November 22, 2013

Tushhan was an important economic center in the northern peripheries of the empire. In the vast imperial Assyrian bureaucracy, as in modern times, accountants played a vital role in documenting the movement of raw materials and goods collected as taxes or tribute, in keeping track of the contents of the state’s granaries, and in documenting the activities of laborers. While cuneiform tablets were the primary written documents used by the ancient Assyrian accountants, we have found many other artifacts illustrating the accounting technology of the Iron Age. Most important are seals, sealings, tokens and weights. Cylinder and stamp seals – small carved stones with geometric or figurative reliefs cut into them, often with great precision and artistic ability – were used to sign clay documents or sealings. Below is a cylinder seal ZT44168. The impression next to the stone is modern and shows an archer and a winged animal, along with other symbols.

The sealings are lumps of clay, once pressed around ropes, jar tops, or cloth bags to enclose their contents. The seal stone would be pressed into the clay while it was still damp, leaving an impression, and upon hardening it was impossible to remove the contents without breaking the clay sealing. Commodities were weighed carefully using weights ranging from a few grams, to large stone weights weighing 20kg. Assyrian weights often took the form of a stylized duck, its head turned backwards peering over the shoulder. Not all transactions were recorded in cuneiform on clay tablets. Another system involved using clay tokens in simple geometric form to account for bushels of grain, sheep, or other commodities. By the Iron Age, the use of tablets and tokens was a practice already several thousand years old, used across the entire ancient Near East.