Denise Schmandt-Besserat and the Accounting Origins of Writing

If literacy is not a divine gift from Thoth, the baboon-faced god of knowledge, then just where did it come from?A rectangular clay table marked with cuneiform.Cuneiform tablet from the Kirkor Minassian collection of the Library of Congress. 2041-2040 BC.

You may already know that cuneiform, which was used from the fourth millennium BC through the second century AD in the Near East, is one of the world’s earliest forms of writing. Did you know that it evolved from one of the world’s oldest accounting systems–counting tokens used in trade?A collection of small clay discs, cones, and pyramids on a piece of red feltTokens from Jarmo, Iraq, 6500 BC. Courtesy Denise Schmandt–Besserat.

If you find the connection between the two hard to see, you’re not alone. It took more than fifty years between the first discovery of cuneiform tablets in the ruins of Uruk (which was also full of counting tokens) for someone to work out that the first impressions of accounts in clay had been made by pressing the counters themselves into the material. The characteristic cuneiform stylus came later.Three small clay discs and three small clay cones with a larger, imprinted clay ball Envelope from Susa, Iran, ca. 3300 BC. Courtesy Denise Schmandt–Besserat. The lenticular disks each stand for a flock, and the cones represent small measures of grain.

Denise Schmandt-Besserat is the French-American archaeologist, professor emerita of Art and Middle Eastern Studies at my alma mater, the University of Texas, who made the connection. I can’t think of a better person to feature here as I fly off to Mississippi to volunteer with the National Forest Service’s Passport in Time archaeology program for a couple of weeks.Denise Schmandt-Besserat, a light-skinned person in black clothing with their head covered, stands in front of a wall holding a wooden perch on which a hooded raptor sits.Denise Schmandt-Besserat with a falcon in Ryadh, Saudi Arabia, 2011.

Illustration of an analog numeric typewriter, superimposed on a paper chart of printed numbers.

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