Before Writing, Vol. I: From Counting to Cuneiform
University of Texas Press, 1992 - 283 pages
Before Writing gives a new perspective on the evolution of communication. It points out that when writing began in Mesopotamia it was not, as previously thought, a sudden and spontaneous invention. Instead, it was the outgrowth of many thousands of years' worth of experience at manipulating symbols. Denise Schmandt-Besserat presents a system of counters (tokens) that appeared in the Near East following the invention of agriculture (about 8000 B.C.) as the immediate precursor of Sumerian writing. Tokens were small objects modeled in clay in various geometric forms used for counting and accounting for goods. They remained in use during 5,000 years with little change, except at the rise of cities, when the types multiplied. The tokens represented a breakthrough in communication. They constituted the first code, the first system of signs for communication. They made it possible to deal concurrently with multiple kinds of data, thus allowing the processing of a volume and complexity of information never reached previously. Tokens functioned as an extension of the human brain to collect, manipulate, store, and retrieve data. In turn, processing an increasing volume of data brought people to think in greater abstraction. Before Writing discusses how the tokens reflect an archaic way of "concrete counting" that paved the way to abstract counting. The evolution of the token system was also tied to the development of political power, since accounting was key to the control of real goods. Before Writing documents how numeracy was the privilege of an elite and shows how the more complex the token system became the more power it wielded. Written in an engaging and lively style, Before Writing, Volume I: From Counting to Cuneiform has significance far beyond a single field. It will be of interest to scholars and general readers interested in the origin of civilization, communication, and mathematics. A companion volume, Before Writing, Volume II: A Catalog of Near Eastern Tokens, is also available and contains the primary data on which Schmandt-Besserat bases her theories.
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FOREWORD BY WILLIAM W HALLO ix
THE EVOLUTION OF SYMBOLS IN PREHISTORY
Symbols and Signs J7 Lower and Middle Paleolithic Symbols 158 Upper Paleolithic and Mesolithic
COUNTING AND THE EMERGENCE OF WRITING
TOKENS THEIR ROLE IN PREHISTORY AND THEIR
Spheres 206 Disks 208 Cylinders 212 Tetrahedrons
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abstract counting Abteilung Baghdad animals Antiquites Orientales Archaeology archaic Arpachiyah artifacts biconoids bullae BWII Chogha Mish complex tokens concrete counting cone mosaics Courtesy Deutsches Archaeologisches Courtesy Musee cuneiform cylinder seal Dafi 8a Departement des Antiquites Deutsches Archaeologisches Institut Eanna example Excavations fourth millennium B.C. Friberg Ganj Dareh Godin Tepe Habuba Kabira Hajji Firuz Ibid impressed signs impressed tablets incised ovoids Iran Iraq jar of oil Jarmo kens lenticular disks measures of grain Mecquenem Mesopotamia Mureybet Musee du Louvre Neolithic number of tokens Paleolithic paraboloids percent perforated period pictographic Pierre Amiet plain tokens prehistoric punctations recovered represented Seh Gabi shapes southern Mesopotamian specimens spheres Stone Cone strokes subtypes Sumerian Susa symbols Syria tallies Tell Aswad Tello temple Tepe Asiab Tepe Gawra Tepe Hissar Tepe Yahya tetrahedrons tion token assemblages token system triangles Ubaid Uruk Uruk period wedges writing yielded ZATU