assyrian period levels are dated between 882–611 BCE. A total of 462 baked clay tokens have been recovered from those levels to date, in eight basic shapes: spheres, triangles, disks, pyramids, cylinders, cones, oxhides (squares with indented sides in the shape of a tanned animal hide), and squares.

Ziyaret Tepe is only one of several later Mesopotamian sites where tokens were used, although tokens do seem to drop completely out of use before the Neo-Babylonian period about 625 BCE. Why did the use of tokens persist some 2,200 years after the invention of writing? MacGinnis and colleagues suggest that it was a simplified, para-literate system of recording that allowed more flexibility than the use of tablets alone.

History of the Research

Near Eastern Neolithic clay tokens were recognized and studied first in the 1960s by Pierre Amiet and Maurice Lambert; but the major investigator of clay tokens is Denise Schmandt-Besserat, who in the 1970s began studying the curated corpus of tokens dated between the 8th and 4th millennium BCE.


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Hirst, K. Kris. "Clay Token System." ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, Hirst, K. Kris. (2020, August 25). Clay Token System. Retrieved from Hirst, K. Kris. "Clay Token System." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 25, 2023).