Humans have been attempting to communicate their thoughts since almost the beginning of their time on earth. In fact, over 24,000 years ago, cave walls were drawn upon, leaving their mark for present day man to enjoy. It was around 20,000 years ago that tally marks began to appear…on cave walls, on sticks and on the well known Ishango Bone. However, it wasn’t until man started to develop trade networks after the domestication of animals and plants that more information was required. Accounting tokens offered a means of doing just that.
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What Are Mesopotamian Accounting Tokens?
Neolithic clay tokens were shaped pieces of clay. Each shape represented a commodity and an amount. For example, a small amount of grain, a jar of oil or three sheep. This information was used during trade or when leaving an offering at the temple.
These simple accounting tokens were formed from clay into these simple shapes, measuring between 1-3 cm. They were then baked in the sun or in the hearth. Over 8000 of these tokens have been found dating from 7500 to 3000 BCE. These simple tokens tended to be shaped as spheres, cones or flattened discs. Each shape represented a specific amount. Researcher, Denise Schmandt-Besserat, believes these measurements to be more vague than we would be used to today. She believes the cones, spheres and flat discs represent small, medium and large measurements of grain.
More developed shapes such as ovoids, cylinders and pyramids represented respectively a jar of oil, a sheep or goat and a day’s work of one person.
What Were They Used For?
As already mentioned, the Mesopotamians may have used these accounting tokens for counting and recording goods. Each shape came in different sizes, thought to be representative of the size of goods being recorded. It is likely these tokens were used for accounting, the payment of goods, a record of storage supplies, tax collections and recording offerings to the temple.
Their simple nature meant that they were not language specific therefore they could be used regardless of the language spoken. Around 3500 BCE these tokens were often contained within a bulla (pl bullae). This was a sealed clay envelope, hollow inside, which contained the tokens. These envelopes played a similar role to the envelopes of today, keeping its contents safe and less likely to be tampered with. The later bullae were decorated on the outside to indicate what was inside. Eventually the bulla had indentations from the clay tokens. This lead to the invention of clay tablets with the same indentations…a form of protocuneiform.
Another method the Mesopotamians used to make sure the tokens were not tampered with was to thread them on some string and to join the ends of the string with clay which was stamped using a cylinder seal.
Urek’s More Complex Tokens
As villages grew to towns and towns to cities, so too did their administration needs. Production of goods made from the different source materials were created in work shops. This increased the general accounting needs and thus the accounting tokens, which became more complex in nature. By 3300 BCE there were over 250 different types of accounting tokens available.
The more complex tokens represented these ‘secondary’ products such as cloth, oil, beer, bread…basically anything which was created from the raw ingredients. Each token, depending on its shape and markings, might represent a length of linen, an ingot of metal or a length of rope.
Do check out my MEGA Mesopotamia Unit Study post to find out how tokens fit into the history of Mesopotamia. This huge post has lots of printable, videos, science experiments and, as always, stacks of suggestions for easy hands on activities you can do with your children! I am always adding new stuff to this post so do go and check it out.
I have created a video demonstrating how to make both the simple tokens and the complex tokens:
I have also made some note pages for your children to use:
Do let me know if you make any of the Mesopotamian tokens, I’d be interested to see how they turned out!
And please don’t forget to pin this post for future reference!