C is for Clay Balls

Inventory. Tax records. Rations of bread and beer to the workers. Storage of food during the winter. The earliest civilizations were built on keeping track of things.

Accounting via clay tablet, tokens, cuneiform. Photo from the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago

Before data warehouses. Before the invention of the steam engine, calculus, banking, or even the ox-drawn plow, somewhere between the wheel and the pyramids, the Mesopotamians created tracking systems.

We tend to think about the earliest people as hunter-gatherers. But nomadic hunters are the antithesis of foragers. Gatherers figured out eventually that if they stayed in the place with lots of bushes, bare survival turns into surplus food. Domestic the cow rather than chasing after it, figure out how to plant barley, and you have farming. Farming leads to population growth, and suddenly you have 40,000 people living in the Fertile Crescent, building cities and empires. You need armies to protect your grain, which requires the farmers to give surplus to a central authority to pay soldiers. Now you’ve invented taxation and a centralized administration.

Photo of broken clay ball with tokens inside, from the Oriental Institute, @8000 BCE.

It All Started With Little Clay Balls

Archaeologists in ancient Sumeria–modern-day Iraq–found lots of hollow clay balls containing smaller shapes. They called them bullae (round, bubble-like) and dated them back eight centuries, which makes some of the oldest artifacts on earth. Inside the balls are different-shaped tokens, each thought to signify different products–animals and grains. The clay balls could be carried to the market or tax office, then opened to discover the valuation: a primitive wallet.

Tokens inside clay balls, each shape suggesting different item tracked. Photo from the Louvre.

Or the tax accountant might visit the farm, shape the clay product counts after taking inventory, and place them in a clay ball to prevent tampering or losing the tokens on the journey back. Sometimes, a seal was impressed into the clay designating the owner. (Seven thousand years later, medieval bulls would include such imprinted seals–from merchants or even the Pope–as part of their legal documentation. )

Round bits of clay weren’t easy to store and, after all, they had the notation on them as to what was inside. Why not, if you’re the tax collector, just keep the notation rather than the tokens themselves? At first, the barley-counters would make impressions with the specially-shaped tokens, but eventually they just made marks on to a flattened piece of clay itself, a clay tablet.

Ration for a messenger. Photo from the Metropolitan Museum.

Hold My Beer, I Have to Deliver the Mail

Cuneiform tablets like this one are all over the ancient sites, many in the trash heaps, indicating they had completed their function. This primitive spreadsheet is from Ur III, dated from “year 1 of the reign of Ibbi-Sin, month 2, day 20.” It tracks how much beer, bread, oil, and onions were needed to feed the messengers. Beer and bread–thanks for inventing barley, you farmer-gatherers!

Again, only if you have a surplus can you create the post office. The messengers probably also delivered through rain, snow, dead of night, but I’ll bet the stamps were kind of heavy.

Cuneiform tablets started with pictographics, or proto-cuneiform writing initially. This tablet was theorized to be a list of workers’ names. Eventually, you could drop some of the extra pictures and just use the stylus for up/down, right/left, heavier/lighter impressions.

Proto-cuneiform writing, 3000 BC. Photo from the Louvre.

Start with little clay balls, and the next thing you know, you’ve created a writing system.

Next Stop, Gilgamesh and the Pythagorean Theorem

You’re also counting things, so there’s mathematics. By the time of the Babylonians, around 2000 BC, they had basic trigonometry. Of course, with ancient civilizations, there’s a lot of theory, hogwash, archaeological fraud, and fascinating stories–I wrote about the Plimpton 322 text and its link between trigonometry and plagiarism.

The Babylonian Plimpton 322 text, early trigonometry, perhaps.

The Babylonians couldn’t quite figure out long division, but they were very good at multiplying. They created extensive cuneiform tables with lists of the squares up to 59 or cubes up to 32. The Babylonians used Base 60–trippy, isn’t it?–so if they wanted to calculate 1/13, they would figure it out with multiples of 60:

If you have 60, you have the degrees in a circle, an approximation of the days in a year, a dozen cycles of the moon… you get a system that tracks time and astronomy if you look up and map the night sky. That gives you navigation, exploration, trade, and you can build ziggurats and write epics– the sky’s the limit.

The Babylonian constellations. Picture by Gavin White.

All from a few handfuls of clay balls.

One Reply to “C is for Clay Balls”

  1. I had trouble with long division 😏 too, at first. My dad had a sort of shorthand way to do it, which made sense of it for me. I went ahead and showed that to my sons from the beginning. It was appreciated.

    Very cool that the bullae and tokens were accounting.

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