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?
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)
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.
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!