Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Growth of Bureaucracy

The evolution of writing is something that has been debated for years, and while everyone can accept that its creation took place in Mesopotamia at the end of the fourth millennium B.C. there are conflicting ideas about how it began. The two theories are that writing evolved slowly over time or that it was invented quickly by a small number of individuals. Writing was originally intended for accounting purposes, and when looking at how accounts were tallied it becomes clear how writing could have evolved out of counting.

Writing was primarily used for bureaucratic functions at first, then gradually evolving into something that could be used to religious and historical writings. The first kind of record-keeping technology that was developed is a system of tokens. Tokens represented a quantity of goods that were hand molded out of clay or carved out of stone. They can be traced all the way back to the Neolithic period (around 8000 B.C.) and continue in use until around 3000 B.C. and were a part of a concrete numerical system.

The tokens were placed in clay envelopes called bullae that were approximately 5-7 centimeters in diameter and hollow in the center. One of the uses for bullae was that a certain amount of tokens could be placed inside and the bullae sealed. When sent along with an order of cloth or grain, the amount could be verified by breaking the bullae open and checking against the number of tokens. This gradually evolved into making impressions of tokens on the bullae’s surface, and then onto small tablets, thereby rendering the use of tokens unnecessary. This technology also brought about the use of seals in order to authenticate a tablet.

Stamp seals were the first form of seals developed and could identify the person, office or institution that the seal belonged to. They were typically carved out of stone or shell and were of one of two categories: naturalistic (hand-carved) or schematic (worked with drills). Interestingly enough, most seal impressions that have been found were of naturalistic type seals, while most of the seals themselves that have been found are of the schematic type. Also, the type of image on the seal can tell us something about who may have used the seal. Contest motifs are often associated with men, while images of two figures sitting and eating or drinking together are associated with women.

Protocuneiform writing is the precursor to cuneiform and is a mnemonic device, as opposed to a way of communicating speech. At its earliest stages, writing was only distantly similar to spoken language. The earliest examples of writing are from the final centuries of the fourth and beginning of the third millennium, and while the script clearly resembles later cuneiform, it is an earlier form. Most were found in rubbish piles, so there is no context for their usage, however, they are still very important in the study of cuneiform’s evolution. It is an ideographic script, where individual signs can stand for an idea, or combined for additional meanings. Using over 1,200 different signs, but rarely any syntax, many offer no clue as to the language involved.

To think that writing is something we use every day without even thinking, and being able to make others understand what we mean and convey our thoughts into a tangible form, it is crazy to think that someone had to invent it. Of course it makes sense that everything we use today was at some point nonexistent and that someone one day had to have the idea to put symbols to clay to represent the world around them, but learning about it places it into a different context. In the end, does it really matter that we don’t know if writing was a gradual invention, or a product of a small group of dedicated individuals in a short burst of creativity? All that is important is that we, as humans, have the ability to create and bring about new forms of technology and skills, and that we can never take that for granted.

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