Before Writing is a fascinating book on the evolution of communication in the Near East between 8000-3000 B.C. Much more than that, it is a book on accounting history itself. It argues that, writing was not, as previously thought, a sudden and spontaneous invention; the alphabet was not of divine origin as was believed until 1700s; nor did scripts start with picture writing as was put forward during the enlightenment period. Rather, writing emerged from manipulation of counting symbols.
Denise Schmandt-Besserat presents a unique hypothesis: Mesopottamian writing emerged from a counting device which existed at least two hundred years earlier than pictographics. She argues that tallies, tokens and pictographic tablets represent three distinct phases in the evolution of data processing [p. 166]. The emergence of tallies and plain and complex tokens reflects the needs of different societies and their specific lifestyles, economics and social organizations. The development of these societies and their economies and social needs influenced each phase of prehistoric counting and accounting devices or reckoning technology.
The first chapter of the book introduces us to previous theories and arguments about the evolution of writing as well as introducing its argument on the subject. The following chapters introduce the token system chronologically and geographically, tracing its evolution in prehistory. Two of these chapters distinguish between plain and complex tokens and depict their evolution with beautifully photographed illustrations.
The fourth and fifth chapters provide insight into the domestic and public uses of tokens, including their purpose and storage as related to the economic and social changes occurring in the particular society under examination. The analysis establishes that storage of tokens created a need for marking signs on clay envelopes, which was a new trend in communication and an immediate step preceding writing itself.
While Chapter Six introduces us to the routine documentation of the impressed tablets (classifying and making available knowledge as a procedure), the strengths of the book are to be found in the remaining chapters. Those chapters introduce us to the author's revolutionary findings and, in particular, the fascinating interpretation of her findings on accounting.
Chapter Seven presents the author's classification system of the tokens. In this chapter, the author shows that tokens were concept symbols and, as such, conveyed quantitative as well as qualitative information. There were various types of tokens each of which carried discrete meaning. For example, the cone represented a small measure of grain and the sphere represented a large measure of grain. On the other hand, the number of tokens represented quantitative information about the goods, like two spheres or three cones. However, they always represented economic data of some kind, whether agricultural or manufactured goods. Even the repertory of shapes was systematized. Always cones signified a particular measure of grain. …