Chapter 10. A trip through Eden.
But currency can be, and probably has been during 7,000 years,
at the dawn of the civilizations of Western Asia- an instrument with radically
different features: personalization, diversification and immobility.
In recent researches on the origin of writing and the use of clay, a complex
and extensive system of accountancy has been found, based on clay cards
which probably allowed the recording of the different operations and exchanges
carried out with the products of harvest and herds. This system was the
embryo of the first monetary instruments (clay bullae) which gave information
on the features and on the agents of every operation and, possibily, were
the basic instrument of a system of accounting compensation.
The discoveries carried out by Denise Schmandt-Besserat (19781),
of Texas University when she was doing research on the use of clay, not
only help us to work out interesting hypotheses on the origin of writing,
but also on the origin of accounting and of currency. But we shall let
her explain it herself.
«In 1969 I began a research project, with the final objective
of discovering when and in what ways clay first came to be used in the
Near East.» «I visited museums [...] that had collections of
clay artifacts dating back to the seventh, eighth and ninth millenniums
B.C. This interval of time, beginning around 11,000 years ago and ending
a little more than 8,000 years ago, saw the firm establishment of the first
farming settlements in Western Asia.»
«In the museums collections [...] I encountered what was to me
an unforeseen type of objects: small clay artifacts of various forms.»
«As I reviewed the museums collections and the related site reports
I became increasingly puzzled by the apparent omnipresence of the tokens.
They had been found in sites from as far West as Beldibi in what is now
south-western Turkey to as far East as Chandhu Daro in what is now Pakistan.
Tokens had even been unearthed at an eighth-millennium-B.C. site on the
Nile, near Khartoum».
The same tokens system is found in a period of 7,000 thousand years
in the area which goes from Khartum (south) to the Caspian Sea (north)
and from the Indus (east) to the eastern Meditarranian coast (west).
As I extended my investigations to include later clay artifacts, dating
from the seventh millennium B.C. to the fourth millennium and later, I
found to my surprise that similar clay tokens had been found... Evidently
a system of accounting... was widely used throughout western Asia from
as long ago as the ninth millennium B.C. to as recently as the second millennium».
Example of comparison of tokens and deciphered Sumerian characters.
«Considered overall, the system had some 15 major classes of tokens,
further divided into some 200 subclasses on the basis of size, marking
or fractional variation... Evidently, each particular shape had a meaning
of its own; a few appear to represent numerical values and others specific
objects, commodities in particular».
«It is not necessary to theorize about some of these meanings;
a number of ideographs on the Uruk (considered up to now as the origin
of writing) tablets almost exactly reproduce in two dimensions many of
«Why did such a repertory of three-dimensional symbols come into
existence? It cannot simply be a coincidence that the first tokens appear
early in the Neolithic period, a time of profound change in human society...
The new agricultural economy, although it undoubtedly increased the production
of food, would have been acompanied by new problems».
«Perhaps the most crucial would have been food storage. Some portion
of each annual yield had to be allocated for the farm family's own subsistence
and some portion had to be set aside as seed for the next year's crop.
Still another portion could have been reserved for barter with those who
were ready to provide exotic products and raw materials in exchange for
foodstuffs. It seems possible that the need to keep track of such allocations
and transactions was enough to stimulate development of a recording system».
«Perhaps it was during the Chalcolithic period that the agricultural
surpluses of individual community members came to be pooled by means of
taxes in kind, with the supervision of the surplus put into the hands of
public officials such as temple attendants. If that is the case, the need
to keep track of individual contributions evidently failed to bring any
significant modification in the recording system».
«Early in the Bronze Age, between 3500 and 3100 B.C., there were
significant changes in the recording system. This period saw an economic
advance quite as remarkable in its own way as the rise of the farming economy
that laid the foundation for it. The new development was the emergence
of the cities. Surveys of the ancient sites in western Asia indicate a
drastic increase in the population of Iraq and Iran; urban centers with
many inhabitants begin to appear close to the earlier village settlements.
«The development of an urban economy, rooted in trade, must have
multiplied the demands on the traditional recording system. Not only production
but also inventories, shipments, and wage payments had to be noted, and
merchants needed to preserve records of their transactions. By the last
century of the fourth millennium B.C. the pressure of complex business
accountancy on the token system becomes apparent both in the symbols and
in how the tokens were used».
«As for changes in how tokens were used, it is significant that...
30 percent of the total are perforated... The perforations are so small
that only a thin string could have passed through them» which might
indicate that «some tokens representative of a specific transaction
were strung together as a record. It seems at least plausible that the
complexity of record keeping in an urban economy might have given rise
to duplicate tokens suitable for stringing».
«A much more significant change is the first appearance at this
time of clay bullae» with tokens inside them. «The existence
of a bulla is clear-cut direct evidence of the user's desire to
segregate the tokens representing one or another transaction».
«There is no doubt in my mind that such bullae were invented
to provide the parties to a transaction with the kind of smooth clay surface
that according to Sumerian custom could be marked by the personal seals
of the individuals concerned as a validation of the event».
«A rural producer of, say, textiles would consign a shipment of
goods to an urban middleman, sending along with the shipment a bulla
that contained a number of tokens descriptive of the kind and quantity
of merchandise shipped. By breaking the bulla the recipient of the
shipment could verify the makeup of the shipment; moreover, the need to
deliver an intact bulla would inhibit the carrier from tampering
with the merchandise in transit. This sealed transfer of tokens between
trade partners represents an entirely new way of using the ancient recording
Tablet from the 3rd millennium B.C. from a Syrian settlement. It
shows the convex surface which might reflect its evolution from the hollow
«The innovation had one serious drawback. The seals impressed
on the smooth exterior of the bulla served to validate each transmission,
but if the seal impressions were to be preserved, the bulla had
to remain intact. How, then, could one determine what tokens were enclosed
and how many? A solution to the problem was soon found. The surface of
the bulla was marked so that in addition to the validating seal
impressions, it bore images of all the enclosed tokens».
«The bulla markings were clearly not invented to take the
place of /the token system of record keeping. Nevertheless, that is what
happened... The hollow bullae with their enclosed tokens would have
been replaced by inscribed solid clay objects: tablets. The strings, baskets
and shelf loads of tokens in the archives would have given way to representative
signs inscribed on tablets, that is, to written records».
«The convex profile of the early Uruk tablets may well be a morphological
feature inherited from the spherical bullae... The appearance of
writing in Mesopotamia represents a logical step in the evolution of a
system of record keeping that originated some 11,000 years ago... With
the rise of cities and the development of large-scale trade the system
was pushed onto a new track. Images of the tokens soon supplanted the tokens
themselves, and the evolution of symbolic objects into ideographs led to
the rapid adoption of writing all across western Asia».
Hollow clay bullae, marked by pressing the tokens on them which
were later put inside them, or bullae with incised representations of the
We can draw some clues from this suggestive description.
With the birth of the agricultural production quite an elaborate accounting
system was started. As the markets and towns grew, the accounting system
became more complicated, and accounting became a fundamental tool in exchanges.
That is, an enormous number of commercial operations were carried out,
without any intrinsic value currency, thanks to a complex, personalized
system of operations.
Did the tokens system, and mainly that of the bullae, work as
a currency or not? It all depends on what we consider currency. The author
herself, in an exchange of letters, epitomized for us her own point of
view: «Tokens were a system of notations comparable to our modern
abacus. As far as we can see, they were used to count and to record, but
they had no intrinsic value and they were not a currency.» (letter
of 14th April 1987). She says that they were not a currency because «they
had no intrinsic value». But, on the other hand, she cannot reduce
their function to that of a calculating machine without belying the functions,
which, as she has seen, were fulfilling: they brought about the sale of
goods between trade associates, in a quantified, accounting, personalized,
recorded... way; an abacus evidently does not have these qualities.
We must therefore acknowledge that, once again, the belief that currency
has an intrinsic value is so strong that it blurs the interpretation of
the most evident facts.
is also the pitfall which Schumpeter himself falls into when he discusses
Aristotle's theory: «The Aristotelian theory of the logical origin
of money may pass muster -at a push- as a verifiable theory of its historical
origin. Such instances as the Semitic shekel or the tea-money of Mongolian
nomades (both of them with intrinsic value) sufice to show its2».
We can see that Schumpeter, who criticizes Aritotle's arguments on behalf
of the «metallist theory», accepts that the first currencies
had an «intrinsic value» and possibly makes the same mistake
that he wanted to fight. In the absence of a paradigm different from the
metallist one, sooner or later there is a drift towards a monolithic interpretation
of the past, and he precludes himself the possibility to find other objects
or facts deserving a different interpretation. From the point of view of
the metallist theory, clay tokens or shells cannot be a currency nor have
a monetary function, therefore they cannot be more than pieces of necklaces
In spite of this, Schumpeter feels the inadequacy of his own arguments:
«Primitive forms of existence are as a rule not more simple but more
complex than later ones3»
and can conceal the logically essential elements, instead of revealing
Today we know more of prehistory than Aristotle dis (or Schumpeter),
while we have already discovered the inadequacy of the metallist theory
and we can interpret facts within a different framework. This sort of clay
«currency» would confirm the hypothesis that «the most
primitive forms usually are more complex than the following ones».
The features of this prehistoric currency, which, in its different types,
lasted some thousands years, are very suggestive, especially in their version
of the bullae. These features are opposed to those of the anonymous
Personalization: those taking part in an operation confirmed
it by stamping their personal seal. The carrier had to deliver the bulla
in one piece to avoid possible frauds. It was like an invoice and a cheque
with the person's name. The personalization of currency, which takes
place when it shows who sells and who buys, offers a possibility which,
by being protected, can ensure the lawful State, that it is a non-arbitrary
performance of Law to solve disputes, with an equal protection of law.
Diversification: the monetary instrument gave information not
only on the trade agents, but also on the actual goods in the operation
and, possibly, on the agreed value (in accounting units). It was a voucher
and an invoice. Diversification of currency, with a specific monetary
instrument for every operation and several sorts of monetary instruments
(for domestic or foreign trade, for consumption or for companies, for savings
or for investment, of mercantile origin or of communal origin...), can
improve the control of the economic reality and can avoid the unbalancing
or speculative transfer of money among economic cycles and sub-cycles.
Immobility: every bulla was used for one only operation.
There was an interest in keeping it, putting it away for particular purposes
(microeconomy) and, possibly, also for general (macroeconomy) or judicial
purposes (responsibility). Immobility, that is the fact that every
monetary instrument is used for only one sale-purchase operation, helps
its filing away with an analytic-statistical or judicial end. It also avoids
the up to now uncontrolled speed of circulation of the monetary mass which
produces economic crises.
Apparently the system of tokens and bullae can also be considered
as a monetary and accounting system in the same way that we consider the
modern system of current accounts.
There are signs that the temples acted as banks, in the sense of doing
the accounting among cities and of keeping surpluses. Most of the Sumerian
tablets have been found in the Red Temple of Uruk.
With all these details from Mesopotamia, we may consider that there
can be a market without an «intrinsic value currency» and that,
in this case, the market uses instruments which allow to responsibilize,
improve and furnish documentary evidence of the exchanges.
This conclusion can also be obtained from the daily observation of any
western market, where intrinsic value currencies are non-existing, and
the market works with «papers» and with current accounts.
The great difference between that system and the present one is that
now we have lost the features which made it so permanent: today cheques
can bear the person's name or be to the bearer (anonymous); invoices are
usually personalized and describe the goods; but since the invoice can
be paid without a cheque -cash-or with a cheque to the bearer, the whole
system becomes sundered and confused.
It therefore appears that the only way to update this peculiar and useful
monetary instrument would be to put together the invoice and the personal
cheque, as one personalized, informative document, which could be filed
away, and that we could call «cheque-invoice».
In our reality everything is instrumentally ready for this: current
accounts, cheques to order, invoices and the technical means (paper and/or
electronics) for their compact, agile and efficient use. We must simply
become aware of the need to take this step and put the means for their
correct use in a much more complex society, a complexity which the present
monetary system cannot face efficiently.
From a visual point of view, we might draw a cheque-invoice as a document
which separates an area for general accounting (type, amount and
prices of articles; date and place) and an area under judicial protection
and accounting references of supplier and customer, with acceptance of
the operation and of its payments by customers).
What are the advantages of a currency of the «cheque-invoice»
type? Is it only the taste for recovering an ancient technique or custom?
If it was lost, doesn't that mean that it could no longer fulfill a good
Before answering these questions in the following chapters, we will
only mention a curiosity.
The Bible says that the lost paradise -Eden- was located between two
rivers (in Mesopotamia?) How must human life have been in this place and
in those ancient times, that myth has marked this place with the attribute
of yearning? The Jews who reported the myth of paradise and of the original
sin received through the oral tradition some special thing. Could this
«thing» have happened 10,000 years before, in pre-agricultural
communities? or was it relatively near -some millennium as a maximum? and
in any case, what do we know of the pre-historic Eden?
The author places us in this area during the transformations conveyed
by an accounting system. But all of a sudden, after relating it to the
Sumerian tablets, she stops. She has finished her job. But she offers an
unsuspected clue to explain what happened afterwards, when «History»
Officially history starts with writing. But it also starts with the
appearance of the intrinsic value currency -gold, silver, bronze-, of imperialisms,
of wars organized among cities and States, of general corruption... It
starts, in the Semitic tradition, with the knowledge of Good and Evil,
the loss of paradise and the mark of the original sin peculiar to historic
man. Of the sin which originated history...
Schmandt-Besserat (1978), «The earliest precursor of writing»,
Scientific American, Vol 238, N. 6, June 1978.
A. Schumpeter (1954), «History of Economic Analisys», Oxford
University Press. New York, 1963, p. 64.