Magazine article Financial History


Magazine article Financial History


Article excerpt

Our urge to account - to measure and record our wealth - is one of the oldest human impulses. We were accounting before we could use abstract numbers; we were accounting before we could write. In fact, it now appears that writing, one of the greatest human accomplishments, was invented by accountants. In 1969, the French archaeologist Denise Schmandt Besserat began a research project that would take her more than two decades to complete and yield some staggering results. For 25 years she visited museums in the Near East, Europe and North America, examining thousands of artifacts which lay buried in their storerooms. Among figurines, pots and mud bricks, she found fired clay tokens shaped as cones, spheres, ovoids and cylinders. Their purpose had eluded archaeologists and anthropologists for centuries.

As she grouped the tokens together, Schmandt-Besserat began to realize she had at her fingertips the remains of an ancient accounting system. The earliest tokens date back to around 7000 bc, when settled farming communities first appeared in Mesopotamia (now Iraq) and people began to keep track of their produce and exchanges. Schmandt-Besserat found that each shape represented a different thing: a cone was a small measure of grain, a sphere was a large measure of grain and a cylinder was an animal. This simple token accounting method was our first symbol system created solely for communicating; it was our first visual code and the first technology invented for storing memory.

When cities emerged in around 3500 to 3100 bc, the tokens suddenly changed and a complex accounting system emerged. Now there were 300 token shapes to record a wide range of goods, including bread, honey, textiles and metal; and the proto-accountants began to store their tokens in hollow clay balls, or "envelopes," imprinted with the signature seals of the parties involved in the exchange. According to accounting historian Richard Mattessich, the invention of clay tokens and envelopes - the sealed transfer of tokens between trade partners - was the origin of our modern accounting system.

Interpreting Mesopotamian accounting in today's terms, Mattessich suggested that the total sum of tokens inside a clay envelope recorded an individual's assets, and therefore that putting a token into an envelope increased the owner's assets (or wealth) and was, by definition, the equivalent of a debit entry. Taking a token out of an envelope reduced the owner's assets and was thus the same as a credit entry.

The ancient accountants then began to press the tokens into the wet clay of the envelope, recording on its surface the number and sort of tokens it contained - and in the process took the first steps towards inventing writing. But the most significant advance occurred in around 3300 bc, when the record-keepers transformed the tokenand sealed-envelope system into something utterly new: they flattened out the clay balls and pressed the tokens into their flat surface - thus creating the world's first clay tablets.

The last step in the invention of writing was taken when the ancient traders realized they could simply draw the tokens' shapes on the tablets with a stylus, thus bypassing the tokens altogether; in other words, the 3-d tokens could be represented by 2-d symbols. And so spheres became circles, cones became triangles, ovoids became ovals and writing was invented. Writing remained the exclusive domain of account keepers until about 2000 bc, when it began to be used in funerary rituals to commemorate the dead, and was subsequently taken up by a range of wordmongers, including law-makers, priests, historians and storytellers.

Apart from its role in the invention of writing, accounting is significant for human civilization because it affects the way we see the world and shapes our beliefs. To take this early example, the invention of token accounting in Mesopotamia was important not only because it facilitated economic exchanges and generated writing, but, according to Mattessich, "because it encouraged people to see the world around them in terms of quantifiable outcomes. …

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