The Origins of Accounting

Objective Data:

Let us switch back to more “objective” data before leaving this sumptuous discussion.
Denise Schmandt-Besserat, in From Counting to Cuneiform [*], documents her extensive research into the concrete, clay “counters” that preceded the use of abstract numbers.

The development of city-states introduced record keeping.
Tokens had come into common use: small clay counters of many shapes, such as cones, spheres, disks, and cylinders, were found to represent specific kinds of goods.  The clay counters served for “counting,” (visually, at a glance) even before abstract numbers evolved–and indicated ownership of specific goods.  For instance, in 8000 B.C.  (Her book shows actual pictures of 8000 specimens from 116 sites)
Jars of oil signified by ovoids
Small measures of grain by cones
Large measures of grain with spheres
These measures were first used in agriculture, then for urban “manufactured” products.  Dating them shows their emergence  coincided with rank leadership [emphasis mine] as flourishing states were formed.  A particular counter was needed to account for each type of goods.  In that pre-history of our commerce, the small clay “counter” shapes were placed inside envelopes (also made of clay) with rounded corners.  Later, symbols, representing the same shapes as the tokens inside the envelope, in the exact same quantity, were pressed into the surface of the clay envelopes–so one could comprehend the meaning through a glance at the exterior of the envelope, and not bother to count the individual counters inside.  They were used first in agriculture, then in craft products.

As towns and cities emerged,  the envelopes alone, without the tokens inside, but with their imprints of shapes on the exterior, began to be stored in archives.

Oppenheim found a hollow tablet that included
Counter symbols representing small cattle,
21 ewes that lamb
6 female lambs
8 full-grown male sheep
4 male lambs
6 she-goats that kid
1 he-goat
3 female kids
This accounting was confirmed as:
The seal of Ziqarru, the shepherd.  (Nuzi, Iraq)

Schmandt-Bessarat quotes Georges Charbonnier [**] in a note:  “And when we consider the first uses to which writing was put, it would seem quite clear that it was connected first and foremost with power: it was used for inventories, catalogs, censuses, laws and instructions; in all instances, whether the aim was to keep a check on material possessions or on human beings, it is evidence of the power exercised by some men over other men and over worldly possessions.” [emphasis, mwf.]

That is to say, the fascination and identification of Self and product is very, very primitive, and very nicely documented.

[*]   U. Texas Press, 1992, pp 6-8

[**]    Conversations with Claude Levi-Strauss,  London, Cape Editions, 1973, p 30


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