Clay Tokens Used As 'Contracts' Even After Invention of Writing

Ancient Clay Tokens Used for Record-Keeping
These clay tokens were found at a dig site in Turkey. Archaeologists think they were used as part of ancient system of record-keeping. (Image credit: Ziyaret Tepe Archaeological Project)

Archaeologists in Turkey recently unearthed what they say is proof that, thousands of years after the invention of a formal writing system, the ancient people of the Middle East continued to use a more primitive way of recording information: clay tokens.

Researchers at Ziyaret Tepe — the site of the ancient provincial capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire — recently discovered nearly 500 of these tokens, which they think were once used by administrators as part of an ancient "bookkeeping" system.

It has long been believed that clay tokens, which were often used to represent units of commodities such as livestock or grain, were only circulated in the period leading up to around 3,000 B.C., when they were replaced by a more elaborate writing system, called cuneiform script. However, the tokens that researchers found at Ziyaret Tepe date back as early as around 1,000 B.C., which suggests that these ancient artifacts were still in use thousands of years after cuneiform was invented. [The 7 Most Mysterious Archaeological Finds on Earth]

The Neo-Assyrian Empire lasted from about 900 B.C. to 600 B.C., and at its height, grew to become a vast and powerful state.

Ancient record-keeping

John MacGinnis, a research fellow with the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom and lead researcher for the study, said this simultaneous use of both a writing system and a more primitive recording system isn't as strange as one might think. He compared it to the continued use of pens in the age of the computer.

"Complex writing didn't stop the use of the abacus, just as the digital age hasn't wiped out pencils and pens," MacGinnis said in a statement. "In fact, in a literate society, there are multiple channels of recording information that can be complementary to each other. In this case, both prehistoric clay tokens and cuneiform writing [were] used together."

Cinzia Pappi, an archaeologist at Leipzig Universityin Germany, who was not involved in the study, told Live Science in an email that the discovery of tokens at Ziyaret Tepe is a reminder that major historical developments, such as the invention of writing systems, are not always linear.

"The Neo-Assyrian empire at this time [the first millennium] had reached an almost unprecedented level of social and economic complexity, during which cuneiform began to compete with alphabetic writing to record any number of languages in use," Pappi said. "The new evidence shows not only that all of these recording systems can occur side by side and fulfill complementary roles, but promises a new view of the ways in which the various peoples of the Neo-Assyrian Empire interacted and participated in economic life."

Exchanging tokens

MacGinnis and a team of researchers associated with the Ziyaret Tepe Archaeological Project think that originally, the Assyrians used clay tokens to establish a kind of contract between buyers and sellers.

"The use of tokens in what were certified records (perhaps indeed, effectively contracts), is from the late fourth millennium," MacGinnis told Live Science in an email. He went on to say that these early tokens were typically sealed in bullae, or clay containers, where they served as a permanent record of a transaction. 

Previous research on the use of clay tokens supports this belief, and focuses on their role as antecedents to cuneiform writing. According to MacGinnis, scholars of ancient near-Eastern societies maintain that the use of such tokens for this purpose dropped off after the fourth millennium B.C. [Album: The Seven Ancient Wonders of the World]

The tokens were typically seen as a sort of "direct evolutionary precursor to writing," Pappi said.

"What remains unclear," Pappi said, "is what their exact role might have been within complex societies where writing was long established."

But MacGinnis and his fellow researchers think they have solved this puzzle. The archaeologists say the new findings provide evidence that clay tokens were being used alongside cuneiform writing in the first millennium B.C., and that their role was distinctly administrative.

A way to trade

The tokens were found in what is believed to have been the main administrative building in the lower town of Tušhan, MacGinnis said. More than 300 tokens were found in two rooms near the back of the building, which MacGinnis said resembles a delivery area or ancient loading bay. Along with the tokens, MacGinnis' team uncovered weights, storage vessels, clay sealing and cuneiform archives.

While archaeologists are still not entirely sure what the tokens represented, they think the clay pieces likely signified various quantities of grain or heads of livestock.

"We think one of two things happened here," MacGinnis said. "You either have information about livestock coming though here, or flocks of animals themselves. Each farmer or herder would have a bag with tokens to represent their flock."

Most of the cuneiform tablets that correspond with the recently unearthed tokens deal with trades of grain, MacGinnis said. As he explained, by using tokens in conjunction with cuneiform tablets or records, the ancient Assyrians developed a system of recording information that was ideal for administrative purposes.

"The tokens provided a system of movable numbers that allowed for stock to be moved, and accounts to be modified and updated, without committing to writing — a system that doesn't require everyone involved to be literate," MacGinnis said.

Such a system may have also been ideal in a society in which writing required a sophisticated education and was generally restricted to elites, according to Pappi.

"It is possible that these tokens thus reflect administrative systems at different levels of literate and nonliterate society," Pappi said.

Place in history

Both MacGinnis and Pappi noted a previous discovery of clay tokens at Nuzi, an excavation site near Kirkuk, Iraq, that dated back to the late second millennium B.C., after the advent of writing.

But the new research, MacGinnis said, is the first to put forth the idea that, as early as the first millennium B.C., the use of tokens in the Assyrian Empire was flourishing.

And while most scholars have focused on the role of tokens in earlier periods, the artifacts from the Ziyaret Tepe site add an exciting dimension to the discussion of Assyrian administrative systems, MacGinnis said.

"The inventions of recording systems are milestones in the human journey, and any finds which contribute to the understanding of how they came about makes a basic contribution to mapping the progress of mankind," MacGinnis said.

Details of the new finding will be published in an upcoming issue of the Cambridge Archaeological Journal. The Ziyaret Tepe Archaeological Project, which led the study, is directed by Timothy Matney of the University of Akron in Ohio. Dirk Wicke, of the University of Mainz in Germany; and Willis Monroe, of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, also contributed to the research.

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Elizabeth Peterson

Elizabeth is a former Live Science associate editor and current director of audience development at the Chamber of Commerce. She graduated with a bachelor of arts degree from George Washington University. Elizabeth has traveled throughout the Americas, studying political systems and indigenous cultures and teaching English to students of all ages.