What is it about?

Clay counters in various geometric shapes were used across a wide swath of the ancient Near East for over 5,000 years. Across time and region, cones greatly outnumbered rectangular prisms, and tetrahedra greatly outnumbered pyramids. These relative frequencies are surprising given previous psychological research showing that humans perceive and create right angles more easily than oblique angles two-dimensionally. To understand why cones and tetrahedra were so frequent as ancient counters, I examined the relative sculpting ease of cones, tetrahedra, rectangular prisms, and pyramids by employing adult participants to sculpt these shapes. For these participants, rectangular prisms were no more difficult to create than cones, and pyramids were easier to create than tetrahedra. I concluded that cones and tetrahedra were popular counting-tokens in antiquity, not because of any non-semantic factor, but because they were figurative of sunbeams and stood for solar time-units.

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Why is it important?

This article is the first to suggest that the ancient Near East geometric counting-tokens were not exclusively arbitrary (i.e., not intentionally portraying the things counted). The evidence that cone and tetrahedron counting-tokens portrayed downward-shining sunbeams and counted solar time-units is important for understanding the socio-cultural evolution of the prehistoric Near East and the invention of cuneiform writing.


I hope this article augments people’s understanding of and curiosity about the use and development of visual language in the ancient Near East, the cradle of civilization.

Donna J. Sutliff

Read the Original

This page is a summary of: Were they appealing to the sun? On why cones and tetrahedra were so popular at the dawn of civilization., Psychology of Aesthetics Creativity and the Arts, November 2023, American Psychological Association (APA),
DOI: 10.1037/aca0000619.
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