Archaeological excavations in southeastern Turkey at Ziyaret Tepe – the site of the ancient city Tušhan, a provincial capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire – have uncovered a large number of tokens that were used to account for commodities such as cattle and grain.
Over 300 tokens – small clay artifacts in a range of simple geometric shapes – were discovered in the main administrative building in Tušhan’s lower town, along with many cuneiform clay tablets as well as weights and clay sealings.
The tokens were found in two rooms near the back of the building, which probably served as an ancient loading bay.
Surprisingly, the tokens date from a time when writing was commonplace – thousands of years after it was previously assumed this technology had become obsolete.
“Complex writing didn’t stop the use of the abacus, just as the digital age hasn’t wiped out pencils and pens,” said Dr John MacGinnis of McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research in Cambridge, UK, the first author of a paper published in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal.
“While cuneiform writing was a more advanced accounting technology, by combining it with the flexibility of the tokens the ancient Assyrians created a record-keeping system of greater sophistication.”
“The tokens provided a system of moveable 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.”
Dr MacGinnis and his colleagues believe that the new evidence points to prehistoric tokens used in conjunction with cuneiform as an empire-wide administrative system stretching right across what is now Turkey, Syria and Iraq. In its day, roughly 900 to 600 BC, the Assyrian empire was the largest the world had ever seen.
Types of tokens ranged from basic spheres, discs and triangles to tokens that resemble oxhide and bull heads.
While the majority of the cuneiform tablets found with the tokens deal with grain trades, it’s not yet known what the various tokens represent.
“Some tokens likely stand for grain, as well as different types of livestock (such as goats and cattle), but – as they were in use at the height of the empire – tokens could have been used to represent commodities such as oil, wool and wine,” the scientists said.
Dr MacGinnis added: “one of my dreams is that one day we’ll dig up the tablet of an accountant who was making a meticulous inventory of goods and systems, and we will be able to crack the token system’s codes.”
“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.”
John MacGinnis et al. 2014. Artefacts of Cognition: the Use of Clay Tokens in a Neo-Assyrian Provincial Administration. Cambridge Archaeological Journal, vol. 24, no. 02, pp. 289-306; doi: 10.1017/S0959774314000432