By this point, humans had been drawing pictures for 30,000 years, documenting animals and people on the walls of caves.1 But those were representative drawings, depicting animals and people real or imagined. The intellectual leap of the Sumerians was the use of drawings to represent the idea of sheep—and goats and barley and everything else that needed to be recorded. These early drawings of logograms, signs that individually represent discrete objects, quickly became simplified and abstracted as scribes realized that was more efficient than drawing detailed naturalistic illustrations each time.
The idea of representing things in the physical world by manufactured signifiers has ancient antecedents in counting tokens. From the dawn of agriculture itself in 8000 BC, residents of farming communities in the Middle East used marble-sized clay tokens of various shapes—spheres, cones, discs, etc.—presumably to account for quantities of grain.
These tokens were often collected inside spherical clay “envelopes” with the contents of the envelope impressed into the clay to convey its contents. Other tokens were likely strung on measures of string held by clay blobs called bullae (singular: bulla). These envelopes and bullae were often impressed by pictographic stamps called seals (more on that later) declaring their ownership or provenance.
Four cones and a stamp impression of a deer in a forest could record four vases of wine from a particular family who carved that stamp. With the rise of cities in Mesopotamia in the 34th century BC and the explosion of traded goods as recounted earlier, a wide range of tokens in different shapes and with stylized markings on them (called complex tokens) appear.
In a series of papers by Denise Schmandt-Besserat,2 she explains how writing developed from the impressions of plain tokens on envelopes and drawings representing the decorative markings on the complex tokens. Impressions and drawings of tokens on a clay tablet obviated the need for the tokens themselves. If a number of sheep was represented by that number of disc tokens with crosses, a number of impressed wedges on a tablet next to a circle with a cross would more efficiently represent that number of sheep. Wedges of different sizes and shapes could stand for different quantities, a large circular impression meaning ten, for example, and the ability to use abstract numerals for quantities of anything was a major advance in the history of accounting and, as a result, writing.
Not so fast, says Jean-Jacques Glassner. The earliest complex tokens appear at the same time as the first writing, he argues in his book-long critique of Schmandt-Besserat,3 thus writing couldn’t possibly have developed from them. Plus, he doesn’t see much correlation between the tokens and the signs she claims they derive from. And as for writing’s development from pictographs, so many early signs are already so stylized in their very first attestations, different from the refined likenesses in contemporaneous Mesopotamian art and occasionally totally abstract, that they don’t seem to have developed from anything at all. No, he claims, writing was actually a pure invention, and a brilliant one at that.
Notes [ + ]
|1.||⇧||The Chauvet Cave, location of the oldest known figurative cave paintings, is the subject of an awesome documentary by Werner Herzog.|
|2.||⇧||Succinctly summarized by her in “Two Precursors of Writing: Plain and Complex Tokens” in Origins of Writing.|
|3.||⇧||The Invention of Cuneiform|