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.

Map of the Ballester Dam and Public School 135.
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.

We took a 100 year old (yet modern) administrative record, selected a series of collections of official information, and converted them into a 10,000 year old reckoning system. To do so, we had the support of the Irrigation Museum of the Rio Negro Province, located five kilometers away from the school, and the place where the dam archives are kept.

The motives to do so where multiple: first, as a concrete and artistic application of the theoretical framework of my on-going investigation on administrative systems from an anthropological perspective (based on a 6 year experience in national public service), which has the token system as a pivotal case; second, as an approach to the importance of the Dam in the confguration of the modern geography and productive organization of the region; and last and most important, to actively face and process our own familiar history, since Carlos’s grandfather and my great grandfather were immigrants who arrived to this region to work on the dam in early 20th century.

The Ballester Dam

Another premise of the project was to make it an exercise of experimental archaeology, producing the tokens with the technological conditions closest to the original ones, and using materials gathered from the region and close surroundings of the school. To do so, we did some research previous to the residency, both on the clays available in the area, and on previous work on experimental archaeology, with clay in general, and tokens in particular. In that process, we contacted Denise for some advice, who not only kindly replied to us, but, to our surprise, told us that there was no such work with tokens to recommend.

4.jpgWe had an intense schedule to fulfll in the 21 days time span of the residency, which gives each artist a classroom of the school as both studio and room. The first week was primarily dedicated to work in the archive, which was both vast and chaotic: we faced going through a non-organized total of 285 boxes of files, 80 binders, 235 copybooks, and 20 registry books, containing all kinds of information on the design, construction, maintenance and operation of the dam, from 1905 to 1975 approximately. Besides the amount of documents, we were struck by the density and diversity of the information, the almost obsessive precision of the registry, the elegant aesthetics of the official seals and headers, the artistry and meticulousness of plans and maps, the stylish tracing of signatures and handwritten notes, and the rhetorical quality of the reports and memos. We decided to focus on the data from the years of construction and initial operation, from 1910 to 1922, and selected 12 potential collections to be translated into tokens. Also, to my personal delight, we found the 1947 annual work reports, which included the files of my great grandfather Nicolas, my grandfather Fernando, and his brother Esteban. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find Carlos’s grandfather on the registries.

The administrative archive of the Irrigation Museum

In parallel in that first week, and fully into the second, we worked on the design of the tokens, and the definition of the schemes of conversion of quantities. For this, we worked intensively with Denise’s book How Writing Came About, with the idea of representing all the types and shapes of the original token collection. The both challenging and fun part was to design tokens for things that did not exist as such in the prehistoric Near East, and exercising our poetic licence to explore the possibilities of shapes and patterns. We diferentiated the smallest and more detailed collections from the largest and simpler, in correlation with the density and complexity of the source files. The processing of data also continued, since the calibration of the conversions determined the amount of tokens of each collection, and the work necessary to complete them. In this process, I came to embrace the digital spreadsheet as an efective and (believe it or not) pleasurable tool for the production of art, just as the clay itself.

We ended up with five collections: the total amount of wages paid in January 1920 (approximately 50,000 hours of work, represented in 50 tokens of 14 types, regarding the crews), all the supplies bought by the Dam’s general store in January 1919 (represented in 132 tokens of 46 kinds of goods), the annual budget of materials from 1915 (represented in 251 tokens of 12 tons or 1000 m3 of material each, of 20 kinds), the bidding for the purchase of 20,000 liters of wine in 1920 (represented in 4 tokens of 5,000 liters each) and all the work accidents cases from 1919, 1920 and 1921 (a total of 19 cases, one token each, representing the body part afected). Each collection required its specifc conversion scheme, and a particular processing of the source files to arrive at the fnal figures. The general store collection was the most complex, since the amounts came by decoding and counting every receipt of the file, which was both large and handwritten by multiple providers, and also required different conversions due to the variety of quantities. Regarding the correlation with the original token collections, the wages were strict replicas of the simple ones, the budget ones were more attached to the complex alternatives, and we allowed ourselves artistic freedom on the supply tokens, and especially with the accident cases.



Source files for the supplies (left) and budget (right) collections.

7.jpgThis designing process was done in action, in the actual making of tokens, so production also took place in the second week, and part of the third. We used diferent clays obtained from the region in Carlos’s previous research with local ceramists, and gathered stones, leaves and branches from our surroundings to use them as our implements. In that regard, the spine of the alpataco, a bush of the Prosopis family prominent in our geography, proved to be the most precise tool available to make incisions and marks. We sun-dried most of the pieces, and in the final week we baked the rest in an open fire, first tempering the pieces by gradually drawing them next to the flames, and finally covering them with embers and soil, leaving them enclosed and warm through the night. The result of this process was better than expected, with only a small percentage of pieces collapsing, and we ended up regretting not doing it with every piece.

8 9

Open fire cooking.

The last part of the process was the design and assembly of the final exhibition piece. We knew we wanted each collection to have its distinctive place, but no defined idea how to display them. This came in the making, and with lots of work and fun. The first and simplest collection (wages) was the most austere.

The real token board.
The index of collections board.

Next was the general store tokens, displayed as in a store counter. The most important piece was the budget collection, and it came about almost as a mistake. We had the idea of making a hanging structure of tokens, using the holes of the pieces and emulating the tokens held with bullae, and to do so we set the pieces on the floor to calculate the area of the structure. In doing that, the idea came to us of presenting them as if they were on an archeological site. We went with it, and used local bentonite and clay to make a surface for the tokens to be laid over. It turned out to look like an accounting balance drawn on soil, a sort of ‘excel tomb’.

The budget token collection (and us).
The wages token collection.

The wine collection was displayed on a school bench, and the accident ones on a long 3m desk, with some pictures of the files of the cases to  complement the pieces. We ended up constructing figures assembling the body parts, adding a little drama to an already shocking set. Every collection was complemented with pictures of the files where the data came from. Finally, the two front boards of the classroom were used, one to display the information on the original tokens as studied by Denise Schmandt-Besserat, and the other as an index of the five collections, which were labeled with a pictograph each to identify them. There was another bench where the diferent clays used in the process were displaced and geographically referenced.

Carlos showing local clays to visitors.

In the production process, as well as in the workshop we did on tokens, we noticed that people were drawn to experimenting with clay and making their own tokens. In fact, a minor but considerable amount of tokens made by people assisting the open studio sessions ended up in the final collections. We also observed that manipulating the clay while listening to the explanations helped people concentrate on the exposition. We took these learnings to the exhibition, offering each participant a chance to make their own token while listening to the description of the work, and giving them freedom to take the tokens or leave them in the classroom. This definitely made the experience more  engaging, and the tokens left by participants where really interesting and beautiful.

Detail of the work accidents collection.

From an educational standpoint, this was my frst time of consistent work with clay, and the process was definitely insightful. At the start of the residency, I received my classroom full of cubes made with toothpicks and play-dough hanging from the ceiling. They felt really clumsy at first sight, and the whole process of working with the tokens made me realize how bad they seem as a way to understand geometry, and how good clay could be instead. Making tokens, I realized understanding geometry is more about volume than abstract shapes, and the practical realization was the really easy way you  can go from one shape to the other with clay in your hands (and really feel how this volume reorganizes in your palm). With the toothpick models, you can’t pass from a sphere to a cube, to a disk and to a cone easily, but with clay you can do it in seconds. Also, the process is pleasurable, while the other methodology seems to be frustrating, you can get hurt with the sharp ends, it’s really hard to make a nice cube out of it, and the final pieces are fragile and not really something to be proud of.

The general store supply collection and visitors.

Another complementary conclusion is about the power of a good story when engaging a crowd. In this sense, the history of the token system is especially compelling: a technology that lasted almost five thousand years, direct antecedent of the first known writing system, the administrative support for the process of domestication of most of the crops that dominate the diets of the world ever since, and yet unknown by almost everyone. This, summed to the plastic capacity, ubiquitousness and accessibility of the raw material, and how pleasurable is to manipulate and model clay, makes tokens a robust multipurpose educational tool for all ages. In our experience, the combination of the geographically and chronologically distant token technology with the territorial importance of the dam formed a compelling narrative, noticeable by the reactions and responses of the visitors.

Visitors listening to the explanation and making tokens.

We are really happy with the results of this experience, and determined to keep on this line of work. We think we have come across a particular and signifcative way of  approaching administrative records from a combined artistic and scientifc methodology, so we look forward to developing new pieces in this fashion.



~ Fernando Toth (Professor of Anthropology, University of Buenos Aires)

Special thanks to Museo del Riego, the BDD residency staff, Denise Schmandt-Besserat for her comments and the encouragement to share the experience, and Philippa Steele for including the post on the CREWS blog.

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