Adult Programs

Explore Mesopotamia: New Light on an Administrative Device from the Dawn of Writing in the Ancient Near East

The Dawn of Writing in the Ancient Near East : Sept 26. Foundation tablet, Steatite, Ur, 2094-2047 BCE, © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Small, unassuming clay balls have come to play a central role in the debate over the origins of writing, having been made famous by Denise Schmandt-Besserat and her theory of the origins of writing.   The balls, which range from the size of golf balls to baseballs, are better described as envelopes, as they are hollow and contain small clay artifacts commonly referred to as clay counters, or “tokens."  The envelopes with their associated tokens have been excavated in Iran, Syria, and Iraq, and are contemporaneous with, or slightly earlier than, the first texts (c. 3200 BC).

 It is thought that the envelopes represented an early administrative device serving, essentially, as receipts for various economic transactions. Schmandt-Besserat connected these early administrative devices directly to the origins of writing in the ancient Near East, arguing that both the numerical and logographic signs of cuneiform evolved out of the earlier token system. A major obstacle in testing this theory and understanding these proto-literate accounting devices has been our inability to easily inspect the contents of the majority of clay envelopes.  Major advances in computed tomography (CT) and digital imaging technology have occurred in recent years and it is now possible to determine the exact number of tokens and whether they have markings or not; critical data for understanding their meaning. In collaboration with North Star Imaging of Rogers, MN, a leading manufacturer of state-of-the-art industrial CT systems, and Kinetic Vision of Cincinnati, OH, the Oriental Institute is currently scanning and analyzing the clay envelopes excavated from Choga Mish, Iran in the 1960s and early 1970s.  In this presentation, Dr. Woods discusses the imaging project, the current state of the ongoing investigation, and initial results.


Christopher Woods Professor of Sumerology, Oriental Institute / Dept. of Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations, University of Chicago.

NOTE: Programs and dates are subject to change.


Royal Ontario Museum
Eaton Theatre, Level 1B

President’s Choice School Entrance