Unravelling the Mystery of the Mesopotamian Clay Balls
Research conducted in late 2013 offered intriguing clues to decoding the secrets of the Mesopotamian clay balls , which date back 5,500 years. The study, which used CT scanning to look inside the clay balls, revealed that the balls may represent the world’s “very first data storage system”.
The clay balls were found at the Choga Mish archaeological site in western Iran in the late 1960s and have perplexed experts ever since. Their sizes vary from golf ball size to baseball size and to date, only about 150 intact examples have been found in the region.
Researchers have long believed that they were used to record economic transactions. This conclusion was based on an analysis of a 3,300-year-old clay ball found at a site in Mesopotamia that had 49 pebbles and a cuneiform text containing a contract commanding a shepherd to care for 49 sheep and goats. However, without further evidence this hypothesis remained just one possible explanation for the use and purpose. Furthermore, if the hypothesis proved correct, it is unclear how the devices would have worked to record the exchange of commodities in prehistoric times, before the invention of writing.
Researchers used high-tech equipment and 3D modelling to look inside the balls and found that they contained tokens in a variety of geometric shapes. It is possible that the shapes conveyed numbers used in counting different types of products which were exchanged. If that's the case, it may be possible to crack the code by uncovering how token types cluster and vary.
Rather strangely, the CT scan also revealed that one ball contained tokens which would have been wrapped in cloth before being put in the ball and then had a bitumen-type liquid poured over them. The reason for this still remains a mystery.
Some of balls also have tiny criss-crossing channels, which Christopher Woods, a professor at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, believes could have contained fine threads that connected together on the outside. The threads could have held labels, perhaps made out of wax, which reflected the tokens within the clay balls.
The region that once contained the flourishing civilization of Mesopotamia is not the only place where clay or stone balls have been found. More than 400 carved stone balls were found in Scotland dating back to the Neolithic period between 3000 and 2000 BC, and thousands of baseball-sized clay balls were found in the ancient Neolithic city of Çatalhöyük in Turkey. Is it a coincidence that these artefacts have been found in many countries around the world belonging to the same era? Were they used for the same purpose? The latest research may bring us one step closer to understanding these mysterious relics, but there is still much to learn.