Hard Data

When I was a teenager, I went on an archeaological dig for a week or so. It was an enlightening experience, and not just because it made me realize how much I don’t like camping in the rain, even on a California beach.

One fascinating aspect of the dig was the discovery of various artifacts that were clearly intact, but which were for unknown uses.

eyelets_grommets_shoe_eyeletOf course, a small part of an object –  the metal eyelet of a laced shoe, for example – might have any number of uses once it has been separated from its parent object.  At the time it had never occurred to me that humans could invent objects of everyday use, and that we could then collectively forget what they were for, or not intuitively understand their function.

Clay balls found at various sites across what was ancient Mesopotamia are thought to represent the first data storage and communication system in the era that preceded the invention of writing. Called ‘envelopes’, the balls range in age from 3000-5500 years old, and can be anywhere from the size of a golf ball to that of a baseball.

Photo: Anna Ressman/ Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago

Photo: Anna Ressman/ Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago

The envelopes have specific markings on the outside, and contain small geometrical objects, dubbed ‘tokens’, within. High-resolution computer tomography scanning has been used to examine the interiors without breaking open the clay exteriors.

Researchers suggest that the tokens represent some form of counting, while the outer markings denote buyer and seller information. Overall, the envelopes and their contents were probably a way to record economic transactions, a kind of prehistoric receipt.

Credit: Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago

Line drawing of clay ball exterior
Credit: Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago

There’s a part of me that thinks modern humans haven’t really changed all that much from the time we became sedentary city dwellers carrying out business.

How simple would the creators of these handy and long-lasting clay balls, likely considered intuitive and easy to use, consider the 21st century person who couldn’t easily figure them out?

What objects of data storage do I consider to be intuitive and functional, but which will one day present a strange and intriguing puzzle because some amount of cultural information has gone missing or is obsolete?datastorage