Some Ancient Assyrians Ignored the Advent of Writing for Thousands of Years

It took thousands of years for Assyrians to finally give up primitive record-keeping methods

Clay tokens that Assyrians used for a simple bookkeeping system. Photo: Ziyaret Tepe Archaeological Project

These days, not too many people use or even own typewriters. Those clunky machines have almost entirely been replaced by a smoother model: the modern computer. Imagine, however, that thousands of years from now people were still clinging to their typewriters, ignoring all the technological advances that developed along the way. It seems illogical, but this is pretty much what ancient Assyrians did, according to new research

Archaeologists digging in Ziyaret Tepe in Turkey recently uncovered a mess of clay tokens made in various geometric shapes. Prior to the advent of writing around 3,000 BCE, the people living in the region that eventually formed the kingdom of the ancient Assyrians used the tokens as primitive record-keeping tools.

These particular tokens dug up in Ziyaret Tepe, though, aren't from 5000 years ago. Instead, the archeological site at Ziyaret Tepe is dated to a time thousands of years after writing was invented--to about 900 to 600 BCE. The archeologists, tellingly, found around 300 of the tokens alongside cuneiform tablets in the remains of an administrative building in the ancient city. In other words, the old tokens were being used in tandem with the modern writing system. 

Even thousands of years after cuniform writing first spread through Mesopotamia, not all Assyrians were literate. The researchers think that farmers still dealt in tokens, and then would pass those tokens on to officials who would transcribe them into writing.

Aside from that, say the researchers, sometimes an old way of doing things can work just as well as the new. "Complex writing didn’t stop the use of the abacus, just as the digital age hasn’t wiped out pencils and pens," said John MacGinnis, lead author of the study, in a release. "In a literate society there are multiple channels of recording information that can be complementary to each other."

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.