"The new evidence points to prehistoric tokens used in conjunction with cuneiform as an empire-wide 'admin' system stretching right across what is now Turkey, Syria and Iraq."
London, July 14 - Just as the digital age has not wiped out pencils and pens, a discovery of a large number of clay tokens in Turkey dating to the first millennium BC shows that clay tokens were used as records of trade long after writing was invented.
The tokens - small clay pieces in a range of simple shapes - are thought to have been used as a rudimentary book-keeping system in prehistoric times and it was assumed that the technology was used until the advent of writing.
However, recent excavations at Ziyaret Tepe - the site of the ancient city Tushan, a provincial capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire - have unearthed a large quantity of tokens dating to the first millennium BC -- 2,000 years after 'cuneiform' - the earliest form of writing - emerged on clay tablets.
In a literate society there are multiple channels of recording information that can be complementary to each other. In this case, both prehistoric clay tokens and cuneiform writing were used together, said John MacGinnis from University of Cambridge in Britain.
The types of tokens ranged from basic spheres, discs and triangles to tokens that resemble oxhide and bull heads.
While cuneiform writing was a more advanced accounting technology, by combining it with the flexibility of the tokens the ancient Assyrians created a record-keeping system of greater sophistication, the archaeologists noted.
The tokens provided a system of movable numbers that allowed for stock to be moved and accounts to be modified and updated without committing to writing, a system that does not require everyone involved to be literate, MacGinnis added.
The new evidence points to prehistoric tokens used in conjunction with cuneiform as an empire-wide 'admin' system stretching right across what is now Turkey, Syria and Iraq.
In its day, roughly 900 to 600 BC, the Assyrian empire was the largest the world had seen.