Denise Schmandt-Besserat first
set foot in Iraq in 1971. She was a young Radcliffe Fellow researching
the origins of the human use of clay, and she spent her days at
the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad poring through boxes of ancient
artifacts. Now a professor at The University of Texas at Austin,
she joins scholars the world over in questioning the fate of the
irreplaceable antiquities housed at the museum, which was looted
Iraqi and American investigators may be months in assessing the
museum’s losses, but Schmandt-Besserat, who holds a joint
appointment in the College of Fine Arts and the Center for Middle
Eastern Studies, is sure that scholarship in the area of ancient
art will be permanently affected. Of particular concern for Schmandt-Besserat
is the disappearance of one of the most famous objects at the museum—the
Warka Vase. The vase was Schmandt-Besserat’s favorite, and
it was also at the center of her research.
The alabaster vase, carved in ancient Sumer more than 5,000 years
ago, is unique among antiquities. Its five interrelated lines of
image suggest a moment of change in human development, explains
Schmandt-Besserat, an internationally renowned scholar who is credited
with two major discoveries: the origins of writing and the origins
of abstract numbers.
“It is the first large narrative picture of its time,”
The vase depicts for the first time the relationship among the
divine, humans, animals, plants and water. Schmandt-Besserat views
this development as an indicator that writing—a relatively
new invention for our ancestors—and art were interacting,
advancing both forms of communication. While it would be thousands
of years before we had “War and Peace,” human beings
were discovering for the first time how to record a story.
Schmandt-Besserat’s proposed research into the interaction
and impact of art on writing and writing on art has won her a prestigious
fellowship to the Stanford Humanities Center for 2003-04. Like many
researchers across the world, she will have to carry on without
some of the essential antiquities that were held in Baghdad.
Schmandt-Besserat’s view of these antiquities stretches far
beyond their value as beloved, aesthetic objects. Hers is a researcher’s
view, and for the researcher, objects are data.
shown here in Iran in 1967, calls her travels in the Middle
East “the blessing of my life.”
“It is a body of evidence,” she says, “a library
of objects that gives the information needed to understand anything
of the art and creative evolution of mankind, of that step from
what is called barbarism to civilization. It is there you have the
data to understand how civilization came about. And civilization
is writing and abstract numbers. It is the specialization of crafts
and division of labor, the beginning of kingship and the beginning
The data were collected over centuries of careful excavation, and
Schmandt-Besserat fears that although the losses appear to be far
fewer than original projections, the potential for disorganization
of the materials will make it impossible for researchers to trust
the data as they once did. Researchers rely heavily on the precision
of the information they are studying: Where it was found, in what
stratographic layer and the proximity of other objects are critical
factors. And one of the gifts of working with antiquities is that
no matter how much they are studied, the material is never exhausted.
“Whenever there are new questions, you can go there and find
what you are looking for and eventually find answers,” Schmandt-Besserat
says. “That material is never finished giving answers because
people come with new ways of looking at it.”
Schmandt-Besserat’s own expertise at taking new views of
old material has been the foundation of her impressive career. She
is considered one of the world’s foremost scholars in ancient
civilization and has published everything from scholarly books to
children’s books inspired by her seven grandchildren. Her
book “How Writing Came About” was named in American
Scientist one of the “100 or so books that shaped a century
of science.’ The “Handbook to Life in Ancient Mesopotamia”
recently named her one of just 62 “Discoverers,” alongside
such estimable names as the Greek historian Herodotus, American
philologist A. Leo Oppenheim and Babylonian King Nabonidus, who
is considered the world’s first archaeologist.
Schmandt-Besserat says she came to this work the way that most
people come to things: “completely by chance.”
clay tokens, stored in round clay “envelopes,”
were the first visual means of keeping track of goods. When
people began impressing the tokens onto the outside of the
envelope, they invented writing.
While a Radcliffe Fellow in the late 1960s, she set out to study
the beginnings of the use of clay by humans. Clay has always been
in existence, but its human use corresponds closely with the beginnings
of farming. In her study, Schmandt-Besserat traveled from museum
to museum making a survey of clay objects. She found the expected
bricks, pots and figurines, but she also found a surprising abundance
of tiny clay objects shaped like cones or disks.
“I became quite puzzled because wherever I was going, they
were always next to the figurines, always boxes full of these types
of things,” she says. “So if they were everywhere, if
they were fired clay, then I knew they must be important.”
No one working in the field, however, knew what these objects,
termed “tokens,” were. Schmandt-Besserat decided to
The token trail led her through collections of ancient artifacts
in the west and the Middle East and all the way to Baghdad. And
following this trail brought her to the very beginning of when humans
learned to count and write. Those humble tokens provided the clues
to some of the greatest human inventions of all time.
What Schmandt-Besserat discovered is that around 7,500 B.C., early
farmers became concerned with keeping track of goods. This may have
been due to having to plan for a lean season, or it may have been
because they were required to make gifts to the gods, or, in current
terms, pay taxes. Either way, tokens were the first way of doing
Sumerian tablet shows the development from tokens and envelopes
The tokens were counters, Schmandt-Besserat found. They came in
a dozen shapes and each shape corresponded directly with a specific
item. A cone, for example, stood for a small measure of grain, while
a sphere stood for a large measure of grain and a cylinder stood
for an animal. It was a simple invention, but it was the first visual
code, the first symbol system ever created for the sole purpose
At first the tokens held a one-to-one correspondence with the objects
they represented. In other words, if a farmer had six sheep, he
would have six tokens representing sheep. The tokens were stored
in sealed, clay envelopes, like an ancient safe deposit box. However,
people couldn’t tell what was inside the clay envelope without
unsealing it, which became cumbersome.
Mankind’s first form of writing came when people realized
that the tokens inside the envelope could be recorded on the outside
by pressing a token into the clay while still soft to leave a mark.
From there, they eventually stopped putting the tokens inside because
the recording on the outside was sufficient. The envelopes then
turned into tablets, and writing was developed.
It took no fewer than four inventions—tokens, envelopes,
markings and tablets—and about 4,000 years to fully reduce
three-dimensional tokens for counting to written signs.
Later people were able to move beyond the one-to-one correspondence
of the written sign to include numerals, that is, signs for abstract
numbers. For example, instead of having 10 jars of oil represented
by ten ovoids, the sign for the jar of oil was preceded by a numeral
indicating the number 10.
The literary-minded may be disappointed to discover that writing
developed not as a form of storytelling or recording poetry, but
as a means of accounting. Schmandt-Besserat, however, points to
it as one of the pinnacle achievements of human civilization.
typical street scene from Schmandt-Besserat’s first
visit to Teheran in 1967.
“Writing is an accumulation of knowledge,” she says.
“It means we can go to a library and find the knowledge of
100 years ago. It means that ideas don’t go away. Your words
are not finished being said before they are gone. So the fact is
that writing makes speech solid.”
Schmandt-Besserat’s research confirms that the protection
of antiquities is critical if we are to understand our history and
the development of human civilization. If the preservation of little
clay tokens could lead to the discovery of the origins of writing,
there is no telling what else remains to be found.
Schmandt-Besserat isn’t done looking. After nearly 35 years
of research, numerous books and many accolades, and such acclaim
for her teaching that a former student recently wrote, “Denise
Schmandt-Besserat is one of the most important people alive today,”
Schmandt-Besserat’s eyes still light up at the mention of
her future research. She’s excited to make a return visit
to Tehran in August to present her findings at a conference, and
she’s ready for her fellowship year to begin. She’ll
continue to expand her work on writing and our understanding of
exactly how it shifted from being an accounting device to a real
means of communicating.
She’ll have to move forward without the Warka Vase and the
other antiquities missing from Baghdad, however. But Schmandt-Besserat
is aware that she is not alone in suffering the losses from the
“It was a wealth of material,” she says, “and
it was there to serve the world.”
Photos courtesy Professor Schmandt-Besserat
Photo of Professor Schmandt-Besserat
on banner: Marsha Miller