Academic journal article The Accounting Historians Journal

The Oldest Writings, and Inventory Tags of Egypt

Academic journal article The Accounting Historians Journal

The Oldest Writings, and Inventory Tags of Egypt

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Gunter Dreyer's Umm El-Quaab I-Das pradynastische Konigsgrab U-j and seine fruhen Schriftzeugnisse (1998)

Abstract: Gunter Dreyer's Umm El-Quaab I-Das pradynastische Konigsgrab U-j and seine fruhen Schrifizeugnisse presents comprehensively the results of archaeological diggings in the tomb U-j. It also outlines Dreyer's claim to have discovered the origin of writing. The primary aspect of this review essay is to draw the attention of accounting historians to Dreyer's book and to the claim therein to have discovered the earliest known writing. Since this discovery is closely connected to an accounting function (though in a somewhat different way from that of the Sumerian proto-cuneiform writing), a review of Dreyer's book is well justified. Dreyer's claim is based on a series of small inventory tags (identifying in proto-hieroglyphics the provenance of various commodities) found in the tomb of King Scorpion I (c.3400 B.c. to 3200 B.C.).' Another aspect of this review is a discussion of the controversy surrounding Dreyer's claim and the counter-hypothesis of accounting archaeology, which sees in the token-envelop accounting of Mesopotamia the origin of writing.


The tomb U-j (supposedly of King Scorpion I, c.3400 B.c. to 3200 B.c.) was discovered in 1988 in the royal cemetery of Umm el-Quaab (the burial site of the predynastic kings of Egypt) near Abydos. The diggings and resulting studies apparently continued until 1994 or beyond. Dreyer's book [1998, in English translation: Umm El-Quaab I-The Predynastic Royal Tomb U-j and Its Early Writing-Evidence] is a typical archaeological work, reporting numerous and fascinating details - although mostly of interest to Egyptologists. Its content is comprehensive, including six chapters devoted to the Report of Diggings and Architecture, five chapters examining ceramics and seven focused on smaller items found. The book's literature references are highly specialized. Indeed, they seem to be cryptic to laypersons unfamiliar with the six volumes of the Lexikon der Agyptologie [Helck et al., 1975-1986] and other reference works of Egyptology.

However, the relevance of this esoteric book to accounting history can be justified for at least two reasons. First, the evidence that the excavated proto-hieroglyphics (claimed to be the earliest genuine writings) were inscribed on inventory tags, thus arising out of the need to convey some accounting information. Second, the fact that the competing source of early writing and its precursors - that emerged in Mesopotamia and the Fertile Crescent - also arose out of the need for accounting. The Mesopotamian token accounting and token-envelop accounting systems have previously been identified as the immediate ancestors of proto-cuneiform and cuneiform writing [see, Schmandt-Besserat, 1977, 1992; Nissen et. al, 1993]. Thus the question arises which writing system has chronological priority: the Mesopotamian pre-cuneiform system, manifested in token- and token-envelop accounting and the subsequent protocuneiforms, or the Egyptian proto-hieroglyphic system which precipitated on ancient inventory tags? This question becomes all the more important, as traditionally the emergence of cuneiforms was assumed to be about 100 years before that of hieroglyphics:

The earliest known writing dates to shortly before 3000 B.C. and is attributed to the Sumerians of Mesopotamia.... Because the earliest writing is logographic, it can be read only in vague terms, but the principle of phonographic transfer is apparent and was well on its way to become logo-syllabic. Egyptian hieroglyphic writing is known from about a hundred years later, and it is also the earliest authentication of the principle of phonetic transfer. [Bram et al., 1979, p. 322; italics added].

In his Introduction, Dreyer points out that the findings of the royal tomb U-j shed entirely new light on the particular predynastic period, called "Naqada III". …

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