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.

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. Continue reading “Ancient accounting practices in the modern world”


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.)

DT847 whole.jpg
Proto-cuneiform tablet, probably from Uruk, c.3100-2900 BC. Image from HERE.

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