How Was Authenticity Maintained Between Trades in Ancient Mesopotamia?

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System of Tokens

As a Sumerian being progressed in agriculture during the period 8,000–7,500 BCE, Sumerian agriculturalists needed a method for keeping records of their animals and objects. For this, small tokens of clay were constructed and shaped by palms to represent certain animals and objects.

Clay tokens allowed for agriculturalists to keep track of animals and food that had been traded, stored, and/or sold. Because grain production became such a major part of life, they needed to store their extra grain in shared facilities and account for their food. This clay token system went unchanged for about 4,000 years until the tokens started to become more elaborate in appearance.

Such artifacts have been attested in Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Anatolia, Mesopotamia, Persia and even as far as the Indus Valley.

Need for Invention

These small clay tokens are useful to track and record information however their authenticity was questionable. For instance, if on one clay token four lines were made to record four hundred bags of grains then one could easily draw another line which becomes five lines on the clay token. Profit of a hundred bags of grains by just drawing the simple line. Therefore remarkably this is the time to invent such an object which can control authenticity as well between one trade. Such a thing was required which can prevent further modification of tokens. That’s how the invention of Bulla happened.

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Bullae. The Carrier of Clay Tokens

People start creating a type of object which was the sphere in shape and hollow inside. Once the trade is fixed then clay token placed into the hollow part of the bulla and close the bulla from inside and outside. Both parties could place their respective office’s seal on the bulla as well. Once this process is done then bulla is dried over the fire or sunlight. After this, clay token is completely saved from modification. The only way to see the token again was to break the bulla. They were called the clay envelopes as well.

Bullae were made from clay or soft metal (such as lead or tin). They were used in commercial and legal documentation as a form of authentication and for tamper-proofing, whatever is attached to it.

In this form, bullae represent one of the earliest forms of specialization in the ancient world and likely required skill to create. Bullae are still occasionally attached to documents for these purposes (cf. papal bull).

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Cylindrical Shaped Bullae

Around the sixth century BCE, cylinders were used in international exchanges between empires. A famous one discovered is the Cyrus Cylinder. The Cyrus Cylinder is famous for its suggested evidence of Cyrus’ policy of repatriation of the Hebrew people after their captivity in Babylon, as the text refers to the restoration of cult sanctuaries and repatriation of deported peoples

Top Left – The Cyrus Cylinder
Top Right and Bottom – The Nabonidus Cylinder

Practice Sample

The producer would consign his goods to the care of a middle man together with a bulla containing a number of tokens corresponding to a load of goods. The bulla was then sealed for authentification. By breaking the bulla, the recipient of the load could check the accurateness of the shipment upon arrival.

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Dawn of Clay Tablet

As the clay tokens and bulla became difficult to store and handle, impressing the tokens on clay tablets became increasingly popular. Clay tablets were easier to store, neater to write on. Impressing the tokens on clay tablets was more efficient.

By using a stylus to record the impression on the clay tablet was more efficient and much faster. They could record much information than clay tokens. For instance, clay tablets could record not only “how many” but also “where, when, and how.” As a result, clay tokens and the Bullae became less favorable.


French-American archaeologist Denise Schmandt-Besserat focused much of her career on the discovery of over 8,000 ancient tokens found in the Middle East. Within a year of studying these unknown clay marbles, Schmandt-Besserat determined that they were tokens that were supposed to be grouped together and that they thus formed some sort of counting system.

The transition between hunting and gathering to settling and agriculture took place in the period 8,000 to 7,500 BCE in the Ancient Near East and involved a need to store grains and other goods. Schmandt-Besserat discovered that these tokens were used to count food products.


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