Accounting and Control in the Persepolis Fortification Tablets

By Vollmers, Gloria L. | Accounting Historians Journal, December 2009 | Go to article overview

Accounting and Control in the Persepolis Fortification Tablets

Vollmers, Gloria L., Accounting Historians Journal

Abstract: The bookkeeping records collected and retained by accountants of the Persian Empire centered at Persepolis from 509-494 B.C. are examined in this paper. A powerful bureaucracy exercised control over foodstuffs to supply an immense number of royal and state personnel and workers with their ration needs. A sophisticated accounting system facilitated this control, making visible not only the quantities of food assets distributed but also the locations and individuals responsible for these distributions.


One of the great pleasures of exploring documents of the ancient world for the accounting historian is discovering how very important accounting/bookkeeping has always been. While it may be extreme to assert, as have some, that the necessity of counting and recording led to writing, it is fair to say that accounting (bookkeeping) preceded writing [Schmandt-Besserat, 1992; Mattessich, 1994, 1998]. For millennia, people and institutions have tracked their possessions for the purpose of protecting, maintaining, and expanding them if possible. Those with many possessions had to work harder to track them when forced to transfer maintenance of the property to others. This paper introduces the bookkeeping of the administration of the ancient Achaemenid Persian Empire which flourished between 550 and 330 B.C. through the archive of the Persepolis Fortification Tablets. The archive is large, and unlike others of substantial size, is completely translated [Hilprecht and Clay, 1898; Clay, 1906]. This allows scholars not conversant with ancient languages to study the tablets from their own perspective of interest.

The fallibility of memory is well-known, and it is unlikely that this weakness is a discovery of the modern era [Loftus, 2003]. While researchers study how we recreate and distort memory, the fact of the malleability and unreliability of memory must have been known throughout history. In addition to the limitations of memory, there is the fear of deliberate fraud. Recordkeeping removes the anxiety of memory failure by storing memories and ameliorates problems of fraud by forcing parties to agree to a transaction or an audit and to record it. Basu et al. [2009, p. 1,009] demonstrated experimentally a "link between recordkeeping and reciprocal exchange." They posited that recordkeeping aided memory, helped establish reputations, lessened risk, coordinated activities, and thereby created the space for complex and expansive transactions and systems. Large bureaucracies and businesses are only possible in the presence of recordkeeping. Equally so, recordkeeping does not exist simply because it is possible; it exists because it must. Records store memories, facilitate exchange, allow barter economies to flourish, bestow and maintain legal rights to property, monitor behavior, and may be used for planning and control.

The Achaemenid bureaucracy used a sophisticated accounting system to control the collection and distribution of food commodities to work groups, animals, temples, and royal and noble households. The research question is to explore the accounting and bookkeeping technologies of this state archive. What system was in place? For what purposes was information generated? Is there enough evidence to state that our own accounting inheritance flowed to us through this period? The contribution of the paper lies in the best answers possible to the question of how an ancient people controlled their assets and minimized threats to those assets, including memory failure and theft.


Hundreds of thousands of individual written texts and fairly extensive archives of related texts have survived from the ancient world, particularly from the Middle East and Greece, from as early as 3000 and 2000 B.C. respectively. As early as 8000 B.C., there appeared clay tokens and clay envelopes to enclose them. These tokens, which offered a method of accounting for and protecting commodities before writing, form the focus of Schmandt-Besserat's [1992] research. …

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