Pushing the Envelope

The word ‘envelope’ brings to mind a flat piece made out of folded paper in which we insert letters, secured with a flap of some sort that closes the piece. However, the original ‘envelope’ was quite different.

Over 6,000 years ago in the Near East, with the advent of the use of geometric shapes or tokens for counting and record keeping, a system was devised to transport them easily. A hollow spherical orb made out of clay was used as a receptacle for tokens. Once tokens were inserted into the orb then it was sealed and stamped with a message outside. The outer impression was usually made with a cylinder seal and, sometimes for good measure, marked with a representation of the tokens inside.  This meant that caravan riders had a secure manner of easily transporting records of goods being delivered or received.

Could this device be the first attempt by humans to permanently record data? Is it the first ‘data storage device?

Orb from Susa shows two rows of surface impressions that match in number and shape the tokens it contained (foreground): one large cone, three small cones (bottom row) and three disks (top row). Tablets with incised representations of tokens probably evolved next. Image courtesy of Denise Schmandt-Besserat
Orb from Susa shows two rows of surface impressions that match in number and shape the tokens it contained (foreground): one large cone, three small cones (bottom row) and three disks (top row). Tablets with incised representations of tokens probably evolved next. Image courtesy of Denise Schmandt-Besserat

Our first event on our 2015-2016 series relates the story of the beginning of counting and writing. Prof. Denise Schmandt-Besserat, a world-renowned authority on the subject has this to say about spherical clay envelopes:

For the history of number notations, the spherical envelopes are particularly important. Their importance derives from two hypothetical situations: Either the content of an envelope constitutes an account of a single disbursement of delivery … or else, the content of an envelope constitutes a record of a single transaction. There is no reason to doubt that the mostly plain tokens enclosed in spherical envelopes belonged to a small number of pre-literate systems of number tokens, very much similar to the now well known proto-literate systems of number notations impressed on clay tablets. (excerpted from Before Writing, Vol. 1, 1992)

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A broken clay ball with ‘tokens’ inside
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EGG-Shaped hollow clay envelope was found in the palace ruins at Nuzi, a Mesopotamian city site of the second millennium B.C. The cuneiform inscription on its surface lists 48 animals. On being opened the tablet was found to contain 48 counters. The counters were lost before an accurate description had been prepared, but Nuzi texts suggest their use for reckoning. Images courtesy of Scientific American. June 1977, Vol. 238, No. 6, p. 50-58
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Intact clay envelope found at Choga Mish in Iran. (Image courtesy of The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago)
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Line drawings reveal the seal impressions found on the clay envelope above. (Courtesy of The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago)

About 150 clay balls or envelopes exist in museums today. Museums are understandably reluctant to open them as doing so would destroy the outer seals and impressions relating information about the inner contents. Therefore, many museums are x-raying their collections of clay orbs.

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The right image shows a radiograph of a clay envelope found at Choga Mish showing the token within, while the left image reveals a CT scan of the same envelope. (Image courtesy of The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago)

Don’t miss the opportunity to hear the bold French archaeologist – Schmandt-Besserat – tell how the development of counting lead to writing and how it was such a cognitive leap for humans. Her work surprised the world by not only delivering an answer to the development of writing but by discovering at the same time, the origin of counting and currency. Her talk will take place on Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2015 at 6:30 pm at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. To obtain tickets call: 713.639.4629

This talk is generously sponsored by KPMG, an accounting firm who thankfully, has no need for tokens or clay envelopes!

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One thought on “Pushing the Envelope

  1. Sorry that we will miss this very interesting presentation because of being in our summer home at Caria (A.K.A Bodrum or Halcarnasusus in Turkey). please kepp informing us of your forthcoming presentations. We will be flying back to Houston on September 24.

    Thanks

    Gulgun & Demir Karsan

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