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The original USB stick? 5,500-year-old clay spheres containing Mesopotamian code could be the ‘first ever data storage’ devices

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  • CT scans  and 3D modelling have now shown what is inside these  spheres
  • The spheres  are hollow and contain geometric shapes named ‘tokens’
  • The tokens  are thought to be the first evidence of numerical literacy
  • Researchers  believe these clay devices served as receipts for various economic  transactions

By  Ellie Zolfagharifard

PUBLISHED: 06:46 EST, 15  October 2013 |  UPDATED: 11:05 EST, 15 October 2013

A lost code used to keep records 200 years  before the invention of the written word has been found inside clay balls in  Iran.

The balls were created about 5,500 years ago  at a time when early cities were  flourishing in Mesopotamia, and could have  been used to record economic  transactions.

Christopher Woods, a professor at the  University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute,  said the spheres represent the  world’s ‘very first data storage system’.

Iran Clay Balls 

A lost code used to keep records 200 years before the  invention of the written word has been found in clay balls from Iran. Pictured  is a broken clay ball with ‘tokens’ inside

 

The balls, also called ‘envelopes’, are  hollow and contain different geometric shapes or ‘tokens’.

‘These envelopes likely represent the  earliest known – at least to our current  knowledge – efforts to humans to  permanently record data,’ Professor  Woods told MailOnline.

‘They may also be the earliest evidence of  numerical literacy.’

Researchers used CT scans and 3D modelling to  look inside more than 20 examples  that were excavated at the site of Choga  Mish, in western Iran, in the  late 1960s.

Iran Clay Balls 

Only about 150 complete structures survive today and  they range from the size of a golf ball to that of a baseball. This intact ball  was found in Choga Mish in Iran

 

Iran Clay Balls 

The line drawings reveal the seal impressions of the  above clay ball. All of the clay balls contain, on the outside, one seal running  through the middle and usually two seals, running above and below

 

WHAT WERE THEY USED FOR?

Researchers believe these clay balls served  as receipts  for various administrative duties in Mesopotamia.

This could have been for tasks such as  monitoring the flow of  materials, controlling various commodities and  organising the workforce.

The tokens inside the balls represent  specific measuring systems. For instance a pyramid shape may have represented  the number 20.

All of the clay balls contain, on the  outside, one seal running through the middle and usually two seals, running  above and below.

Researchers believe the seal in the middle  represents the ‘buyer’ or recipient. The polar seals would represent the  ‘seller’.

 

They believe these devices served as receipts  for various administrative duties such as monitoring the flow of  materials,  various commodities and labour.

‘The tokens represent  numbers of specific  metrological (measuring) systems – not words – and the envelopes  themselves are  receipts for the disbursements of various commodities and goods,’ said Professor  Woods.

Museums, understandably, are typically reluctant to open these clay balls as doing so would destroy them and  the seal  impressions that most of them bear.

Only about 150 complete structures survive  today and they range from the size of a golf ball to that of a baseball.

CT  scans, however, revealed that some of the balls have tiny channels, 1-2 mm  across, criss-crossing them.

Iran Clay Balls

 

Iran Clay Balls 

This CT image of a clay envelop has a digitally applied  false-colour ‘surface’. CT scans revealed that some of the balls have tiny  channels, 1-2 mm across, crisscrossing them

 

 

MESOPOTAMIA: THE ‘CRADLE OF CIVILISATION’

Mesopotamia is an ancient Greek term meaning  ‘the land between rivers.’

The region was the name for the  Tigris–Euphrates river system, corresponding to modern-day Iraq, northeastern  Syria and southeastern Turkey and smaller parts of southwestern Iran and  Kuwait.

Mesopotamia has been called the ‘cradle of  civilisation’ because agriculture and domestication developed there earlier than  anywhere else, around 8,000 years ago.

Bronze Age Mesopotamia included Sumer and the  Akkadian, Babylonian, and Assyrian empires. By 3,000 BC, the Mesopotamians had  already invented the wheel, developed writing, and created the world’s first  cities.

Researchers aren’t certain what they were  used for, but speculate the balls  contained fine threads that connected  together on the outside.

The  tokens within the balls come in 14  different shapes, including spheres,  pyramids, ovoids, lenses and cones, the  researchers found.

One pyramid, for instance, might mean a  certain unit, such as 20, which was used while counting a certain type of  commodity.

All of the clay balls contain, on the  outside, one seal running through the middle and usually two seals, running  above and below.

Professor Woods believes the seal in the  middle represents the ‘buyer’ or recipient.

The polar seals would represent the ‘seller’  and perhaps  third parties who would have acted as witnesses.

Clay envelopes such as this have also been  found in Mesopotamia, particularly the city of Uruk, by German  excavators.

Iran Clay BallsIran Clay Balls

The right image shows a radiograph of Choga Mish clay  envelope showing the token within, while the left image reveals a CT scam of the  same envelope

 

But many questions still remain unanswered.  Scientists hope to crack the code of exactly what these clay spheres mean by  uncovering how  token types vary.

‘We need to study, and hopefully CT scan, the  sealed envelopes in other collections,’ said Professor Woods. ‘There are approximately 150 known world-wide.’

Professor Woods plans to put the images and  3D models of the clay envelopes and their tokens online as they become  available.

Iran Clay BallsIran Clay Balls

The tokens within the balls come in 14 different shapes,  including spheres, pyramids, ovoids, lenses and cones

 

Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-2460692/Are-clay-spheres-containing-Mesopotamian-code-data-storage-devices.html#ixzz2hpdviJP9 Follow us: @MailOnline on Twitter | DailyMail on Facebook

About Post Author

Ralph Turchiano

I have a strong affinity for the sciences which led me to create my sites. My compulsion for the past decade has been reviewing literally every peer-reviewed research article. Which can easily be validated by following my posts. To me, science is where the real news is, as it will mold our destiny beyond that of politics or economics. 😉 Please feel free to e-mail: 161803p314159@gmail.com
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