Originally discovered in the ancient Mesopotamian city of Uruk, clay tokens and their accessory, the clay envelope, are the earliest known form of record keeping.
This proto-writing was a calculation tool which is not considered true writing, but is still clearly the direct predecessor. Initially, these tokens represented units of common purchases. For example, a single token with a certain inscription represented a goat; five such tokens represented five goats. Useful for transactions, these tokens evolved such that a single token could represent five goats and a different token could represent ten goats.
Tokens were distinguished by abstract etching, and evolved from a simple flat arrows into circular, punctured and even three-dimensional conical miniature sculptures.
Clay envelopes (bullae) arose when the growing popularity of tokens – evidenced by their preponderance in Urukian dumps -- necessitated ways to prevent tampering. Retailers needed a safe way to perform transactions without risk of tampering. This led to a system of typically spherical clay envelopes, within which tokens were stored. On the outside of the envelope, the contents were described by an impression of each token within. For security, a unique seal was pressed onto the clay envelope. As these envelopes – also known as bullas – evolved, the contents became less significant and their exteriors grew increasingly sophisticated.
Outer descriptions became more significant, and unique seals were pressed into the soft clay so that breakage and re-sealing would be apparent. However, the contents were still needed: if there were a dispute, the bulla could be broken and its inner tokens examined.
As a result of such disputes, archaeologists today now have an invaluable tool with which to study these first forms of writing. Vast numbers of tokens, bullas and bullas with their accompanying tokens have all been studied. This not only allows a direct understanding of Urukian culture (part of the Sumerian empire) but also allows researchers to discover how writing evolved through generations and provided the diffusive element necessary for Egyptian hieroglyphs.
Egyptian hieroglyphs appeared nearly instantly as a near-complete pictorial language with a unique linguistic approach. The two forms of hieroglyphs, separated by the situations in which they were used, likely developed from Sumerian writing concepts that may have diffused from ancient Mesopotamia. Egyptian hieroglyphs kept records and lubricated basic transactions as the Sumerian clay tokens (and, later, tablets) did. Unlike the Sumerian inscriptions, however, Egyptian hieroglyphs also told stories.
This Egyptian ingenuity was necessary for another leap just a few hundred years later, when the Greeks began an ancient renaissance that produced timeless stories which captured for the first time the one thing which all cultures of all periods share: human emotion.
Robinson, Andrew. 1995. The Story of Writing. London: Thames and Hudson. pp. 58- 63, 66-67, 71, 93