February 11, 2019
Richard Mattessich (1998) opened his paper in the Accounting Historians’ Journal on 3rd millennium BCE protocuneiform with a quotation from Leonard Bernstein: “The best way to know a thing, is in the context of another discipline” (Bernstein 1976: 3). For two weeks in January, 2019, a class of 114 undergraduate students at the University of California, Irvine, drew made-up protocuneiform tables based on Nissen et al. (1993) after reading Mattessich’s accountant’s perspective on them. They did so as part of a class on “The Future of Money.” The class is still going on, and is being conducted entirely online, except for an end-of-term in person meeting with a panel of payments industry experts and final exam.
Protocuneiform tablets were chosen as the earliest surviving examples of economic transactions utilizing a type of proto-writing that would later develop into the more abstract wedge-shapes of classic cuneiform. The earliest examples date from the late 4th millennium BC (around 3200-3000), from the area of Uruk, and commonly include ‘pictographic’ signs denoting the goods being counted alongside numerals. (You can read more about ‘Proto-Cuneiform’ on the CDLI here and here.)
|Proto-cuneiform tablet, probably from Uruk, c.3100-2900 BC. Image from HERE.|
Split nearly 60%-40% between computer science majors and social science majors, the class read for two weeks on the origins of money—with video lectures in which yours truly tried to disabuse them of the received wisdom of money’s origin in barter, instead to foreground the importance of states’ administrative record keeping. The readings included some essays on tokens by Denise Schmandt-Besserat (including this interview) and parts of James Scott’s book, Against The Grain.
|They started out simple….|
|And got more and more complicated!|
Errors crept in along the way. Questions arose as to the placement of symbols on the “tablets” and the difficulty of dealing with a system in which zeros were indicated by empty spaces. Some of the students got a little frustrated. For the computer science students, this was not a typical “lab.” For the social science majors, this was also outside the norm for a homework assignment. Draw an ancient protocuneiform tablet, take a picture of it and post it online for someone else to decode? Pretty weird. But after the first couple of iterations, they really got into it.
For takeaways and lessons learned, read full blogpost: https://crewsproject.wordpress.com/2019/02/11/teaching-about-moneys-origins-and-its-possible-cryptographic-futures-with-proto-cuneiform/