Tokens and Literacy

Credit: Bex Walton
Credit: Bex Walton

For a few years now I’ve been interested in clay tokens, and specifically how in later periods (1st millennium b.c.e.) they relate to the already existing written tradition.  The traditional literature on tokens mentions they’re early role as an antecedent to writing and then neglects to make any comment on their possible use in later periods.  My work in Turkey at the site of Ziyaret Tepe has shown that tokens were in use in the 1st millennium b.c.e and they seem to be found in contexts associated with written records.

I initially started by writing a short section in our bi-annual co-authored site report.  This kernel then turned into a term paper for a professor here at Brown, which then became a talk at the American Oriental Studies annual conference.  From there I make a poster for a conference in Cambridge, England.  That conference graciously invited me to publish in their post-conference volume, the article I am now preparing.  Finally I was accepted to give another talk at the American Schools of Oriental Research conference this fall.  Each step of the way the ideas have change slightly and become more fleshed out.  Oh and I forgot to mention, along the way I contributed to a co-authored paper with other members of the dig on tokens in general in the 1st milennium.  I’ve certainly received a lot of traction from this one topic, but I think it’s rather important.  Up until now it was a completely neglected field of research, the body of evidence remained unpublished and unstudied.

My own take on the issue is that clay tokens were a concomitant technology with writing.  The evidence from Ziyaret Tepe shows clay tokens spread in large quantities around a courtyard and rooms, two of which seem to the be the tablet storage for an administrative archive.  Also found in this area, were a large weight, and a puzzling clay tag with a written name.  The texts found in this area record large quantities of grain and other staples going in and out of the storerooms.  The way I see tokens used here, is as temporary storage devices for accounts.  The difficulty with clay tablets is that they dry quickly and methods for preserving their surface for writing are spotty at best.  Tokens would serve as a perfect tool to keep accounts over a period of time while the transaction was accruing.  When all was said and done the account could be recorded on a tablet and filed away.  The purpose of the article for the conference volume is to try and explain this method further.  In some ways my task is aided by the fact that we found another tablet last season which recorded a tally of sheep, showing that if the tokens were used for arithmetic and accounting they were independent of a specific semantic association, grain, wool, wood etc…

Finally, the end goal for this project is to make some connections between the use of tokens with writing as an entry form of literacy.  Too often in past discussions of literacy, the ability to comprehend written characters is restricted to a tiny portion of the population.  I’d like to see tokens as a way to breach that divide and start to understand the mental abilities necessary to understand record information and access it at a later point in time.

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