A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
(Landesamt für Denkmalpflege und Archäologie Sachsen-Anhalt, Heiko Breuer)
WHAT IS IT?
Wittenberg, Germany, summer 2011
8 1/4 inches by 3/4 inch
Imagine going to the local store in Wittenberg, Germany, in the midsixteenth
century and not having enough cash to pay for the pig you wanted
to roast for dinner. You might have to borrow some money and, in order to
record your debt, the person making the loan would use a tally stick like this
one. The stick was notched in the presence of both the lender and the borrower and
then split in two, so that each person retained half. According to Andreas Hille, the
state archaeologist responsible for Wittenberg, the contours of the stick and the
distinct split guaranteed that only these two particular halves could be fit back together—insurance
against anyone trying to cheat by adding more notches. When the borrower was ready to repay his
debt, the two halves were put back together. The stick was then thrown
away or destroyed.
City records indicate that the
house—specifically the latrine—in which the tally stick was found was
owned by a Georg Masseck between 1548 and 1563, but Hille says there is no way to prove the stick
belonged to him. Even after conservation, the writing is illegible except for the date and the amount,
23, which matches the number of notches on the stick. Whoever the stick belonged to, and whatever
the money was used for, the artifact’s presence in the toilet suggests that the borrower’s obligation had
been fulfilled and the stick was no longer needed.