Not Just Counters: Clay Tokens and Ritual Materiality in the Ancient Near East

Abstract

Clay tokens, or small geometric artifacts, from ancient Near Eastern sites have been interpreted as counters for economic transactions for more than 75 years. I challenge this paradigm with an alternative scenario where clay is not always an expedient substance for mundane purposes, but a symbolically important one to make ritual objects. While some clay tokens functioned as calculi, others served in religious contexts, such as ceremonial offerings. In this article, I cover the archaeological and comparative cultural evidence of the material patterning of ritual clay tokens to reexamine the economic token paradigm. In the ancient Near East, clay tokens were used in temples, human burials, pilgrimage shrines, and ritual caches, which indicates that tokens served in ritual contexts and not just as counters. Cross-culturally, worshipers utilize small clay objects for ceremonial purposes, such as pilgrims’ tokens. Clay absorbs spiritual power at shrines in many cultures, making it a significant material for ritual offerings, blessings, or protection. Worshipers place clay tokens at shrines or take them home for family members and sick persons to touch or consume. Similar material contexts suggest that ancient people in the Near East used some clay tokens to gain merit from deities for prosperity, health, and religious devotion.

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Acknowledgments

This article benefitted from comments by colleagues at Arizona State University, particularly Barbara Stark, Miguel Astor-Aguilera, Christopher Morehart, Michael E. Smith, and Kostantina Michelaki, who generously took time to discuss it with me. I thank three anonymous reviewers of a previous draft who provided constructive comments regarding Near Eastern archaeology and culture. I also thank the three anonymous reviewers for this journal for their helpful assessment of my manuscript. And I appreciate the help of Aldo Montesinos de la Rosa in editing my illustrations. 

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Palka, J.W. Not Just Counters: Clay Tokens and Ritual Materiality in the Ancient Near East. J Archaeol Method Theory (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10816-020-09457-8

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Keywords

  • Tokens
  • Near East
  • Ritual
  • Clay