'Story or History of writing'/Part:08

Mrs Denise Schmandt-Besserat, a French-American archaeologist and retired professor of art and archaeology of the ancient Near East, suggested that  writing systems actually evaluated in four phases . over a period of 10,000 years, from a prehistoric antecedent to the present-day alphabet. Out of  five independent writing systems, only the Mesopotamian cuneiform script, invented in Sumer, present-day Iraq, c. 3200 BC, can be traced without any discontinuity over these period .The four phases  are :

(a) Clay tokens representing units of goods were used for accounting (8000–3500 BC);  
The tokens, used as counters to keep track of goods, were the earliest code—a system of
signs for transmitting information. Each token shape was semantic, referring to a particular unit of merchandise. For example, a cone and a sphere stood respectively for a small and a large measure of grain, and ovoids represented jars of oil. The repertory of some three hundred types of counters made it feasible to manipulate and store information on multiple categories of goods (Schmandt-Besserat 1992).The token system had little in common with spoken language except that, like a word, a token stood for one concept. Unlike speech, tokens were restricted to one type of information only, namely, real goods. Unlike spoken language, the token system made no use of syntax. That is to say, their meaning was
independent of their placement order. Three cones and three ovoids, scattered in any way, were to be translated ‘three baskets of grain, three jars of oil.’ Furthermore, the fact that the same token shapes were used in a large area of the Near East, where many dialects would have been spoken, shows that the counters were not based on phonetics. Therefore, the goods they represented were expressed in multiple languages. The token system showed the number of units of merchandize in one-to-one correspondence, in other words, the number of tokens matched the number of units counted: x jars of oil were represented by x ovoids. Repeating ‘jar of oil’ x times in order to express plurality is unlike spoken language.

Generally ,the token system consisted of two kinds of tokens—"plain" [figs. 1] and "complex" [figs. 2]. Plain and complex tokens were of identical manufacture but can be distinguished either by their shapes or surface treatment (figs. 1 and 2). Plain tokens are characterized both by a simple geometric form and a plain, smooth surface, devoid of any markings. Plain tokens made their appearance with the beginning of agriculture, probably used as counters for record keeping of harvest for the planning of subsistence over the seasons; complex tokens, not until the rise of cities. The earliest assemblages of plain tokens have been recovered in the remains of villages of the Fertile Crescent dating to 8000-7500 B.C. These villages, built with round huts typical of the period of transition between hunting-gathering and farming cultures, relied upon grain consumption; they show no obvious evidence for animal domestication. Complex tokens belong to the later part of the fourth millennium B.C., which is characterized in the ancient Middle East by the urban phenomenon and the rise of the Sumerian temple institution, viewed as the origin of state formation. We have some insights into the economy implemented by the Sumerian temple between 3350 and 3100
B.C. For example ,Attached sumerian cylinder seals [figs. 4] , represent a procession of individuals delivering their dues to the temple in the form of goods . The En, or chief administrators, are often seen leading the procession, recognizable by such status symbols as a beard, a special headdress and a long garment (fig. 4 ,a and b ). Also ,Fig 4 c  showing the En presiding over scenes of torture, such as beating, probably inflicted on the first tax delinquents. The imposition of taxation required an authority and administration to implement it, a system of measures and a precise reckoning device for record keeping, The complex tokens can be viewed, therefore, as fulfilling an important function in the collection of taxes, which is crucial to state formation. Figure 5 ,is a Sumerian tablet which records payment of the tax called "burden," circa 2500 B.C. Almost everything was taxed--livestock, the boat trade, fishing, even funerals--but probably the most burdensome obligation a household faced was its labor obligation. This was called "going" or "burden" in Babylonian languages.

if you define writing as recording information in a symbolic manner, Then the written form of language that I use to pass this information along today evolved out of this simple accounting technique, which developed during the Neolithic period, of at least as long ago as 7500 BC, when people recorded information about their agricultural goods-- domestic animals and plants--in the form of small clay tokens. Further, during the Uruk period in Mesopotamia [4000-3000 BC], urban cities blossomed and administrative needs for accounting expanded. Production of what Andrew Sherratt and VG Childe called "secondary products"--wool, clothing, metals, honey, bread, oil, beer, textiles, garments, rope, mats, carpets, furniture, jewelry, tools, perfume--all of these things and many more needed to be accounted for, and the number of types of tokens in use ballooned to 250 by 3300 BC.


[Kandiah Thillaivinayagalingam]

Part:09 will follow

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