Monday, October 14, 2013

CLAY BALLS FROM MESOPOTAMIA USED FOR RECORD KEEPING 200 YEARS BEFORE WRITING INVENTED

Researchers studying clay balls from Mesopotamia have discovered clues to a lost code that was used for record-keeping about 200 years before writing was invented. The clay balls may represent the world's "very first data storage system," at least the first that scientists know of, said Christopher Woods, a professor at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, in a lecture at Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum, where he presented initial findings.

The balls, often called "envelopes" by researchers, were sealed and contain tokens in a variety of geometric shapes - the balls varying from golf ball-size to baseball-size. Only about 150 intact examples survive worldwide today. The researchers used high-resolution CT scans and 3D modeling to look inside more than 20 examples that were excavated at the site of Choga Mish, in western Iran, in the late 1960s. They were created about 5,500 years ago at a time when early cities were flourishing in Mesopotamia.

How these devices would have worked in prehistoric times, before the invention of writing, is a mystery. Researchers now face the question of how people recorded the number and type of a commodity being exchanged without the help of writing.

The CT scans revealed that some of the balls have tiny channels, 1-2 millimeters (less than one-tenth of an inch) across, crisscrossing them. Woods said he's not certain what they were used for, but speculates the balls contained fine threads that connected together on the outside. These threads could have held labels, perhaps made out of wax, which reflected the tokens within the clay balls.

The tokens within the balls come in 14 different shapes, including spheres, pyramids, ovoids, lenses and cones, the researchers found. Rather than representing whole words, these shapes would have conveyed numbers connected to a variety of metrological systems used in counting different types of commodities, Woods suggested. One ovoid, for instance, might mean a certain unit, say 10, which was used while counting a certain type of commodity.

The equatorial seals tend to be unique and more complex containing what appear to be mythological motifs; for instance a ball from the Louvre Museum shows human figures fighting what appear to be serpents. The polar seals, on the other hand, are repeated more often and tend to have simpler geometric motifs. Based on this evidence, Woods hypothesizes the seal in the middle represents the "buyer" or recipient; the polar seals would represent the "seller" or distributor and perhaps third parties who would have participated in the transaction or acted as witnesses. Many people would have acted as the buyers, but only a limited number of sellers or distributors would have been around to transact business with, explaining why the polar seals are repeated more often.

After a transaction of some importance was complete, one of these clay devices was created to serve as a "receipt" of sorts for the seller, as a record of what was expended. "There's a greater necessity to keep track ofthings that have been expended than things that are on hand," Woods said in the lecture.

The amount of detail the scientists gleaned from the CT scans and 3D modeling was extraordinary, Woods said during the lecture. "We can learn more about these artifacts by non-destructive testing than we could by physically opening the envelopes," he said. Woods will publish the full research results in the future and plans to put
the images and 3D models online.

The Royal Ontario Museum has a special exhibition on Mesopotamia that runs to Jan. 5, 2014. Woods' presentation is part of a lecture series that is appearing along with it.

http://news.discovery.com/history/archaeology/clues-to-prehistoric-code-foundin-mesopotamia-131011.htm

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