Archaeology Magazine Archive

A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America

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Say It with Clay Balls Volume 52 Number 6, November/December 1999
by Spencer P.M. Harrington

[image] (Courtesy Jean-Marie Durand) [LARGER IMAGE]

Twenty baked clay balls with Sumerian cuneiform inscriptions may represent a heretofore unknown record-keeping system in ancient Mesopotamia. The balls, which measure an inch in diameter, were recovered by a French expedition at Tell Mohammed Diyab in northeast Syria. They carry symbols for words like "bird," "slave," and indications of time like "the third day" and "month," all written in the southern Mesopotamian cuneiform style of the second half of the third millennium B.C. Jean-Marie Durand of the Collège de France in Paris says some of the etched symbols were filled with red ochre, while other balls were notched with fingernail marks, possibly numerical notations. He adds that previous excavators in the region probably mistook the balls for sling stones. While other notation systems on clay disks and crescents have been found in the region, nothing so far is comparable to the Tell Mohammed Diyab balls.

© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America