Three-Dimensional Tokens: The Origin of Writing, Numbers and Board Games

Some of the earliest usages of symbols and abstract things in the history of the human race (besides cave paintings) has to do with tokens.  And by this, I mean, small items like pebbles, or other small objects that were symbolically or religiously employed.  From the earliest times, tokens served for divination purposes on boards, which evolved into board games.   Rodney P. Carlisle, PhD, is Professor Emeritus at Rutgers University.  He writes:
Archaeological findings have shown that the early Mesopotamian cultures, and later the Assyrians and Babylonians, knew a variety of board games, whose structure and rules may have had religious content and most probably had their origins in divination practices (such as rolling the bones of animals to predict the future) . . . The so-called Royal Game of Ur, which the archaeologist Leonard Wolley found in a royal tomb in the Sumerian city of Ur, is probably an ancestor of the various board games known to the Assyrians, who used board games with 12 or 20 squares and a set of dice . . . (Encyclopedia of Play in Today's Society, Volume 1, By Rodney P. Carlisle, p. 40)
St John Simpson is an archaeologist and museum curator at the British Museum, Department of the Middle East.
In view of these Neolithic developments--the antecedents of many features typical of later Near Easturn cultures and civilisation--it is appropriate that this period has now produced what appear to be the earliest archaeological data for board games.  This evidence consists of twelve possible gaming boards and a number of small objects that may be identified as gaming pieces . . . 
'Gaming boards' have been excavated at five Neolitic sites in the Levant and south-western Iran.  (Ancient Board Games in Perspective, "Homo Ludens: The Earliest Board Games in the Near East," p. 5).
And then, he describes some of the details, and shows drawings of some of these game boards:

The small physical size and shallow depth of the holes on these Neolithic boards suggest that a relatively limited number of small gaming pieces was used . . . 
Judging from comparison with recent mancala sets from Africa and the Middle East, it is likely that use was made of ad hoc gaming pieces, such as tiny pebbles, seeds or small animal droppings . . . 
Further possible evidence for Neolithic board games has been identified elsewhere on the basis of small objects interpreted as gaming pieces.  In 1968, a cache of 22 flat-based, fine white limestone 'pawns', each about 3.5 cm high, was discovered during excavations at the Cayonu Tepesi in south-eastern Turkey.  Fully carved and polished smooth, these objects have been interpreted as gaming pieces . . . Their flat bases suggest that they were intended to stand upright.  If this identification is correct, they suggest the use of a flat-surfaced board rather than a mancala-type game. 
Clay spheres, cones and tetrahedra are regular finds at other Neolithic sites in the Near East.  Their intended function is unknown, but popular suggestions include gaming pieces or counters . . . (ibid., pp. 7-8)
So, some of the first "tokens" were just whatever small items people could grab around them, and yet others later were actually manufactured to be used specifically as tokens in the games, but there seems to be clear evidence that their origin is indeed in divination practices, as noted by Dr. Rodney Carlisle in the quote above.  As you can see below, this is a picture of a game board fashioned after the form of a sheep liver, which the ancients, especially in Mesopotamia, used for divination:

Below is a picture of a map of a sheep liver with notations in the Etruscan language, and the map is sectioned off in such a way as to be reminiscent of game boards that have positions on the board sectioned off:

Eddie Duggan is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Arts and Humanities at the University Campus Suffolk (UCS).  In a paper that Duggan presents for download on, he writes:

Becker goes on to discuss the use of the game [i.e. the royal game of Ur] for divination:
The enigmatic patterns on some boards might represent or commemorate a specific divination boards are marked out on clay models of sheeps’ livers, which were used in divination.  She concludes the elaborate boards from Ur may have been used for divination rather than for playing a race game. (Ancient Board Games 1. The Royal Game of Ur and Senet,
Also, he notes also, that there was a clay tablet, dating from 177BC, "excavated in 1880, [which] lay unrecognised in the B[ritish] M[useum] collection until it was the subject of a 1956 journal article, suggesting that its markings were concerned with fortune telling."

As for the origin of writing and abstract numbers, during most of the 20th Century, the pictographic theory dominated.  It is the idea that writing started out with pictographic systems, where messages and ideas were conveyed only in pictures, and that later, this eventually evolved into the other systems we are familiar with today.  There is some truth to this, but the situation is more complex.

In the last decades of the 20th Century, thanks to the efforts of a very influential archaeologist named Denise Schmandt-Besserat at the University of Texas at Austin, evidence began to present itself that the direct antecedents of the Sumerian system of writing and numbers were actually three-dimensional tokens made of clay and other materials, mentioned above by Dr. St. John Simpson.  But because of evidence that she talks about in the quotation below, Dr. Schmandt-Besserat shows how these same geometrically-shaped tokens above were clearly also used as representations of goods and products or commodities from the economy of Mesopotamia, to keep track of these types of things, and to be able to count them.  And some of them are three-dimensional versions of symbols that appear later as two-dimensional Sumerian pictographs!  Dr. Schmandt-Besserat states that:
the tokens I studied are unique in providing evidence for the development of cognitive skills between 7500-3000 BC. The objects, made of clay, modeled into many shapes such as miniature cones, spheres, cylinders, disks and tetrahedrons, were counters . . . They were tools of the mind, and as such, give us some insight on human cognition. (Tokens and Writing: the Cognitive Development)
Here are some of the pictures of these tokens:

Some of them were complex (meaning with designs) as in the second picture above, while others were plain, as in the top picture.  And these stood for various things.  For example, the round circle with the cross going through it stood for a sheep.  She goes on to comment that:

the number of token shapes, which was limited to about 12 around 7500 BC, increased to some 350 around 3500 BC, when urban workshops started contributing to the redistribution economy. Some of the new tokens stood for raw materials such as wool and metal while others represented finished products, among them textiles, garments, jewelry, bread, beer and honey . . . These so-called “complex” tokens sometimes assumed the shapes of the items they symbolized such as garments, miniature vessels, tools and furniture . . .
By 3300 BC, tokens were still the only accounting device to manage the redistribution economy that was now administered at the temple by priestly rulers . . . The tokens . . . were placed in hollow clay balls and, in order to show the content of the envelopes, the accountants created markings by impressing the tokens on the wet clay surface before enclosing them . . . The cones and spheres symbolizing the measures of grain became wedge-shaped and circular impressed signs . . . Within a century, about 3200 BC, the envelopes filled with counters and their corresponding signs were replaced by solid clay tablets which continued the system of signs impressed with tokens. By innovating a new way of keeping records of goods with signs, the envelopes created the bridge between tokens and writing.
. . . [A]bout 3000 BC, the state bureaucracy required that the names of the recipients or donors of the goods be entered on the tablets. And to record the personal name of these individuals, new signs were created that stood for sounds – phonograms. The phonograms were sketches of things easy to draw that stood for the sound of the word they evoked. The syllables or words composing an individual’s name were written like a rebus . . . 
During four millennia and a half, from 7500 to 3000 BC, tokens and writing constituted the back-bone of the Near Eastern redistribution economy . . . The difference between the systems was cognitive, namely the degree of abstraction used to manipulate data . . .
The major cognitive significance of the tokens was fostering abstraction. The fundamental principle of the token system was the substitution of a small clay counter for each unit of goods to be counted. As a result, merchandise could easily be counted and accounted for because the tokens abstracted goods from reality . . .
The tokens were tangible but the signs of writing were intangible. They abstracted the tokens that abstracted goods. The awkward piles of three dimensional tokens could disappear . . . The tokens were used in one-to-one correspondence but writing abstracted numbers.  For the first time, signs expressing numerals abstracted the concept of number from that of the item counted. (Tokens and Writing: the Cognitive Development)

In another source, the same writer says:
The key to cracking the code of the tokens is provided by the Sumerian script which derived from them. It seems that plain and complex tokens referred to different types of goods: the first stood for products of the country, whereas the second represented goods manufactured in urban temple centers . . . 
Plain tokens were stored in globular hollow clay envelopes, while complex tokens were strung together on a tie held by a solid bulla. This, in turn, had major consequences for the origins of Sumerian script. The plain tokens were replaced by impressed markings, but the complex counters gave rise to incised pictographs . . . The impressed signs evolved to express the quantities of items counted, whereas the incised pictographs indicated the nature of the items counted . . . Plain tokens and impressed signs brought about the use of abstract numerals, whereas the complex tokens and . . . incised pictographs slowly evolved to the acquisition of phonetic values. (Two Precursors of Writing: Plain and Complex Tokens)
As you can see, from the very earliest times, over thousands of years, in the minds of the ancients, there was a deliberate, cognitive association between these three-dimensional tokens as symbols, and the drawings that represented the tokens them that eventually evolved into writing was continuous and persistent, especially among the Sumerians and the other Mesopotamians that inherited their writing system.

So, these divination practices eventually developed into board games, and the tokens used in the games became the game pieces or pawns used as we use them in our board games today.  The following is a picture of the Royal game of Ur.

Another important authority on this subject, Alicia Meza, a professor in the Anthropology Department of Metropolitan College of New York, writes:
Although the evidence for the development of a counting system in Egypt is very scarce, there is some, indicating that such a system was in use in Predynastic Egypt during the fourth millennium BCE.  For instance, Denise Schmandt-Besserat has indicated that some counters were displayed at the Cairo Museum (Johnson, personal communication) and I have observed similar objects on display at the Cairo Museum in Egypt and at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.  These artifacts were uncovered by Petrie in Tarkhan and were obtained in exchange with the British Museum in London . . . This is a possible explanation for the presence of the counters in the same context as the gaming pieces; perhaps this was the real use of these objects. 
Since Mesopotamian tokens were associated with agriculture and with the storage of grain, it is not surprising that the archaeological context was in the temple deposits.  Tokens were used for accounting and they were part of the re-distributive economy of the temples.  The same type of economic system was in use in Ancient Egypt . . .
A correlation made between pot-marks and graffiti and marks in tokens show that, despite the difference in languages, Ancient Egyptian and Cuneiform, some understanding was being made in order to trade.  The notion of pot-marks developed into hieroglyphs was advanced already years ago by Emery.  Mesopotamian seals, which developed out of the token system, also developed into scarabs used as seals in Egypt, according to Gibson (1987).  Van den Brink studied the Thinite pot-marks and indicated that at this time, there was already a grammatical system in progress using this rudimentary system of writing.  Therefore, [it] is not casual that some of the Mesopotamian marks used on tokens were also found in Egyptian hieroglyphs, such as the "niwt" sign for "town" and the "mw" used to designate "water" or "liquid." (Ancient Egypt Before Writing: From Markings to Hieroglyphs, By Alicia Meza, pp. 63-63)
The point is, Egypt also inherited the use of these tokens, especially in their game boards and in their seals that took the form of scarabs.  And the association that the tokens had with writing and written characters ran deep, especially in the scarabs.  So it is not surprising that games that employed tokens then would be associated with written language, because of the extremely ancient connections between the tokens and the written word, and that the Egyptians owe these ancient associations to the Mesopotamians.

In Egypt in particular, it was mentioned by Meza that the scarabs (shown above) were developed from the Mesopotamian seals that developed from the token system.  They were very popular amulets.  Later on, the cartouche (the oval frame used for enclosing name-titles) developed from the oval of the belly of the scarabs, although cartouches have been represented as an oval or coil of rope as well.  Here are some other Egyptian Amulets along with the scarab, that all seem to have association with the tokens:

Greco-Roman Amulets/Talismans

Egyptian sects in the Greco-Roman period, such as the Basilidians of Alexandria, came up with a type of amulet made in the oval form of a scarab.  Sometimes these were made of basalt, and some scholars call them "Abraxoids," or Abrasax-stones, because frequently, the gnostic god Abraxas or Iao was carved on the stones.  Above are some images of Iao/Abraxas amulets from the Greco-Roman time period.  The traditions of the Basilidians seems to have been related to the Greek Magical papyri tradition, in which the name Abrasax or Abraxas is also found, but the Greek Magical papyri go back to the second century BC.

In summary, the evidence demonstrates that all writing, game tokens and amulets all stem from the tradition of the three-dimensional Mesopotamian tokens which were originally produced to represent items in their economy, and how to count those items.  It is interesting as well that they are somewhat reminiscent of lingams from India that are representative of the god Shiva.