Ancient accounting practices in the modern world

Guest post by Fernando Toth (Professor of Anthropology, University of Buenos Aires)

Token: an art piece that mixes anthropology, experimental archaeology, archival analysis and regional history

Token is a project by Carlos Mustto (visual artist) and myself (anthropologist and musician), that links anthropology with art. It is mainly an exercise of translation of administrative systems, that was developed within the 2019 edition of the Barda del Desierto art residency, taking place in the public school of Contralmirante Cordero, a small town populated by less than four thousand people in Argentinean North Patagonia.

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Map of the Ballester Dam and Public School 135.
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Ancient Mesopotamian clay tokens. Image from here.

The core idea of the project was to identify and process a selection of information from the administrative records of the construction and operation of the Ballester Dam (one of the most important engineering structures in Patagonian history), in order to translate it into clay tokens, the oldest known system of countability and administration, and direct predecessor of cuneiform writing, as studied by Denise Schmandt-Besserat. Clay tokens were used for several thousand years before writing first appeared, but it was in Mesopotamia in the 4th millennium BC that their use as an accounting system began to develop features that would eventually come to denote language as well as commodities and numbers. Continue reading “Ancient accounting practices in the modern world”

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Exploring the social and cultural contexts of historic writing systems: the CREWS conference

The second of our three big CREWS project conferences took place recently: Exploring the Social and Cultural Contexts of Historic Writing Systems (14th-16th March 2019, see here for programme). I had been excited about it for a long time, but when it came I was absolutely blown away by the quality of the presentations and the new things I learned and the ways it has developed my thinking on writing practices. I’m going to use this blog post to try to pass on some of what I learned by telling you about themes that kept turning up over the three days, even in papers on completely different topics.

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Questions during Natalia’s paper.

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Reconstructing Mycenaean scribes and archives… in Lego!

Happy International Lego Classicism Day to all our friends and colleagues! In celebration this year, I have been working on something special: a re-imagining of the cover art from John Chadwick’s The Mycenaean World book, in a 3D Lego model. Far from a just-for-fun exercise, this actually has some helpful practical applications in making us question what Mycenaean scribes did at work, and how Linear B archives functioned.

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New CREWS Visiting Fellow announcement

It won’t be long now before we advertise the new round of our Visiting Fellowship competition, but in the meantime we have some other news – we are delighted to tell you that we will be welcoming Dr Giorgos Bourogiannis to Cambridge as an externally-funded CREWS Visiting Fellow next term! Read more about his project below.

Giorgos Bourogiannis (National Hellenic Research Foundation, Athens)

gb.jpgGiorgos is an archaeologist and postdoctoral research associate at the National Hellenic Research Foundation in Athens. Since his PhD (2008) he has worked as a curator for the Naukratis project at the British Museum, Department of Greece and Rome, and has held the A.G. Leventis postdoctoral position at the Museum of Mediterranean and Near Eastern Antiquities (Medelhavsmuseet) in Stockholm, studying the unpublished evidence from the sanctuary of Ayia Irini on Cyprus (you can see a video about his work HERE).

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Teaching about money’s origins—and its possible cryptographic futures—with Proto-cuneiform

Guest post by Professor Bill Maurer

Richard Mattessich (1998) opened his paper in the Accounting Historians’ Journal on 3rd millennium BCE protocuneiform with a quotation from Leonard Bernstein: “The best way to know a thing, is in the context of another discipline” (Bernstein 1976: 3). For two weeks in January, 2019, a class of 114 undergraduate students at the University of California, Irvine, drew made-up protocuneiform tables based on Nissen et al. (1993) after reading Mattessich’s accountant’s perspective on them. They did so as part of a class on “The Future of Money.” The class is still going on, and is being conducted entirely online, except for an end-of-term in person meeting with a panel of payments industry experts and final exam.

Protocuneiform tablets were chosen as the earliest surviving examples of economic transactions utilizing a type of proto-writing that would later develop into the more abstract wedge-shapes of classic cuneiform.  The earliest examples date from the late 4th millennium BC (around 3200-3000), from the area of Uruk, and commonly include ‘pictographic’ signs denoting the goods being counted alongside numerals. (You can read more about ‘Proto-Cuneiform’ on the CDLI here and here.)

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Proto-cuneiform tablet, probably from Uruk, c.3100-2900 BC. Image from HERE.

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Anatolian hieroglyphs, and our first CREWS Visiting Fellow

Guest post by Dr Willemijn Waal

My name is Willemijn Waal and I have been lucky enough to be the first visiting fellow of the CREWS project, which is of course a great honour! Let me start out by briefly introducing myself. I am a Hittitologist/classicist working as a lecturer at Leiden University, at the department of Classics and Ancient Civilizations. My main research interests include the origins and materiality of writing and cross-cultural contacts between the Late Bronze Age Anatolia and the Aegean. I am further working on literacy and orality in the ancient world, in particular the links between classical and Near Eastern epic and literature.

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Map showing Anatolia (the large peninsula occupying the right-middle of the image) and the Aegean sea to its west and south-west (bounded by mainland Greece on the west side and Crete on the south side).

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Writing and Society in Ancient Cyprus – Pippa’s new book

A couple of months ago my new book, Writing and Society in Ancient Cyprus, was published with Cambridge University Press. This was a long-term project, beginning with a series of lectures given at All Souls College, Oxford, in 2014 and culminating in a work that underpins the research undertaken at CREWS. In fact, it was in writing this book that the whole idea for the CREWS project began…

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Conference programme and registration

We’ve now released the full programme for our conference ‘Exploring the Social and Cultural Contexts of Historic Writing Systems’, which takes place in the Faculty of Classics, University of Cambridge on the 14th-16th March 2019. It can be viewed and downloaded on the Conference page.

We are also now opening registration. The conference is free but if you’d like to attend it is necessary to register, as places are limited. To do so, please email Dr Philip Boyes at pjb70@cam.ac.uk.

We look forward to March and what is shaping up to be a fascinating set of talks!

Alpha and Omega

ἐγὼ τὸ ἄλφα καὶ τὸ ὦ, ὁ πρῶτος καὶ ὁ ἔσχατος, ἡ ἀρχὴ καὶ τὸ τέλος.

‘I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.’

(Rev. 22:13, Tyndale Greek New Testament)

These words may look familiar – a quotation from Jesus in the very final chapter of the Bible, in the book of Revelation. Particularly striking is the use of the first and last letters of the alphabet to describe Jesus. What is going on here? This seems like an interesting question to explore in the middle of the festive period. (Readers who want to pursue the question further might be interested in reading the articles given in the references below, which I have used in the preparation of this post.)

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Mural painting from the catacomb of Commodilla (C4th AD). Image from HERE.

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