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Schmandt-Besserat (Denise) Papers : [524]

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Biographical Sketch

Denise Schmandt-Besserat is a professor emerita of Art and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Dr. Schmandt-Besserat studies the art and archaeology of the ancient Near East. Her research has focused on the origin of writing and counting, and her published works include: Before Writing (1992), How Writing Came About (1996), The History of Counting (1999), and When Writing Met Art (2007). Dr. Schmandt-Besserat trained at the Ecole du Louvre in Paris, France. She received an honorary doctorate from Kenyon College in 2008.

Dr. Schmandt-Bessert began her academic career at Harvard’s Peabody Museum in 1965. Schmandt-Besserat received a Radcliffe fellowship in 1969, and her first grant to travel the Middle East in 1971. Schmandt-Besserat intended to study clay pottery from the Near East created before 6000 BC (Neolithic Era). On this trip, Schmandt-Besserat first encountered the tokens, which had largely been ignored by the archaeological community. The discovery of tokens inside a sealed clay envelope from circa 3000 BC by one of Schmandt-Besserat’s professors from the Ecole du Louvre, led her to develop the theory that the tokens were part of a recording system that dated back to the Neolithic Era. According to Schmandt-Besserat, this recording system spanned several thousand years and across the Near East before rapidly evolving into complex tokens contained in sealed envelopes in circa 3500 BC, and eventuallty into writing. Put forward in How Writing Came About, Schmandt-Besserat’s hypothesis pushed back our understanding of the development of writing by 5000. Her efforts resulted in How Writing Came About being named one of the hundred most influential science texts of the twentieth century by the American Scientist. Schmandt-Besserat has written a number of articles and delivered several presentations concerning her study of statuary, figurines, art, and tokens at the Ain Ghazal excavation site in Jordan as well.

Scope and Content

Research materials, manuscript drafts, page proofs, and editorial materials document the creation of Denise Schmandt-Besserat’s published works, including Before Writing (1992), How Writing Came About (1996), and scholarly articles. Also included in the collection are subject files, correspondence, reviews and press clippings, publications, teaching materials, and research materials that document Dr. Schmandt-Besserat’s scholarly activities, research, teaching, lectures, and travel. Of particular importance are hundreds of pages of computer printouts from five, nine and one half inch mainframe tapes containing the data pertaining to tokens and envelopes that is central to Schmandt-Besserat’s landmark work, Before Writing. The data from these printouts were the result of student assistants crafting FORTRAN statements derived from a coding scheme developed and refined by Schmandt-Besserat. FORTRAN statements were keyed into a CDC 6600 mainframe computer housed at the UT Computation Center. The data was processed using SPSS (Statistical Package for the Social Sciences). The results were printed out and the five mainframe tapes were housed at the climate-controlled UT Computation Center till 1991 when they were transferred to Schmandt-Besserat’s custody. Schmandt-Besserat stored the mainframe tapes in a shop with no climate control before they were transferred to the Briscoe Center for American History in July 1992.

Documents, databases and data files associated with the research and publication of Before Writing. Also included in the collection are teaching materials (syllabi, schedules, quizzes and assignments), correspondence, reviews and press clippings, publications, and research materials that document Dr. Schmandt-Besserat’s scholarly activities, research, teaching, lectures, and travel.

A collection of seventy-six, three and one half inch floppy diskettes contain more than five hundred digital files. The diskettes contain drafts of Before Writing, articles, presentations, lectures, course materials, personal materials, spreadsheets, and materials pertaining to Schmandt-Besserat’s work at the Ain Ghazal excavation site in Jordan. The bulk of the files are created in Microsoft Word .doc format. Other file extensions, include DAT, BAK, DBF, DBH, EXE, and xls, The files were created and/or modified between 1983 and 2000.

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