Clay, counterfeiters,
and digital banking

Globular envelope with a cluster of accountancy tokens, from Susa. Louvre Museum (Wikipedia)

Globular envelope with a cluster of accountancy tokens, from Susa. Louvre Museum (Wikipedia)

Languages spoken in commerce-less civilizations typically have words for the numbers one through five—something to do with the fact that most of us carry around five fingers on each hand—but have no word for six or anything beyond. Instead, they make do with a catch-all word that roughly translates to “a whole bunch.”

Societies engaged in the simplest of trade needed little more. The invention of words for numbers greater than five became needful only when keeping track of trade required more than the fingers of one hand. With the unreliability of memory and the reality of human perfidy, an accurate means of recording numbers soon followed.

Here, we owe fourth century BCE Mesopotamia a debt of gratitude. It was about that time that the Mesopotamian sheep trade really took off. To keep track of payment, traders devised a small clay token, marked with a plus sign, which everyone agreed represented the value of one sheep.

Do not underestimate the importance of that plus sign. As far as historians have been able to trace, this marked the world’s first appearance of written language. The earliest writing owes its start not to artistes seeking expression, but to merchants seeking top dollar for livestock.*

One token per sheep was fine for ma-and-pa sheep merchants, but hauling around oodles of clay tokens proved impractical for big box sheep merchants. This led to the development of denominations: They devised a token for ten sheep, another for twenty, and so forth.

As fast as enterprising Mesopotamians came up with tokens, other enterprising Mesopotamians came up with ways to counterfeit them. Since security chips, holographic images, and polyester threads printed with minute letters were scarce 6,000 years ago, resourceful merchants developed other ways to foil counterfeiters. Some of them were quite ingenious. Wikipedia reports:

To ensure that nobody could alter the number and type of tokens, they invented a clay envelope shaped like a hollow ball into which the tokens on a string were placed, sealed, and baked. If anybody disputed the number, they could break open the clay envelope and do a recount.

I found this next part of particular interest:

To avoid unnecessary damage to the record, they pressed archaic number signs and witness seals on the outside of the envelope before it was baked, each sign similar in shape to the tokens they represented.

Hmm. They agreed upon the value of a token that was marked with a number; then they locked the tokens out of view and relied on authenticated markings to represent their sum total value. At least symbolically, that’s what we do today: We agree upon the value of a unit (dollar, yen, euro, what-have-you), lock it out of view, and represent the sum total of units by means of authenticated markings—except we use a screen instead of a clay ball.

Page from Precolumbian Mayan Dresden Codex (Wikipeida)

Page from Precolumbian Mayan Dresden Codex (Wikipeida)

Ironically, the very system of trade that required the invention of numbers greater than five has gone full circle. The “tokens” we use today have even allowed us to dispense with the numbers two through five. We manage quite well using only ones and zeroes.


*Though writing first arose in Mesopotamia as far as historians know, writing arose independently in other locales. Mesoamericans invented writing around the first millennium BCE, and not for commerce, but for literary purposes. Chinese characters most likely arose independently as well. The earliest verified evidence of Chinese writing dates to the late Shang dynasty toward the end of the second century BCE. Literacy in China today requires knowing from 3,000 to 4,000 characters. If you didn’t grow up learning them, good luck with that. That may have interesting implications as increasingly significant numbers of Chinese adopt digital payments systems.

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