You assumed the fine art of bookkeeping was a new thing, a child of the industrial revolution born of the consumer age? Not so. Humans have been keeping books for millennia, and according to a fascinating discovery from a recent archaeological dig in south east Turkey, they liked to keep things simple.

How we did bookkeeping 5000 years ago

The archaeologists found an ancient clay token-based recording system, nothing unusual. But the weird thing was this: it turns out the ancient token system was still being used in key administrative functions across the entire Assyrian empire thousands of years beyond the time scientists assumed it had disappeared.

The tokens are simple enough, little clay chunks in a variety of basic shapes, but the system must have been reliable enough to be used instead of writing. Experts theorise the different shaped tokens must represent units of different commodities, for example goats or corn. The deal was probably sealed by preserving the token in more clay, providing a permanent record.

We know the clay token bookkeeping system was extensively used up until about 3000 BC, at which point people suddenly started covering clay tablets with pictorial symbols and writing as we know it was born. As expected the tokens aren’t usually found anywhere near as frequently when digging sites dating post-3000BC. But the tokens dug up at Ziyaret Tepe date back to the first millennium BC, a whopping 2000 years after the earliest form of writing emerged.

A story with a contemporary message

The story also has a contemporary message. In any literate society, we enjoy all sorts of ways of achieving the same result. You might write a letter with a pen or pencil, for example, or choose to email your message, or use the phone. By the same token – pun intended! – ancient people probably hung onto old tech as well as developing new tech. Some things never change.

As the archaeologists involved say, “The tokens provided a system of moveable numbers that allowed for stock to be moved and accounts to be modified and updated without committing to writing; a system that doesn’t require everyone involved to be literate.”

No clay tokens… just accurate, timely, intelligent bookkeeping for your business!

We use our expertise plus the latest tech to carry out accurate, well-timed bookkeeping to keep your business working hard… and delight your accountant. If you’d like to hand it all over to a bookkeeping expert, let’s talk about how we can help.

(Thanks to for the story)