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The Case of the Missing Vase: Looted Iraqi antiquities offer critical clues to human development, renowned archaeologist explains

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 in April.

Warka Vase
The Warka Vase, stolen from the National Museum of Iraq in April, is considered one of the great treasures of world art.

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,” she says.

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.

Denise Schmandt-Besserat in Iran in 1967
Schmandt-Besserat, 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 of hierarchy.”

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.”

Fired clay tokens, stored in round clay 'envelopes'
Fired 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 find out.

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 this.

Sumerian tablet shows the development from tokens and envelopes to tablets
This Sumerian tablet shows the development from tokens and envelopes to tablets.

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 of communicating.

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.

A street scene from Schmandt-Besserat's first visit to Teheran in 1967
A 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 museum.

“It was a wealth of material,” she says, “and it was there to serve the world.”

Vivé Griffith

Photos courtesy Professor Schmandt-Besserat

Photo of Professor Schmandt-Besserat
on banner: Marsha Miller

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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