Tokens, Writing and (Ac)counting: A Conversation with Denise Schmandt-Besserat and Bill Maurer

  • Denise Wilding University of Warwick
  • Clare Rowan University of Warwick
  • Bill Maurer University of California, Irvine
  • Denise Schmandt-Besserat University of Texas, Austin
Keywords: token, writing, number, dactylonomy, cognition, material culture


In her foundational study of Neolithic clay tokens, the renowned archaeologist Denise Schmandt-Besserat identified that different token shapes represented different goods and were used in accounting and distribution. When these tokens came to be stored in sealed clay envelopes (likely representing a debt), each token was impressed on the outside of the envelope before being placed inside (thus allowing people to see quickly what was within). Three-dimensional objects were thus reduced to two-dimensional representations, the first form of writing (and contributing to cuneiform script). These clay envelopes in turn developed into pictographic tablets; here each token did not have to be impressed into the clay in a 'one, one, one' system, but instead quantity was indicated by a numerical symbol - abstract number was born. Much of Schmandt-Besserat’s work can be found online at Her book ‘How Writing Came About’ was listed by American Scientist magazine as one of the 100 books that shaped science in the 20th century, and she remains an active expert on all things ‘token’.


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Denise Schmandt-Besserat and Bill Maurer with a poster illustrating Roman finger-counting in the background. Photo by the authors.
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