Memory Tools in Early Mesopotamia

By Costello, Sarah Kielt | Antiquity, September 2000 | Go to article overview

Memory Tools in Early Mesopotamia


Costello, Sarah Kielt, Antiquity


Turkey appears to have functioned as a type of `external symbolic storage'. This term is taken from Merlin Donald's recent work, and refers to the most recent transition in the development of human cognition -- the use of symbols to store information outside the brain.

It is useful, however, to recognize that symbols can function in very different ways, some having no human audience beyond the original symbol-maker, others being used to store or convey information, for later retrieval. D'Errico, recognizing this distinction, refers more specifically to `artificial memory systems', in which information is coded for later recovery.

A case-study from Mesopotamian prehistory offers an opportunity to investigate this type of external symbolic storage, artificial memory. At several sites from the Halaf period of roughly the 6th millennium BC, hundreds of chipped, round sherds (FIGURE 1) and similarly sized flat round stones (FIGURE 2) have been found. I propose that these functioned as artificial memory devices, and that the type of information they stored may be accessible to archaeologists.

[Figures 1-2 ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Two Halaf sites in southeastern Turkey, Fistikli Hoyuk and Kazane Hoyuk, have been investigated recently, under the direction of Susan Pollock and Reinhard Bernbeck. At each site, ceramic and stone disks, or `jetons', have been found. Chipped round sherds have appeared in site reports from other Halaf sites, as well, though their use is not identified. Some of the sherd-disks have smooth, ground edges, while on others the edges are still sharp from being chipped into round shapes. Almost all the jetons are unpierced. They range in size from approximately 2-13 cm.

It is proposed that these objects functioned as external storage devices on the basis of several factors. First, there is a tradition of external symbolic storage use in the Near East. Various types of information storage tools have been employed in the Near East, including tokens, stamp seals, cylinder seals, numerical tablets and writing. How do the jetons fit into this tradition? The normative, evolutionary view usually taken of these objects, in which the use of simple tokens and stamp seals is followed by more complex tokens and cylinder seals, clay envelopes, numbers and finally writing, belies the deviations; for example, periods in which some of these fell out of use, for as long as a thousand years. The Halaf period, in fact, is an example of such an exception. The many tokens and seal impressions from Tell Sabi Abyad in the preceding Neolithic phase, as well as the hundreds of seal impressions from the period which follows, only highlight the absence of seal impressions during the Halaf. …

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