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Count Her In

Denise Schmandt-Besserat's New Way of Seeing

By Ada Calhoun, Fri., Dec. 10, 1999

Count Her In
Photo By John Anderson

Dr. Denise Schmandt-Besserat's great discovery -- that the origins of writing are actually found in counting -- began, as most such groundbreaking work does, with a seemingly unrelated pursuit. When the University of Texas at Austin professor began her academic career in the 1960s, at issue was not "Where did writing come from?" but rather "What in heaven's name are all these little bits of clay?" At nearly every Middle Eastern archeological site, in addition to the urns and other such explainables, deep down there were baffling little pieces of fired clay. For years no one knew what they were, though it was evident they were something. In one of several frustrated attempts to classify the tokens, the University of Pennsylvania's Carleton S. Coon wrote in his report on Belt Cave, Iran: "From levels 11 and 12 come five mysterious unbaked conical clay objects looking like nothing in the world but suppositories. What they were used for is anyone's guess." Then along came Denise Schmandt-Besserat. Fresh from study at the ...cole du Louvre in Paris, the French-born graduate student, through a number of fellowships and grants, began what would be more than two decades of combing archives and sites all over the world trying to discover, and then to prove, what the clay cones, spheres, disks, and cylinders -- "tokens," as she called them -- might have been. For 30 years, article by article, Schmandt-Besserat has built an ironclad case to explain a mystery that foiled archeologists, anthropologists, and philosophers for hundreds of years.

What she found was that the tokens comprised an elaborate system of accounting that was used throughout the Middle East from approximately 8000 to 3000 B.C.E. Each token stood for a specific item, such as a sheep or a jar of oil, and was used to take inventory and keep accounts. Ancients sealed the tokens in clay envelopes, which were marked with the debtor's personal "cylinder seal" (which acted as a kind of signature). After using this system for some time, a new one emerged: People began to impress the tokens into the side of the envelope before sealing them up, so they wouldn't have to break the seal (and thus the bargain) to check the envelope's contents. Eventually, it occurred to people that they didn't actually need to put the tokens in an envelope at all, and could just impress the tokens onto the clay in order to keep track of the account. Then still another transformation occurred -- the ancient Sumerians realized it was possible to simply inscribe with a stylus the image of the token. This served as the earliest type of written sign. Schmandt-Besserat had found her answer to the conundrum of how writing began: from counting. And slowly. Very, very slowly.

She had thus explained why so many pictographs looked so little like the things they were supposed to represent. Schmandt-Besserat filled in the missing link between the thing (a sheep, for example) and its sign (a circle with an X on it). As it turned out, the mark wasn't supposed to represent a sheep; it was supposed to represent the counter for the sheep. Schmandt-Besserat had a thrilling "Aha!" moment when the weighty reports on the archaic tablets from Uruk arrived in Austin through the inter-library loan service. "When I opened them at home," she says, "I could see, as I expected, that many signs were akin to tokens."

Since this revelation years ago, Schmandt-Besserat has been going about the business of publishing her results and convincing her colleagues. Her published articles number close to 100 and she has written books catering to every audience -- first to the academic community through the dense two-volume text Before Writing: From Counting to Cuneiform (1992), then to the educated lay person via When Writing Came About (1996), and finally to the younger generation in two children's books, The History of Counting, which just hit bookstores this fall, and The History of Writing, which is currently in her editor's hands.

A popular teacher, Schmandt-Besserat tends to receive astronomically high ratings from her students in faculty surveys and engenders profound respect from her colleagues. Nevertheless, her determination to convince the academic world of the validity of her ideas has not been easy. "Academics are often unhappy with new ideas," UT linguist Winfred Lehmann claims. Carol Justus of UT's classics department recalls a lecture philosopher Jacques Derrida once gave at Berkeley, at which he said something to the effect of, "Of course the university is conservative -- that's what it's there for." A less polite assessor might suggest that because of the fierce competition built into the system, academia can also be a breeding ground for paranoia and cattiness. Schmandt-Besserat's innovation in conjunction with academia's resistance to the new has led to the occasional quarrel.

To take a recent example of the workings of the academic world, last April Schmandt-Besserat was not invited to present a paper at a conference about the origin of writing at the University of Pennsylvania. Though tokens are now almost universally accepted as a precursor to writing, many scholars at the conference were there to further other co-possibilities, such as picture-making. The debate, they say, should revolve around the search for writing's other ancestors, now that the role of tokens has been established. Because of Schmandt-Besserat's reputation, however, and despite her nonattendance, The New York Times interviewed her at length as part of its coverage of the conference. Schmandt-Besserat says she was "so pleased when The New York Times before writing the article called me right here [at her UT office] and said, "What do you think of that?' And I was able, I think in a much more efficient way, to tell the world, "Here is the right thing.'"

One conference attendee, Peter Damerow of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, commented via e-mail that "nobody really questions the conclusions of Denise Schmandt-Besserat altogether. But there has been substantial criticism with regard to details of her work." According to Damerow, the problem lies in the fact that "Schmandt-Besserat never did draw a precise line between speculation and hard evidence." But Justus says that such disagreements boil down to fundamental differences in methodology, specifically the fact that Schmandt-Besserat is one of the few people in the liberal arts today who operates by the scientific method. Justus' observation is given credence by the current issue of American Scientist, which lists Schmandt-Besserat's How Writing Came About in their tally of the "100 or So Books That Shaped a Century of Science," alongside the works of Einstein, Freud, Goodall, Chomsky, and Leakey (as well as fellow UT professor, physicist, and Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg).

Schmandt-Besserat, never one to shy away from debate, is quick to rise to her own defense. When discussing the politics of the academic world, she waves her hand as if swatting flies. "Life is too short to worry about any of that," she says. She rests assured that today it is she, not her detractors, who appears as the authority on writing's origins in modern textbooks in linguistics, anthropology, archeology, and mathematics, and who has been listed in Who's Who in America every year since 1982. Before Writing demonstrates, she says, "the breadth of my base and the multiplicity of my examples. If you look at it there is no doubt possible. ... I'm very proud of having thought through these problems like nobody had before."

The origin of writing has always been a sensitive subject, though -- far more heated an area of debate than the origin of counting, for example. Schmandt-Besserat explains it thus: "People have many theories about how [writing] was beginning. They all happen to have been wrong ... but that's okay. But counting! Your mama, as soon as you are big like this," she points out in her heavy French accent, "says "One, two, three ...' You never learn counting. You know it already when you go to school. -- No one asked; no one was curious about how counting came about." It seems innate. "I have seen my grandchildren in Austin with their mother," she says. "It is something that we learn so early that we never have the sensation that we learned it. So nobody has ever asked the question how did counting come about."

Most people describe Schmandt-Besserat as unswervingly passionate about her work. Robert King, chair of the linguistics department at UT, says that Schmandt-Besserat "works like a Trojan, all the time. She's also one of the brightest people in academia I have known. She has made the one really new, really innovative, really creative contribution to our understanding of the origins of writing in, oh, say, 79 years." Schmandt-Besserat has an infectious enthusiasm. King recalls team-teaching a graduate seminar on the origins of writing with her back in the 1980s. "I ended up speaking with a French accent," he says.

She is also a woman at home in the world. She states proudly that she has never fallen prey to either homesickness or fright. Even traveling alone throughout the Middle East in the 1960s, she felt nothing but immense pleasure. From the very first, Schmandt-Besserat says she has always felt completely comfortable and happy there. The only thing even resembling a problem, she says, was early on when Arab men, shocked at seeing a young woman alone, would try too strenuously to protect her.

And Texas? Schmandt-Besserat says she has come to like the Lone Star state since she arrived in 1971, particularly the rugged landscape. As for the language, she says of herself and her German husband (who is a professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs): "When we were in Germany we spoke German. When we went back to France, we spoke French. Then we came to the United States; now we speak English, though always not the pure tongue ... " This last line she says with a smile, conscious of her English faltering. "There are people who, when you take them out of their environment, they are lost," she says, when asked if she misses France. "No, I adjusted. I adjust easily. It's nothing. I am somebody who was meant to go other places."

And yet through all her travels, Schmandt-Besserat has always returned home to UT, despite the fact that in the judgment of many colleagues the university has been slow to recognize her importance. Many UT students, even in art history, her primary affiliation, have never heard of her, despite the fact that she is practically a household name in the international academic community. Younger, less internationally acclaimed scholars have superseded her in salary and honors. She did not become a full professor until 1988, and, in an oversight some consider an outrage, after nearly 30 years at UT, dozens of journal articles, and a plethora of external accolades, she still has no endowed chair.

Everyone who knows her seems to have their own pet theory about why recognition for Schmandt-Besserat on the home front has been slow to come. Some say it is because she is a woman in a man's field. Others see it as a function of her failing to pay the appropriate obeisances to the proper people. Another popular theory attributes the lack of recognition to the fact that Schmandt-Besserat is in limbo between various fields of study. Schmandt-Besserat's secondary affiliation, the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, is made up of scholars from 20 different departments and is her natural niche. Though the Center trains Middle Eastern specialists, provides support to its members, and publishes (54 books to date), it is not an actual department at UT. Because art history is Schmandt-Besserat's primary allegiance, and because art history is best known in areas such as Latin American art, few art historians know what to make of the scientific nature of Schmandt-Besserat's research.

Ken Hale, the chairman of the art history department, praises Schmandt-Besserat to the skies, saying she "brings international credit to our department and to this university. ... With her high profile and visibility she acts as an ambassador for us," and admits that Schmandt-Besserat's remaining at UT, whose art history department is sorely underfunded (with only 20 full professors and five endowed chairs), and which does not grant sabbaticals, is a tremendous blessing. Hale expresses relief that she has stayed (a decision he attributes to the high caliber of her colleagues and to Austin, a nice place to work), but acknowledges that Schmandt-Besserat certainly should, along with several other people in the department, be holding an endowed chair.

Regardless of the whys and wherefores of her acclaim or lack thereof, Schmandt-Besserat has continued to toil away in her Art Building office at UT and in museums and archeological sites all over the Middle East. Her latest work, of which she is fiercely proud and clearly excited, deals with the transition from writing as accounting to writing as literature. Curious about why the ancients were imprinting names on vessels in tombs, Schmandt-Besserat researched the importance of the name in ancient times and discovered that "In Sumer the name was more than our names. It was your destiny. And it was your destiny not only during your lifetime, but also after life." As long as a person's name was spoken, they lived on. For this reason, in each family there would be a person who was in charge of reciting the names of the family's ancestors at the new moon. Inscribing a name on the funerary vessel then served to make the ancestor immortal in the same way the name's chanting had previously.

And from the name on the funerary pot, how do we arrive at the modern novel? Once writing names on vessels became standard, Schmandt-Besserat claims, "people get more daring." They begin to sculpt praying statues on which is written not only the name (which is the first instance of phonetic writing), but also something like "to god, for life." And so, according to Schmandt-Besserat, at the end of this process you have a written language, even if it is primitive, comprised of only nouns and prepositions. Eventually, the verb will come; and soon enough, you can write anything you want.

So if, as writing was to our ancestors, computers are to us, what's next? Schmandt-Besserat sees it as "the ability to manipulate greater amounts of information. -- Astronomers can now calculate instantly what it would have taken lifetimes to do. The fact that now they can get data in 10 minutes, obviously that allows them to have new ideas," she says. "The computer is a tool that allows you to manipulate data in order to have a new vision. In a way it is just like writing. Both are tools that give you the ability to massage ideas." And more categories provide ... "a greater manipulation of data, more and more removed from the data. More abstract terms. And as McLuhan said it, this transforms us. We don't see the world anymore the same way." end story


For more detailed information about Schmandt-Besserat's findings, access UT's Linguistic Research Center at http://www.dla.utexas.edu/depts/lrc/numerals/dsb1.html.
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