Symbolic Counting Tokens from the Early Near East

These are samples of the clay counters used in the Near East from about 9,000 B.C. (calibrated) to 1500 B.C. There were about 500 distinct types, although not in all times and places. Tokens start to be found at widely separated sites as of 8,000 B.C. (C-14), such as Level III of Tell Mureybet in Syria and Level E of Ganj Dareh in western Iran. Tokens were used at sites throughout the Near East, from Israel to Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran, with the exception of Central Anatolia. The farthest extent of their use was from Khartoum in the Sudan to the pre-Harappan site of Mehrgahr in Pakistan.

Regarding the cultural significance of this system, their primary researcher says, "The tokens were an entirely new medium for conveying information. Compared to the previous tallies, the conceptual leap was to endow each token shape, such as the cone, sphere, or disk, with a specific meaning." "The token system was, in fact, the first code -- the earliest system of signs used for transmitting information." Denise Schmandt-Besserat, Before Writing, Volume 1, From Counting to Cuneiform (University of Texas Press, Austin: 1992), p. 161.

Perhaps the author of this quote does not realize that the sounds of spoken language are also a system of standardized symbolic signs. However, one does find that the tokens were already in existence when the proto-Sumerians invented their simple consonant-vowel words, which include na4: 'pebble, stone; token'; na5: 'chest, box'; nu: 'image, likeness, picture, figurine, statue'. Note also ni; na: 'he, she; that one'; ní: 'self; body'; ia2,7,9, í: 'five'; ia4, i4: 'pebble, counter'; imi, im, em: 'clay'; eme: 'tongue; speech'. On the basis of this evidence, the implication that the tokens as a system for transmitting information preceded the system of spoken language appears to be correct.

Copyright © 1996 John Alan Halloran, Los Angeles, California. All Rights Reserved.
Last modified on December 8, 1996.