Thursday, October 27, 2011

Accounting for Civilization

The work of Denise Schmandt-Besserat demonstrates from empirical historical evidence that civilization began with accounting. The first writing began with records of promises and debts.

While not a circulating medium of indirect barter, the early artifacts of accounting nonetheless bear the essential elements of money, showing value and naming the guarantor. Moreover, in a long foreshadowing to the modern era, these earliest tokens functioned more like drafts and promissory notes. When the debt was paid, the recording instrument was discarded. Thus, archeologists found them in refuse pits and middens.

That was one reason that these intriguing evidences of commerce were overlooked. Archeologists brought with them an implicit mindset at once modern (of course), but also, more primitive than that of Jarmo c. 8000 BC: they thought that the media of commerce would be treated like gold treasure and silver coins.

These little clay objects were given scant attention by museums. When art history professor Denise Schmandt-Besserat queried and visited museums for their oldest ceramics, she was surprised to be shown these little bullets, pyramids, cones, and disks. Most were uncatalogued. After a few years of puzzling over them, the truth dawned on her: these were tokens. And they – not pictographs – were the true origin of writing.
Pictographs did, indeed, antedate cuneiform. However, the pictographs themselves show much epistemic development, representing abstractions such as “food” rather than only concretes such as “bread.” As many pictographs mimicked tokens, it was clear that the clay promises came first. The clay tokens show a long development of their own, from simple representations such as “sheep” and “wheat” to differentiations of kind and measure, as well as to manufactured goods such as beer and cloth.

She published her findings first in a large two-volume corpus, Before Writing (University of Texas Press, 1992). The core of that narrative and the essential illustrations were condensed into a popular paperback, How Writing Came About (University of Texas Press, 1996). Focusing even more narrowly on the power of these tokens to enable the creation of civilization, she produced a children’s book, The History of Counting (Morrow Jr., 1999).

Before these tokens, there were no large numbers such as 4, 5, 6, and 7. Today, we accept decimal tallying on our ten digits as “natural” but it surely was not. The first representations of “five” were "three passed one“ and "three one one.” Our modern languages still hint of that earlier time, as in French three is big (trois/tres) or in Hungarian big follows three (nagy/negy). Slavic languages still carry the old Indo-European singular-dual-plural grammar for 1-2-many. (Other languages have other divisions; none at root speaks distinctly of four, five, and six.)

Numeracy is not natural and was invented for commerce and from that came literacy.  What was counted was farm goods owed, i.e., debts – economic, financial, fiduciary, commercial, exchanges.

The barrier to understanding this is easy to show. The broad mainstream of intellectuals across all academic disciplines holds business in low regard. That is obvious by inspection. In the festschrift The Philosophy of Karl Popper (Open Court, 1974), Nobel laureate neurologist Sir John Carew Eccles outlined Popper’s theory of objective knowledge. We have sensora; and we have words for our perceptions. A third world also exists, the writings about our perceptions. This was before Schmandt-Besserat’s discoveries, of course, but resting on the earlier work of Sir Leonard Wooley, Eccles wrote:
“There is undoubtedly a feeling of bathos in the uses to which this marvellous discovery was put initially. Mostly it was used for business documents, contracts, inventories, deeds of sale! But also it was used for Royal inscriptions and at a later stage for recording religious texts.”
In this view only its use by the king (note the capital letter) and priests could elevate writing from the common clay of commerce.

But writing supersedes even this. In truth, as Denise Schmandt-Besserat shows most recently in When Writing Met Art (University of Texas Press, 2007), pre-literate art was illiterate. The ordered narratives which we accept as normal in art – Da Vinci’s The Last Supper, The Raft of the Medusa by GĂ©ricault, or Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks – had their origins in the nicely ordered spatial vocabulary of cuneiform inventories and Sumerian contracts.

Money is Speech

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