Before Writing: v. 1

Before Writing: v. 1 : From Counting to Cuneiform

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Description

Before Writing gives a new perspective on the evolution of communication. It points out that when writing began in Mesopotamia it was not, as previously thought, a sudden and spontaneous invention. Instead, it was the outgrowth of many thousands of years' worth of experience at manipulating symbols. In Volume I: From Counting to Cuneiform, Denise Schmandt-Besserat describes how in about 8000 B.C., coinciding with the rise of agriculture, a system of counters, or tokens, appeared in the Near East. These tokens-small, geometrically shaped objects made of clay-represented various units of goods and were used to count and account for them. The token system was a breakthrough in data processing and communication that ultimately led to the invention of writing about 3100 B.C. Through a study of archaeological and epigraphic evidence, Schmandt-Besserat traces how the Sumerian cuneiform script, the first writing system, emerged from a counting device. In Volume II: A Catalog of Near Eastern Tokens, Schmandt-Besserat presents the primary data on which she bases her theories. These data consist of several thousand tokens, catalogued by country, archaeological site, and token types and subtypes. The information also includes the chronology, stratigraphy, museum ownership, accession or field number, references to previous publications, material, and size of the artifacts. Line drawings and photographs illustrate the various token types.

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Product details

  • Hardback | 283 pages
  • 224 x 284 x 32mm | 1,279.98g
  • University of Texas Press
  • Austin, TX, United States
  • English
  • New.
  • 175 b&w photos, 43 line drawings
  • 0292707835
  • 9780292707832

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Review quote

"...possibly the single most important contribution published in recent years concerned with the antecedents to writing." Libraries and Culture "Schmandt-Besserat's discovery and its ramifications ... are crucial to understanding the development of civilization... This is a thought-provoking book, beautifully produced, and what it tells us is of great importance." Times Literary Supplement "What shines here is the human mind, spinning a tight web of inference from abundant evidence." Scientific American

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Back cover copy

Before Writing gives a new perspective on the evolution of communication. It points out that when writing began in Mesopotamia it was not, as previously thought, a sudden and spontaneous invention. Instead, it was the outgrowth of many thousands of years' worth of experience at manipulating symbols. Denise Schmandt-Besserat presents a system of counters (tokens) that appeared in the Near East following the invention of agriculture (about 8000 B.C.) as the immediate precursor of Sumerian writing. Tokens were small objects modeled in clay in various geometric forms used for counting and accounting for goods. They remained in use during 5,000 years with little change, except at the rise of cities, when the types multiplied. The tokens represented a breakthrough in communication. They constituted the first code, the first system of signs for communication. They made it possible to deal concurrently with multiple kinds of data, thus allowing the processing of a volume and complexity of information never reached previously. Tokens functioned as an extension of the human brain to collect, manipulate, store, and retrieve data. In turn, processing an increasing volume of data brought people to think in greater abstraction. Before Writing discusses how the tokens reflect an archaic way of "concrete counting" that paved the way to abstract counting. The evolution of the token system was also tied to the development of political power, since accounting was key to the control of real goods. Before Writing documents how numeracy was the privilege of an elite and shows how the more complex the token system became the more power it wielded. Written in an engaging and lively style, Before Writing, Volume I: From Counting to Cuneiform has significance far beyond a single field. It will be of interest to scholars and general readers interested in the origin of civilization, communication, and mathematics. A companion volume, Before Writing, Volume II: A Catalog of Near Eastern Tokens, is also available and contains the primary data on which Schmandt-Besserat bases her theories.

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