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Title: The role and function of 'tokens' and sealing practices in the Neolithic of the Near East : the question of early recording systems, symbolic storage, precursors to writing, gaming, or monitoring devices in the world's first villages
Author: Bennison-Chapman, Lucy
ISNI:       0000 0004 6057 8218
Awarding Body: University of Liverpool
Current Institution: University of Liverpool
Date of Award: 2014
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The Neolithic in the Near East was a crucial transitional period, evidencing the appearance of the world’s first permanent farming villages, alongside significant changes in social structure, subsistence and artistic expression. This thesis focuses on an enigmatic artefact type; small, geometric clay objects, or “tokens”. “Tokens” appear in the 10th millennium BC, and by the late Neolithic they are present in abundance at large numbers of sites across the region, yet absent at others. The timing of the appearance of “tokens” is significant; however, until recently, the potential importance of these objects was often unrecognised. Schmandt-Besserat’s research (1992a, 1992b, 1996) represents the only comprehensive study on the subject. She claims “tokens” are mnemonic recording devices, appearing to meet the administrative needs of the first sedentary farming communities, eventually developing into the world’s earliest known written script. Though her interpretation is widely accepted, her evidence hails entirely from sites distant in space and time from where these objects initially appeared, and there is no solid evidence supporting the notion that Neolithic “tokens” formed a unified agricultural administrative framework. This thesis considers the classification, form and function of “tokens”, as well as their temporal and spatial distribution across sites, their find contexts and the relationship between them, sealings and stamp seals. It re-evaluates the validity of Schmandt-Besserat’s theory alongside alternative interpretations, including children’s toys, gaming pieces, administrative counting aids, and more complex accounting tools. Almost 3,000 “tokens” from three well documented case-study sites (Boncuklu Höyük, Çatalhöyük, Tell Sabi Abyad) and twenty less complete assemblages were studied in detail, recording their shape, dimensions, manufacture, use-wear, the find contexts, associated objects and the characteristics of the sites where they are found. This was complimented by a broader level survey charting the presence, number or absence of “tokens” at fifty-six additional sites. This study has shown that there is no correlation between “token” distribution according to region, time period, site size, or on-site activities. The range of shapes, degree of standardization and assemblage composition varies greatly from site to site, with little regional, temporal or other correlation. Variability is also evidenced in the nature of sites yielding “tokens”, and the immediate contexts in which they are found (e.g. refuse contexts, domestic contexts, administrative contexts, possible ritual contexts). Their generally large numbers when present, variability of deposition, high proportion found in disposal contexts, their simple shape and often crude appearance proves “tokens” were quickly and easily made, and disposed of as readily. All evidence supports the interpretation of “tokens” as multi-functional artefacts, fulfilling a variety of uses within and across settlements. Though sometimes used in accounting, they were not created to administer agricultural produce and were not part of a unified symbolic system. As objects they operated with fluidity of function and interpretation, with imbued value and meaning.
Supervisor: Not available Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available
Keywords: CC Archaeology