The emergence of recording

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The Emergence of Recording

by Denise Schmandt-Besserat

Collection: Denise Schmandt-Besserat  4 - 1st edition: Barcelona, May 2015

License: © Denise Schmandt-Besserat

(American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 84, No. 4. (Dec., 1982), pp. 871-878.)


1. Introduction
2. Geographic distribution
3. Chronology
4. The token assemblages
5. The context
6. Accumulation of wealth
7. Trade
8. Animal husbandry
9. Cereal consumption and agriculture
10. Communal food storage
11. The function of tokens in the 4th millennium B.C.
12. Redistribution in ritual
13. Conclusion
14. Notes
15. References Cited
16. See also


1. Introduction

Tokens are small clay artifacts modeled in various shapes, mostly geometric. In previous publications, I wrote that tokens were used for recording prior to writing in the ancient Middle East (Schmandt-Besserat 1978). I suggested that each token shape stood for a precise quantity of a particular good such as "a peck of barley" or "a jar of oil" (Schmandt-Besserat 1980:370-375). In this paper, I focus on the earliest assemblages of tokens and present the available data concerning where, when, and how the first tokens appear. Finally I identity factor(s) which may have been responsible for the emergence of recording.


2. Geographic distribution

The earliest sites to yield tokens are Tell Aswad (Contenson 1972, 1973, 1979a,b), Tell Mureybet (Cauvin 1978), and Cheikh Hassan in Syria (ibid.:41-42) and Ganj Dareh Tepe (Smith 1972, 1974, 1975) and Tepe Asiab in Iran (Braidwood 1960; Braidwood, Howe, and Reed 1961). The geographic distribution of these sites along the Fertile Crescent is interesting because it suggests that the area where recording was practiced first coincides with the region in Southwest Asia where plant and animal domestication first appeared.


3. Chronology

Tokens appear in level I of Tell Aswad, dated to the first half of the 8th millennium B.C. (Gif-2633:7790 + 120 B.C.; Contenson 1973:253, 1979a,b:155). At Mureybet, tokens do not occur in the two earliest levels, I and II. They are first found in level III, which was occupied about 8000 B.C. (P. 1220:8000 100 B.C. Mc735:7800 + 150 B.C.; Cauvin 1978:144-145). In Cheikh Hassan, a site known only from a sounding and for which a full stratigraphy is yet unpublished, Cauvin (ibid.:41) mentions the presence of tokens in a level contemporary with neighboring Mureybet III.

In Iran tokens are part of the assemblage of the deepest layer of Ganj Dareh Tepe (level E). This level was once dated as early as 8500 B.C., but Smith recently argued for a date closer to 8000 B.C. (GAK 807:8450 150 B.C. ; Smith 1978). Finally, the tokens recovered in the single prehistoric layer of Tepe Asiab also belong to the same time range (UCLA B and C:7900-7700 B.C.). The consistent date of about 8000 B.C. for the first appearance of tokens places the beginning of recording during the early Neolithic period.


4. The token assemblages

The tokens are a homogeneous group of artifacts measuring about 1-3 cm across. They are made of fine clay modeled into specific, mostly geometric shapes, with some examples bearing incised and punched markings. These shapes and markings were systematicallyrepeated, and the same types of tokens are shared in the different sites. Presently, the differing numbers of tokens in the various assemblages may primarily reflect sampling chance. It must be kept in mind that many tokens have probably been missed because their small size and color make them particularly difficult to detect in a claylike fill. Also, little attention was given to them in the past, and excavators did not focus on recover in them.

Forty-eight spheres and 6 cones were found at Tell Aswad (Contenson 1972:78, 1979b:156, personal communication). At Tel Mureybet III and Cheikh Hassan, Cauvin (1978:136) mentions "des disques, des cylindres et autres objects non-figuratifs," without further details on shapes and number. A substantial and varied assemblage of tokens including spheres, cones, and tetrahedrons has been excavated in Ganj Dareh Tepe E, but remains unpublished (Schmandt-Besserat 1974:13). There are 206 tokens at Tepe Asiab (ibid.) including 102 spheres, 74 cylinders, 7 cones, 5 discs, 4 ovoids, 3 triangles, 2 T-shapes, 1 tetrahedron, 1 rectangle, and 1 animal head. The assemblage of tokens from Tepe Asiab may be further divided into subtypes according to size (55 small spheres approximately 0.5 cm in diameter and 43 large spheres 1.5 to 3 cm in diameter); fractions (3 half-spheres); shape (2 discs are lenticular, 2 have straight sides, and 1 has high sides); and markings (1 sphere bears a circular punch mark, 3 cones are punched at the tip, the high disc bears a short incision, and 1 ovoid has both a punch mark and 2 incisions).

In sum, the present study deals with an assemblage of approximately 300 tokens including the following ten shapes: spheres, discs, cones, tetrahedrons, ovoids, cylinders, triangles, rectangles, T-shapes, and animal heads. The forms were abstract with the exception of the cone ending with an animal head. The T-shapes were the only examples of a composite form which required the piecing together of a pointed stem and a base. Markings included short incisions either performed with the fingernail or a pointed stick and circular punches made with a blunt stick. Both types of markings were sometimes combined. The tokens of Tepe Asiab, Ganj Dareh Tepe, and Tell Aswad, which I personally handled, were all manufactured with great care and fired. This fact was verified by a series of tests performed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology under the supervision of W. David Kingery, head of the Department of Ceramics. Tokens from Tepe Asiab, provided by Robert J. Braidwood, were subjected to differential thermal analysis and examined by scanning electron microscopy. The combined results of the two tests show the tokens were fired at a temperature above 500°C and below 800°C (ibid.:13-14). This temperature coincides with the heat generated by an open hearth, which was the usual source of heat a; the time.


5. The context

Only preliminary excavation reports are available for Tell Aswad, Tell Mureybet, Cheikh Hassan, Tepe Asiab, and Ganj Dareh Tepe. The precise find spots of tokens in the various sites are, therefore, not known. The general context in which tokens occurred provide, however, important data for our understanding of the emergence of recording.

The five sites were of the type described by Flannery (1972:30-36) as "circular hut compounds." Tell Aswad and Mureybet were fully sedentary and practiced agriculture (Contenson 1979a:821; Cauvin 1978:74). Food was stored in round pits at Tell Aswad and in quadrangular silos in Tell Mureybet (Cauvin 1978:40). It is presumed that Ganj Dareh and Tepe Asiab were only semipermanent. The large number of sickle blades in their assemblages suggests an economy based on grain consumption. Although animal husbandry was already practiced in other parts of the Middle East, there is no clear evidence for animal domestication in any of the five sites. Obsidian was acquired through trade except at Ganj Dareh.

Level III of Mureybet, in which the tokens first occurred, differed from the previous occupation layers in several ways. In particular, cereals were cultivated, and there was a considerable growth in the population (Cauvin 1978:43); obsidian trade had increased.

In sum, the five sites exhibit various stages of transition toward the achievement of food production and sedentarism. The following discussion will try to identify if the emergence of tokens for recording can be related to some major cultural events which took place near 8000 B.C.: accumulation of wealth, trade, animal husbandry, agriculture, and the storage of food.


6. Accumulation of wealth

The five sites investigated illustrate various degrees of permanence. A major consequence of sedentarism was the accumulation of valuables. Since nomadic groups of that time did not have pack animals, their belongings would have -been minimized. Sedentary villagers, on the contrary, could have accumulated possessions. As a result, crafts started to and material goods multiplied. Could counting have emerged to keep track of properties? This is what Danzig (1959:5) and other mathematicians have postulated. It must be kept in mind, however, that the art of memory tends to be highly developed in preliterate societies (Levy-Bruhl 1912:116), and the inventorying of household properties probably did not exceed an individual's memory. Sites of the Natufian culture, and in particular Mureybet I and II, can be taken as an example of fully permanent settlements which do not seem to have used counters. As a conclusion, the accumulation of wealth appears as a logical setting for the beginning of counting/recording but it does not, on the household level, constitute a reason for the invention of recording devices.

Bride price is by far the most significant transfer of properties in primitive economies (Turton 1980:67). Often the payments are made in several installments taking place prior to and after marriage. Could recording have been initiated to formulate an agreement between parties and provide a control for its fulfillment over an extended period of time? This idea is questionable. The point of departure for such a widely diffused phenomenon as the token system is more likely to have stemmed from a compelling situation involving a large group, rather than from a private initiative.


7. Trade

There are two major types of trade: local and long distance. Local trade of foodstuffs and raw materials is likely to have taken place between kinsmen or neighboring groups on a reciprocal basis (Wright 1969:3: Earle and Ericson 1977:227) not necessitating counters.

Long-distance trade could have been a different matter. Trade is evidenced by the presence of obsidian in all the sites under study, except Ganj Dareh Tepe. Small quantities of the volcanic glass were recovered at Tepe Asiab (Mellaart 1975:77), which is located no less than 600 km from the nearest obsidian sources at Nemrut Dag, Eastern Turkey. Obsidian trade was practiced during Phase II at Mureybet and increased considerably in Phase III, which includes in its assemblage a particularly interesting obsidian dagger (Cauvin 1972:110). The site is about 300 km south from the nearest obsidian deposits, located in the Lake Van areas in Eastern Turkey. Obsidian from Ciftlik in Central Anatolia and Nemrut Dag in Eastern Anatolia represented 1% of the stone assemblage of Tell Aswad (Contenson 1979b:155).

We know little about the ways obsidian was exchanged. Ceremonial gift exchange does not seem likely to require any record. Another possibility is that obsidian was traded by nomads (Crawford 1979:130). According to Barth (1961:99) business between nomads and sedentary villagers often involved advance payments or an extension of credit until the deal was completed at the subsequent passage of the nomadic group, months or a year later. Could the tokens have been used in such transactions? It could be reasoned that they served to express the terms agreed on by parties and were useful in providing durable statements for dealers whose ethnic differences might have caused distrust. Such transactions, however, as in local trade, would be carried out in face-to-face meetings and, as noted by Goody (1978:15), face-to-face groups do not require recording. We may expect, in other words, that the transactions that led to recording were not face-to-face but probably involved intermediaries.

The archeological data support the idea that trade was not a major trigger for the emergence of recording. The distributions of tokens and of obsidian do not coincide. Obsidian trade precedes the use of tokens at sites such as Zarzi, Zawi Chemi, and Mureybet II. In contrast, Ganj Dareh has tokens, but no obsidian. The low frequency of obsidian suggests it was highly valued and may have involved only small segments of the population, while the more frequent tokens give the impression of having been more commonly used in the community.


8. Animal husbandry

The domestication of animals such as sheep and goats is one of the major achievements of the early Neolithic in the Middle East. Modern herders keep an accurate count of their animals, some using pebbles (Jacobsen 1946:245). Caring for flocks logically could be regarded as causing the invention of recording. The available data suggest, however, that this idea can be discarded. The five sites where the first tokens occurred yield evidence of hunting but no convincing prbof of domestication. On the contrary, a site such as Zawi Chemi, where animal domestication has been identified as taking place about 9000 B.C., produced no tokens. The same is true of Natufian sites where there may have been early attempts at domesticating gazelles in the 10th millennium B.C. (Legge 1972:122). It is also worth noting that herders such as the Nuer know each of their animals and treat them as individuals but do not count them as a herd (Evans-Pritchard 1969:20). As a consequence, one might expect that instead the first items recorded would be series of standardized units or goods difficult to memorize individually.


9. Cereal consumption and agriculture

All the sites, including Mureybet (Cauvin 1979:42), were situated where cereals such as barley, emmer, and einkorn wheat grew wild. The people lived on a mixed diet that included cereals (Leroi-Gourhan 1967:229). The wild grains were small but had the advantage that, once dried, they could be stored almost indefinitely. As demonstrated by Harlan (1967:198), the density of patches of wild cereals made it possible for people to accumulate in the course of three weeks' harvest a year's supply of grain. Actual grains of wild wheat were found among the remains of Mureybet II (Cauvin 1978:73). Mortars and pestles found at Tepe Asiab along with the ubiquitous sickle blades give ample evidence that cereal resources were utilized in the 9th-8th millennium B.C. The pits of Tell Aswad and the possible silos of Mureybet further attest to food storage. Finally, agriculture was practiced in Mureybet III and Tell Aswad.

Because the production and hoarding offood added such a new dimension to human survival, it appears logical that the storage of goods and agriculture played a role in the emergence of recording. Quantities of goods such as cereals, handled in containers such as baskets or bags looking more or less alike, are difficult to keep track of by memory. They cannot, like animals, be remembered individually by unique attributes.

Could the tokens have been used to keep count of the amount of goods stored in individual granaries? In this manner, the villagers could have allocated quantities of grains for rituals, barter, and planting. This idea of keeping track of individual food reserves is not fully convincing. As mentioned above, the large geographic distribution of the token system suggests a large-scale constraint rather than the invention of a household gadget.


10. Communal food storage

Flannery (1972:31) has hypothesized that villagers of early neolithic compounds pooled their resources in communal granaries. Cauvin (1978:43) suggests that the quadrangular buildings of Mureybet and Cheikh Hassan were silos. If they were, their size would appear to exceed that needed for a normal household, and they could be interpreted as communal granaries. The introduction of stone and pis6 for their construction implies an importance beyond domestic use, and their innovative quadrangular form can be interpreted as dictated by the need to extend the facilities at will by adding further units.

Cauvin (ibid.:75) correlates the rapid growth of Mureybet III, which expanded from 0.5 to 2-3 ha, to a demographic increase made possible by the new economy based on agriculture and food storage. Cauvin and others (Aurenche et al. 1980:7-8; Smith 1976;45) also posit that the unprecedented population density necessitated a new form of authority. The former hunting leader had to be replaced by a headman with managerial qualities. According to some accounts (Lightfoot and Feinman 1982:66; Blau 1967:126-127; Firth 1959:177, 216-217), the leader of primitive agricultural communities is instrumental in pooling resources. His diligence and charisma influence the input of labor by community members and the amount of food accumulated. Most important, the village headman is the overseer for the redistribution of resources. Could the token system be related to the administration of communal crops? According to ethnographic data, it is unlikely that tallies were used for the redistribution of food in the form of daily rations because in predominantly egalitarian societies, one who needs receives without any necessity for counters (Flannery 1972:31). Also, the administration of food, such as grain, could have been performed with pebbles since only a few shapes would be necessary to represent metrological units such as "peck and "bushel." If the tokens are related to the storage of staple foods such as grains, the complex system of 24 shapes still remains to be explained.


11. The function of tokens in the 4th millennium B.C.

The above discussion leads to the conclusion that agriculture, the storage of food, animal herding, bride price, and trade cannot be held responsible, convincingly, for the emergence of recording. This suggests that the tokens may be "socio-technic artifacts" (Binford 1962:219). The following discussion will investigate if the sociotechnic function of the tokens in later periods may indicate their original use.

In the 4th millennium B.C. the meaning of some tokens can be deduced from that of the corresponding pictographs on tablets of the Uruk period. The few tokens identified in this manner stand for quantities of cereals such as pecks and bushels of barley and wheat; domesticated animals, and in particular, sheep, ewes, and lambs; economic units of such goods as oil, metal, and wool; cloth and garments; units of land measurements and services (Schmandt-Besserat 1979:41-48; 1980:371-375; 1981a:284; 1981b:334-340). Recording with tokens in the 4th millennium B.C. appears, therefore, to be concerned with economic data.

The first tablets which replaced the tokens in the 4th millennium B.C. also represent lists of goods. These documents are interpreted as records of the movement of goods in and out of the temple granaries, and in particular, as records of offerings brought to the temple (Chiera 1966:85-86). Such transactions involved the following components: (1) a donor: a worshipper; (2) commodities: small animals and various goods in kind, brought as offerings; (3) a recipient: the administrator of the temple; (4) an event: special feasts organized for particular divinities of t h e Sumerian pantheon (Rosengarten 1960:34). Therefore, the tablets and probably the tokens of the 4th millennium B.C. may be viewed as records of the pooling of resources by means of ceremonial ritual. Rosengarten (ibid.:43, 47) suggests that the offerings were mandatory rather than voluntary and can be regarded as taxation. The first use of writing and, for that matter, the last use of tokens, was, as suggested by Lévi-Strauss (1968:292; Charbonnier 1961:33), a means of control upon the delivery of goods and ultimately a control on the production of real goods. Can it be inferred that a system of redistribution through ceremonial ritual had its origin earlier and the tokens were related to such a process?


12. Redistribution in ritual

Feasts are an important feature of community life in primitive societies because they combine several crucial cultural levers. They are, in essence, religious and primarily intended to honor deities, a fact which gives to the events ana ir of solemnity and obligation. They are social, and participation fulfills a duty toward the other members of the group. Most significant for the purpose of this study, the feasts have an important economic function because they en tail the consumption of quantities of food and thereby stimulate the general productivity of the society (Firth 1959:312, 317). Finally the feasts have a significant political impact since they confer prestige and power to the leadership (Lightfoot and Feinman 1982:67). Initiating ceremonial rituals is one of the major privileges of leaders in primitive agricultural-societies (Fried 1967:718; Piddocke 1965:244). The chief solicits contributions and acts as a central collector and coordinator for the redistribution ofgoods between members of the group.

The arrangements are made long in advanceand require planning and organization (Firth 1959:331). They necessitate, in particular, keeping track of pledges for food contributions to be delivered at the time of the events. It appears that memorizing the great varieties of foods (including meats, fish, breads, fruits, vegetables, and delicacies of all sorts) to be supplied by different parties would be a burden to memory. The complexity of the process would be maximized when the ceremonial exchange system was promoted on a regional level (Lightfoot and Feinman 1982:67). Polanyi (1944:48-49) has described the process and the institutional pattern of centricity involved in such delivery of produce by village headmen to a central leader. Fried (1960:716) has suggested that "bureaucracy" may have started when negotiations for the preparation of intervillage feasts were carried out by representative of groups, thus putting to an end the face-to-face dealing between organizers and participants. Following Fried's insight, can it be postulated that recording came about to carry out such transactions? Could the tokens be viewed as standing for pledges of food offerings to be delivered by individuals and groups at the time of ritual ceremonies? If so, their purpose was to formalize agreements between cooperating groups. They replaced evanescent verbal statements by binding permanent records that could be checked against the actual delivery of goods at the time of the events (Goody 1978:10). According to this hypothesis, the tokens, as in historic times, were used in transactions involving: (1) an event: the preparation of rituals; (2) donors: participantsin the rituals; (3) commodities: goods in kinds to be consumed during the festivities; and (4) a recipient: the main coordinator. The tokens permitted the estimation and computation of the total budget of goods which could be depended upon. They served as a memory aid, but more important, they were a means of verification for the delivery of goods. In this light, the pristine function of the tokens would be an instrument of control and, therefore, a germ of power over food production in the hands of an emerging central authority (Adams 1975:6; Bender 1978:211-213).


13. Conclusion

The cause(s) leading to the invention of a recording system has to remain a hypothesis. The appearance of the first counters, in the form of clay tokens, coincides in time and space with early manifestations of sedentary life and agriculture in Southwest Asia. There can be little doubt, therefore, that the need for recording was related to particular aspects of human adaptation to food production in that region. The incipient economy of redistribution by the means of ritual appears as a plausible stimulus for initiating recording. The preparation of feasts which necessitates the pooling of large quantities of foods may have represented a compelling motivation for group productivity and explains the intrinsic economic function of the cointers. The diversity of products consumed at a banquet provides a logical explanation for the complexity of the system at its beginning (Firth 1959:319). The symbolism of the tokens had to be shared by all members of the community and the necessity for intergroup communication can account for a rapid dispersion of the idea of recording from group to group. Finally, the emergence of a suprahousehold decision-making organization which accompanied communal food storage and population growth, provided the authority necessary to implement a system of recording (Lightfoot and Feinman 1982:64; Fried 1967:111-120). As suggested by Lévi-Strauss, recording was more than a mnemonic device; it was a change in social interaction. The token system provided a means of control in an incipient redistributive economy (Goody 1978:148).


14. Notes

Acknowledgments. The study of archeological collections pertinent to this paper was sponsored by the Wenner Gren Foundation (grant 2684, 1970). The research was supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (# 137, 1979-80) and by the University Research Institute, University of Texas at Austin.


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16. See also

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