Cambridge Archaeological Journal


Artefacts of Cognition: the Use of Clay Tokens in a Neo-Assyrian Provincial Administration

John MacGinnisa1, M. Willis Monroea3, Dirk Wickea4 and Timothy Matneya2

a1 McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, Downing Street, Cambridge, CB2 3ER, UK. Email:

a2 Department of Anthropology and Classical Studies, University of Akron, Akron, OH 44325-1910, USA, Email:

a3 Department of Egyptology and Assyriology, Brown University, Box 1899, 2 Prospect Street, Providence, RI 02912, USA, Email:

a4 Institut für Altertumskunde — Vorderasiatische Archäologie, Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz, Hegelstraβe 59, 55126 Mainz, Germany, Email:


The study of clay tokens in the Ancient Near East has focused, for the most part, on their role as antecedents to the cuneiform script. Starting with Pierre Amiet and Maurice Lambert in the 1960s the theory was put forward that tokens, or calculi, represent an early cognitive attempt at recording. This theory was taken up by Denise Schmandt-Besserat who studied a large diachronic corpus of Near Eastern tokens. Since then little has been written except in response to Schmandt-Besserat's writings. Most discussions of tokens have generally focused on the time period between the eighth and fourth millennium bc with the assumption that token use drops off as writing gains ground in administrative contexts. Now excavations in southeastern Turkey at the site of Ziyaret Tepe — the Neo-Assyrian provincial capital Tušhan — have uncovered a corpus of tokens dating to the first millennium bc. This is a significant new contribution to the documented material. These tokens are found in association with a range of other artefacts of administrative culture — tablets, dockets, sealings and weights — in a manner which indicates that they had cognitive value concurrent with the cuneiform writing system and suggests that tokens were an important tool in Neo-Assyrian imperial administration.

(Received November 05 2012)

(Accepted March 18 2013)

(Revised October 30 2013)

John MacGinnis is Research Fellow of the McDonald Institute. He did both his degree and PhD at Cambridge. He specializes in Assyriology and Mesopotamian archaeology, with a focus on the first millennium bc, and has been Field Director of the British Expedition to Ziyaret Tepe since the commencement of the work in 2000.

M. Willis Monroe is a PhD student at Brown University in Assyriology writing his dissertation on Seleucid astrology. He has served as the registrar for Ziyaret Tepe since 2007.

Dirk Wicke is a lecturer (Privatdozent) in Near Eastern Archaeology at the University of Mainz. His major research interests are the minor arts, their imagery and material studies. After excavating at a number of sites in the Near East, he joined the Ziyaret Tepe Archaeological Project in 2007 in order to renew the excavations of the Late Assyrian ‘Bronze Palace’.

Timothy Matney is Professor of Archaeology at the University of Akron where he has been on the faculty since 1998. He co-directed excavations at the Early Bronze Age urban centre at Titris Hoyuk (1994–1999) and has directed excavations at Ziyaret Tepe, the Assyrian city of Tušhan (1997–present), both in southeastern Turkey.