Ziyaret Tepe is located on the site of the ancient city of Tushan, a provincial capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. At its peak during the first millennia B.C., the empire was the most powerful state in the world, encompassing modern-day Turkey, Iraq and Syria. Archaeologists discovered the clay tokens–some 300 of them, formed in various simple shapes–in two back rooms of what was the main administrative building in Tushan’s lower town. In a press release announcing his team’s findings, lead researcher John MacGinnis of Cambridge’s MacDonald Institute for Archaeological Research described the rooms as a kind of “delivery area,” or ancient loading bay.
Scientists think that Assyrian farmers used the tokens as part of a bookkeeping system, and that the various shapes (including spheres, discs and triangles, as well as some resembling oxhide and bull heads) may have represented different commodities such as livestock and grain. Since they were in use during the empire’s heyday, the tokens could also have represented more sophisticated goods such as oil, wine and wool. While it was previously assumed that this rudimentary type of recordkeeping became obsolete after the emergence of writing, these tokens date to a time (900 to 600 B.C.) when writing had become common practice.
The earliest examples of writing can be traced to around 3000 B.C., consisting of clay tablets filled with pictorial symbols drawn with triangular-tipped reeds. Thereafter, scientists have found that tokens used in bookkeeping gradually disappeared from the archaeological record–until now. According to MacGinnis’ team, farmers trading goods at Tushan some 2,000 years later most likely handed the tokens over to Assyrian officials, who later translated them into writing. This combination of tokens and cuneiform writing created a flexible, practical accounting system that allowed illiterate farmers to participate.
According to MacGinnis, it’s not so hard to imagine how the more rudimentary system stayed in place long after writing developed. After all, people still use pens and pencils, even in the age of computers. As he puts it, “Complex writing didn’t stop the use of the abacus, just as the digital age hasn’t wiped out pencils and pens. In a literate society there are multiple channels of recording information that can be complementary to each other.”